We Need a National Church?
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of people revel in singing with gusto at London's Royal Albert
Hall at the end of the BBC's Promenade Concert season. The song
is Land of Hope and Glory. The first verse expresses
the pious hope, 'God who made thee mighty, Make thee mightier
yet'. At the last Commonwealth Games, when the English won gold
medals, the same song was sung, just as when the Welsh were victors
they sang, Land of my fathers. Another song embedded
in the folk religion of our country is Jerusalem. Not
only the Women's Institutes across the country, but others too,
enthusiastically sing, 'And did those feet in ancient time, walk
upon England's mountains green?' That song voices the aspiration
to labour and struggle to make our country the sort of place where
'Jerusalem' might be built. Whatever your estimate of the value
of folk religion may be, it certainly is a fact of our national
Some speak of a set of universal religious
needs we could describe as folk religion which call for
a natural priesthood. (1) This need shows up especially
in connection with death and prayer. It also emerged when a BBC
interviewer was questioning a former member of the Shadow Cabinet
on football hooliganism in the identity card debate. The Opposition
member replied that it was not the Government's business to make
people good, 'that was the job of the Archbishop of Canterbury'.
Quite often it is the Church of England minister who finds himself
expected to provide this natural priesthood. He can simply
refuse to have any part in it, or he can seek to transform it
into Christian ministry. (2)
On a BBC Radio 4 programme
on modern communications there was a discussion on how these had
reduced the world to a 'global village' . An author commented
that if the world had become a village it was one without
a centre, 'no village church and no major house' . There was a
vacuum at its heart because one could not have a village simply
by people communicating to make money out of each other. That
idea of a nation having a heart is a strongly Biblical
one. See how often Isaiah or Jeremiah describe the state of the
heart of their nation. Where there is a heart,
religion is not far away.
T. S. Eliot, discussing
the question of ending the special relationship that the Church
of England has with the State, wrote:
But we must pause
to reflect that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be
re-established, and that the very act of disestablishment separates
it more definitely and irrevocably from the life of the nation
than if it had never been established. The effect on the mind
of the people of the visible and dramatic withdrawal of the Church
from the affairs of the nation, of the deliberate recognition
of two standards and ways of life, of the Church's abandonment
of all those who are not by their profession within the fold -
this is incalculable; the risks are so great that such an act
can be nothing but a desperate measure. (3)
the possibility of reforming the manner of the Establishment,
such a withdrawal would create a vacuum indeed! It was a Methodist
friend with whom I was discussing disestablishment who said, 'The
removal of the Church of England's Established Church status would
open the door to a multi-faith free-for-all with all the implications
that this has for militant Islam.' I recall a well produced broad
sheet from an Islamic society in my last, predominantly Muslim
parish. Bold headlines declared the West to be corrupt. Only Islam
would save it. Of course for Muslims, the separation of religion
from the State, to which we in the West incline, is unthinkable
and wrong. The cliché about nature abhorring a vacuum is
apt here. History teaches - and you have only to look at North
Africa to see what a militant Islam does - about religious vacuum.
For the late Canon
Max Warren, 'established' meant 'recognized'; the Church was there
already, long before the State chose to establish it by recognizing
it. Both Church and State are under God's sanction and authority,
he explained, quoting P. T. Forsythe: 'Citizenship taken seriously
is a religious function.' (4)
Bishop Lesslie Newbigin (who was ordained
to the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Established Church
of that country, later becoming a bishop of the Church of South
It seems to me that
the principle that there is a church which accepts responsibility
for the whole life of the nation and that there is in every parish
a Christian body which accepts a responsibility for the whole
of that parish, which doesn't exist for its own members but does
exist for the sake of God's rule, God's reign in the whole of
that parish is something very, very precious. Now of course, the
abuse of that comes when the church pretends that there is no
one else in the field.
He went on to say that
this attitude is less common, now that churches are friendlier
to one another. He adds:
But the fundamental
principle that the Church is for the nation, and that the parish
church is for the parish, is precious and it would be a very great
danger if one were to abandon it, root and branch, that the church
should then become something which sees itself as existing for
the sake of its own members.
