The Church of England’s historical identity

12 November 2008


From the Revd Christopher M. Scargill
Sir, — In his response to Professor Jonathan Clark’s article (Comment, 31 October) on the Church of England’s perceptions of its histor­ical identity, the Revd Dr Jeremy Morris (Letters, 7 November) drew attention to the elements of con­tinu­ity in Anglicanism despite the theological rupture of the Reformation.

He only hints, however, at a far greater rupture in Anglican and indeed much Christian self-understanding — the gradual abandonment of the concept of the confessional state in favour of a membership model of Christianity.

As the rise in the power of Protestant Nonconformity made defence of the existing church order politically impossible, the Oxford Movement and its heirs sought to find a secure foundation for the Church in its past history. But this “withdrawal to prepared positions”, to use the military euphemism, led inexorably to an abandonment of the concept of the Church of England as the Church for the nation.

The growing insistence on Anglican distinctiveness and denominational loyalty destroyed the remaining bonds between the Church of England and Methodism, and tended to alienate the many who attended church and chapel erratically and indifferently.

Arguably, however, the most dram­atic rupture with the Church of England’s past came with the Enab­ling Act of 1919, which introduced the concept of the electoral roll and with it the idea of being a member of the Church of England. Strangely, few other than Hensley Henson seem to have realised that this amounted to the abandonment of the concept of comprehensiveness. Gore and the more radical members of Life and Liberty indeed called for the restriction of voting rights in the Church to regular communicants, and by 1924 Gore was saying that the whole concept of establishment was “inconsistent with the actual beliefs of the nation”.

As the 20th century progressed, the Parish and People movement promoted the eucharist as the main Sunday-morning service, effectively marginalising the non-communicant, while the growing inadequacy of tithes as a source of funding meant that the Sunday collection, rather than being alms for the poor, went towards the maintenance of the Church itself. The Church was now a society paid for by its members.


Eventually, a theology was devised to justify this, in which the offertory was seen as the offering of money for the Lord’s work in the world as a form of oblation — a concept Cranmer seems to have specifically sought to avoid.

By the second half of the 20th century, then, while paying lip-service to being the National Church, Church of England struc­tures spoke of its being a Church of committed members in a largely godless or at least indifferent world.

A similar abandonment can be seen for different reasons in Continental Roman Catholicism, where, in response to the principles of 1789 and the liberal anti-clericalism that had flowed from them, the Church increasingly identified itself with right-wing authoritarianism, in opposition to the liberal parliamentary state. Not until after 1945 did the Roman Catholic Church begin to emerge from that particular ghetto.

Ironically, in both Britain and France, most of the population still claims to be Christians, though the percentage of regular churchgoers is tiny. The abandonment of the concept of a confessional state in favour of the concept of a clearly defined community of committed believers, once confined to certain Protestant traditions, may yet prove to be more significant a rupture than the Reformation.

Some may prefer the membership ecclesiology, but, to others of us, it seems less that the people left the Church than that the Church left the people.
The Vicarage, Church Lane
Ipstones, Staffs ST10 2LF

From Professor Jonathan Clark
Sir, — The Church Times wisely prevents its authors’ contribut­ing twice to a discussion, but may I correct two textual points in my article (Comment, 31 October)?

First, the Revd Simon Heans (Letters, 7 November) argues: “the claim that ‘The C of E needs a strong story’ is dangerously mis­taken.” Yet I made no such claim. The title of my article was added by the Church Times, so giving the im­pression that I was writing normatively, recommending some particular course of action. I was not: I merely attempted to argue analytically that major changes had occurred, and that these had historic consequences.

Second, my text contained the sentences “I remember being at a lecture by [Professor Diarmaid] MacCulloch at which Henry Chad­wick afterwards told the speaker ‘You have described a Church of which I am not a member.’ Yet, arguably, MacCulloch has won.”

The omission of the first sentence for reasons of space left the impres­sion that I believe Professor Mac­Culloch to have won an argument with Professor Eamon Duffy, who was mentioned in the previous paragraph. I admire the remarkable scholarship of both, and put forward no such argument. I do suggest that, in a broad sense, Professor Mac­Culloch’s interpretation has prevailed against that for which the late Professor Henry Chadwick so ably stood.
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