The C of E is losing its own history

16 April 2008

The Church is increasingly out of touch with its background, argues Jonathan Clark

The most important changes are those that go unremarked, and here is one. Books no longer control events. Forget the histories of England you read as a child. Our society’s self-image is now set overwhelmingly by film and television; and here, things are changing. Especially are they changing for society’s implicit image of the Church of England and its origins.

Once, it was Anglican historians who sustained accounts of origins. One radically Protestant version argued for a fundamental but justified break at the Reformation. Another argued for the essential continuity of the Church, reformed but not re-founded in the 16th century, extending back before the mission of St Augustine in 597.

Both interpretations meant that Catherine of Aragon was airbrushed out as a failure in the necessary business of producing a male heir, unpatriotic (and anyway a foreigner), and a forerunner of her extremist daughter, Bloody Mary.

Now consider the interpretation implied by the epic television production The Tudors, the second series of which is already being screened in the United States (series one having been shown by the BBC in October). Maria Doyle Kennedy gives a memorable performance as a dignified, wronged, and hugely popular Queen Catherine; Natalie Dormer as Anne Boleyn is shockingly attractive.

Equally highly sexed, Justin Chadwick’s recent film The Other Boleyn Girl presents an equally damning picture of the Boleyn family’s ambition, and another attractive interpretation of Queen Catherine. Not since Shakespeare’s last play, All Is True (often known as Henry VIII), which was soon neglected, has Henry’s first wife looked so good.

On one level, these productions are part of the media’s fascination with Henry’s marital misfortunes, sustained by David Starkey, but they have an important subliminal message.

True, a nostalgically patriotic vision was reasserted in the film Elizabeth: The Golden Age. It is stirring stuff, or crude anti-popery, according to taste. Yet the dialogue is shallow. The director, Shekhar Kapur, has nothing to say about the Church, and is on record as claiming that his message was really religious toleration.

Meanwhile, as Shakespeare is retrieved by scholars as a covert recusant or “Church papist”, the whole landscape is shifting. As a historian, it is not my task to pronounce this a good or bad thing. But it is legitimate to observe it happening.

Unnoticed changes make sense when they link up, and here are two more. Unremarked, Anglican institutions are selling the contents of their ancient libraries. A search on shows a swath of volumes for sale from cathedral libraries: Bangor, Canterbury, Ely, Lincoln, Llandaff, Lichfield, Exeter, St Asaph, Wells.

Even at Oxford, Pusey House, established as a think tank with a scholarly as well as a pastoral remit, in 2005 sold much of the ancient contents of its library for the years before the Tractarians. A friend, viewing this sale at Christie’s, and appalled at the rows of venerable volumes, described it as “like a scene from the dissolution of the monasteries”. Yet that, in present-day form, is too close to the truth.

One can imagine it. Accountants add up the retail value of the collections, calculate the number of borrowers or readers, and advise that there is no option but liquidation. Senior clergy, who no longer read the books, are all too happy to accept expert advice. The auction houses promise a professional service, and the best prices (which are not always realised). The Charity Commissioners make no complaint. There is little publicity.

Such sales are more than minor inevitabilities: together, they become a historical phenomenon. They signify the Church of England losing the argument, and turning away from an attempt to sustain a heavyweight historical rationale for itself. One wonders whether the libraries of most Anglican clerics now consist not of formidable works of scholarship, but of paperbacks from the 1970s, already disintegrating.

A generation ago, Anglican priests could count in their ranks historians of the scholarly stature of Henry Chadwick, Owen Chadwick, and Jack McManners; today, their number is diminishing radically, and their lack of preferment is almost assured. It is a trend that has been going on for some time.

Instead, film and television set the pace; and the rehabilitation of Catherine of Aragon is the straw in the wind. Yet, from this rebranding, it is not a radical Protestant interpretation of the Church that benefits, but the Roman Catholic interpretation. Appropriately, the Prime Minister now leaks his intentions to end the ban on RCs’ ascending the throne: implicitly, the prospect is disestablishment.

Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic Church has just raised £2 million from its scarcely affluent diocese of Hexham & Newcastle to endow the Bede chair in Catholic Theology at Durham University, whose holder must be a communicant member. Not only would the Church of England be unlikely now to endow such a post; if an endowment arrived by accident, it would bend over backwards to be “fair” — to ensure that its holder had no such partial commitment. Again: good or bad, this is telling historical evidence.

Resources now go elsewhere: the staffs of Anglican archbishops and bishops include secretaries for public affairs, media managers, press officers, and communications directors. Church House boasts a 24/7 Media Centre. In 2006, bishops’ staff costs amounted to almost £6 million. Despite this burgeoning bureaucracy, it is worth asking whether the Church has lost control of its own history.

Professor Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History at the University of Kansas.

Welcome to the Church Times

​To explore the Church Times website fully, please sign in or subscribe.

Non-subscribers can read four articles for free each month. (You will need to register.)