“TELL ME about yourself.” It’s a fair challenge. Every institution needs an account of its origins, its development, and its purposes. The UN, nation states, political parties, even your local Scouts all need to tell their stories, their histories, if they are to flourish or even survive. They need a “grand narrative”, a powerful and convincing story to tell; in addition, they need to be in command of the telling, the defence, and the development of the story. So it is with Churches, most of which have been extraordinarily good at doing just that.
But not always, or equally, good: I argued (Comment, 18 April) that the Church of England was losing command of its history. Remarkably, no correspondents challenged this part of my thesis. So it is worth exploring what has happened to historical scholarship on the history of the C of E in recent decades, and its practical consequences.
Early history can be decisive. Our ancestors gave more attention than ourselves to the first millennium of Christian history, but this era receded, as 19th- and 20th-century preoccupations took centre stage. Recently, this amnesia has been reversed by a revival of Anglo-Saxon scholarship from historians such as James Campbell, Patrick Wormald, Simon Keynes, and, for religion, Henry Mayr-Harting.
The result has been not to push back the early origins of a ruggedly independent national Church, as the Anglo-Saxon Church was regarded by the Victorians, but to set the English Church once more within the undivided Church before the Great Schism of 1054. By implication, the Reformation of the 1530s looks more like a new departure than a reassertion.
CONTROL of the Reformation means control of a commanding height of the historical economy. The early Reformation continues to be a battleground, and the polarity between Diarmaid MacCulloch and Eamon Duffy seems on the surface to reassert an older conflict of opposites. Yet, when examined more closely, the two are saying similar things.
Professor Duffy presents a deeply Roman Catholic populace on whom the Reformation was imposed. Professor MacCulloch explains how far-reaching were the intentions of early Reformers, especially Cranmer, and emphasises the extent of the transformation they effected. Both argue for a radical discontinuity, and, by implication, for a wholly new Church.
Yet, arguably, Professor MacCulloch has won: many more Anglicans now see the Reformation as a new departure, a licence to pursue a personal spiritual pilgrimage, unconstrained by scripture or tradition.
Two generations of historians, from Patrick Collinson to Peter Lake, have argued for the deeply Calvinist nature of the later Reformation and the Church it created. Professor Collinson has termed the idea of the Church of England’s treading a via media a “persistent myth”.
This interpretation leads naturally to the Civil Wars, now widely viewed — thanks especially to John Morrill — as wars of religion, triggered by militant sectarianism. This moves the 1640s away from the old secular story of parliamentary liberty defended and vindicated, into a lurid scene of bigotry and fanaticism: many 17th-century Anglicans seem to have had much in common with the Scots Covenanters.
Two English literary figures have been displaced in the opposite direction. Most controversially, William Shakespeare has been presented as a covert recusant or “Church Papist”; Samuel Johnson has been depicted as a Nonjuror. If so, the Church of England has lost two of its greatest icons.
From being loyal, patriotic, deeply English (and so, by implication, sound churchmen), they now stand to some degree outside English society in their day, offering coded critiques of it. The more that figures of this calibre affirmed alternatives, the less Anglicanism looks like the natural, timeless bedrock of national consciousness and character it once seemed.
TRUE, much was restored in 1660, and the continuum that lasted into the early 19th century now appears as one characterised by the long-delayed intellectual hegemony of the Church. It was the era of sound scholarship, especially patristics, the clergy of the Church of England deservedly winning the accolade stupor mundi. But this formidable intellectual and social foundation was broken down, beginning in the 1830s. Why?
Political historians have illuminated Protestant Nonconformity’s part in swamping an Anglican hegemony in 1828-32. Anglo-Catholicism now seems more a political response to this social bloc than a plausible assertion of a powerful Catholic strand within the Church of England. Increasingly, 19th-century liberalism looks like Nonconformity mobilised for action, a challenge to which the Church of England failed adequately to reply.
Peter Nockles’s influential account has recast the Oxford Movement. From being an expression of the continuity of a Catholic element in Anglicanism, the Tractarians are now presented as indebted to pre-Tractarian High Churchmen, reasserting key elements of their hegemony of c.1660-1832. It all looks less securely Catholic, and more political.