He is quite sure that
there are certain elements in the present Establishment which
could be reformed and changed but maintains that 'the basic responsibility
of being the national church seems to me to be something that
ought not to be thrown overboard'. (5)
The fact that the Church
of England is a Gospel church according to its Articles
of Religion (9, 11, 15, 18 and 31a), makes Bishop Newbigin's words
even more important. A leading member of the Billy Graham English
mission team commented that the part played by Anglican churches
in that work was crucial. Such support sprang from the fact that
the Church of England is a Gospel church. Our Articles and our
reformed services put the cross of Jesus at the centre. In the
Decade of Evangelism it is vital, as a former Director of Church
Society, the Rt. Revd Dr David Samuel has said, that we put the
cross of Christ where the Bible puts it. That will require a shift
of emphasis by our church leaders. Nevertheless, as a national
Gospel church we are particularly well placed to evangelize the
However, although we
might see practical reasons why the Church of England should remain
established, evangelical Christians will want to ask if the arrangement
is in keeping with Scripture. Our Reformers answered this question
with an emphatic 'Yes' . Furthermore, they maintained that the
monarch, as supreme over all the persons in the realm, should
also be supreme governor of the Church of England. He (or she)
does not of course, have authority thereby to minister the Word
or Sacraments (Article 37). (6)
The Bible makes plain
that governments are ordained by God. St Paul said this when the
ruling Caesar of that time was Nero! (7) St Peter urges a high
view of the State in a similarly hostile climate. (8) Nations
are seen as bodies, not just a collection of individuals. They
can repent as Nineveh did (see Jonah). They attract the wrath
of God, as Amos makes plain. His message, prepare to meet
thy God, was addressed to Israel as a nation, as were His
words to Edom, Moab and in his first two chapters. Habakkuk describes
Assyria as a bitter and hasty nation and over and over
again in the Psalms the nations are addressed and invited to praise
the Lord. When prophets like Daniel identified themselves with
the sins of their nation and its fathers they were surely recognizing
the unity of the persons in it. Jesus, in Matthew 23 vv 29-39
illustrated the same point, when he wept over Jerusalem. Acts
17 v26 states the sovereign activity of God over all nations,
including what their boundaries should be, and presents the demands
of the Gospel to them all.
Granted that in a real
sense a nation is a unity, a 'person', it is quite natural for
it to have a recognized 'religion' .This is quite different from
that special sense in which Israel was the chosen race. It is
not the same as claiming that all the people in it are committed
to that religion, whether it be Buddhist, Muslim or Christian.
It is a case of defining that nation' s identity in its religious
aspect. There is always the danger that members of it may confuse
the nominal label with the personal commitment that most religion
requires. But this does not deny the truth of the solidarity of
the nation as a body, and therefore, as possessing the power to
recognize or ignore eternal realities.
Viewed in this light
we can see that it is very important that both Houses of Parliament
are opened every day with prayer. The provision in the armed forces,
the prison service and health service for chaplaincies is an appropriate
recognition that the nation has a 'heart' and therefore a religion.
The central position which is given to the Bible at the coronation
of a monarch and the fact that the whole of the ceremony is in
a Christian religious service bears testimony to our Christian
heritage, even though for a majority of ordinary people, as someone
has wittily said, 'The Church of England is the church they choose
to stay away from' And of course, more often than not, it is the
place they choose for marriage and the burial of their dead. The
Established Church also happens to be the only one which survives
in many of the inner cities of our land. I recall a Christian
of nonconformist background commenting that the national church
is 'in the warp and woof of our national life' . Today that is
In his book already
quoted Max Warren sees the task of the national church (and by
this he means the Established Church) as being: to prophesy to
the nation, to purify it and to prepare it for those changes in
it which the God of all the earth will require.
What common sense awareness
of God's providence in history and His revelation of Himself and
His will in His Word point to is not a disestablished Church of
England. That would be throwing away the bab ywith the bath water!
Rather, we need a better Church of England, reformed
in doctrine and morals and renewed by the Holy Spirit to be a
better partner to the State with which God has seen fit to join
it in centuries past.
(Page contents from a Church Society leaflet by Eddy Stride).
For Further Reading:-
The Godly Prince and the National Church by D J Dethridge, Churchman,
Vol. 104 No 1, 1990.
A Church within a Nation - What price disestablishment? by Charles
Hall, Churchman, Vol. No 4, 1993.
(1) Natural Priesthood, The Priesthood of all Believers, C Hart,
Anvil, Vol. 6 No 3, 1989.
(2) A more negative view is expressed in The Gospel Community
and its Leadership by J Tiller & M Birchall (MarshalIs),
where 'cultic' religion is thought to smack of superstition and
the occult, and therefore more likely to be a hindrance to evangelism.
It is reviewed by Tony Higton in Latirner Comment 27.
This argument would be more convincing if 'non-cultic' groups
such as the Baptists and Brethren were doing better than the Church
(3) The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), pp 72, 73.
New Edition, 1982.
(4) The Functions of a National Church, M Warren &
R Johnston, Latinter House. Reprint, 1984, pp 17, 21.
(5) Anglican Evangelical Assembly, 1990.
(6) The Godly Prince and the National Church, D J Dethridge, Churchman,
Vol. 104 No1, 1990.
(7) Romans 13 v 1.
(8) 1 Peter 2vv 13-17.