Appropriately, there has been renewed interest in John Henry Newman from scholars such as Ian Ker and Sheridan Gilley.
Historians have emphasised the emergence of parties within the 19th-century Church of England, and the lasting importance of this dynamic; but High Church, liberal, and Low Church or Evangelical parties now seem locked in a civil war that gravely damaged each party rather than expressing a happy pluralism.
There has also been an unexpected rehabilitation of 19th-century Roman Catholicism, formerly stigmatised as a minority faith. Scholarship has now given far more credence to a Roman Catholic literary, as well as pastoral, revival. The RC historian John Lingard (1771-1851), too, now enjoys a revived respect.
THE HISTORIOGRAPHY of the 20th century has been dominated by the question of secularisation. But here Maurice Cowling has written of the Anglican intelligentsia losing debates they might have won, not defeated by an inevitable “process”.
Edward Norman has presented an Anglican clergy susceptible to intellectual influences from outside Christianity; secularisation, he argues, came substantially from inside the Church, as Anglican clergy capitulated to the thesis of inevitable decline. Simon Green and others have argued that Christianity might have been consistent with urban society, not undermined by urbanisation and industrialisation.
From the 19th century, such matters were played out in an international setting. William Sachs has recorded the English Church turning into a worldwide denomination, but without the organisation to support it. Its recent attempts to acquire one after the Lambeth Conference of 2008 can now seem two centuries too late.
These developments in history have taken place in the past few decades. The Roman Catholic interpretation has strengthened; the Church of England has increasingly been redefined as a Protestant sect; far fewer of its members command the historical resources to present for it an intellectually powerful rationale as a branch of the universal Church.
More generally, fewer Anglicans attend to history at all. In the 20th century, Anglicanism was powered by German theology rather than by Anglican historiography; and the consequences are now apparent in how the Church reacts to crises.
Recent events may be evidence of this process of redefinition: the outcome of the ARCIC exchanges; the question of women’s ordination; the manner in which issues of sexuality have been dealt with. All may be symptoms of newly established underlying assumptions rather than being themselves determinative.
PERHAPS we are seeing three developments, overlapping and reinforcing each other. First, increasing numbers of able ecclesiastical historians in England have for some time been Roman Catholics — Aveling, Bossy, Duffy, Gilley, Hastings, Ker, Mayr-Harting, Morrill, Nockles, Questier, Riley-Smith, Scarisbrick, and others — and the Church of England has found no adequate reply.
This cannot just be chance. Increasingly, the Anglican history of the years since the 1530s is implicitly emerging as a phase, not a norm.
Second, the Church of England is increasingly indifferent to its historical dimension, neglecting the teaching of its history, unconcerned at the fate of ancient libraries, actively resistant to promoting scholarly clergy who might have historical views that would threaten a reigning consensus established on other evidential grounds than the historical.
Third, the few Anglicans who are historically aware now often depict the Church of England as essentially a radical Protestant denomination with a revolutionary foundation in the early 16th century, and revolutionary implications for morals and manners in our own day.
It may be superficially surprising that feminism and gay rights should today occupy so much of the attention of Anglicans, but the historian must discover why that is appropriately the case. What is really at issue is authority, and that is ultimately historically grounded.
AS A HISTORIAN looking at the past three decades, I offer no normative views on these developments; I do not pronounce here on the merits of these models of the Church of England’s history. I merely point out that redefinition is occurring, that it has consequences, and that it demands explanation.
Nor is this an abstract enquiry. The way in which institutions have always expressed their dominant histories suggests that life is still likely to imitate art: the Church of England will act out its historical self-understanding in the future, as it did from the days of the Venerable Bede, Thomas Fuller, Peter Heylyn, John Strype, Jeremy Collier, William Stubbs, and Mandell Creighton to John Moorman and Owen Chadwick. Indeed, it must be doing just that already.
Having marginalised its Catholic party over women’s ordination in 1992, the Church may be witnessing a showdown between its Evangelical and liberal ones. If so, the signs are that the liberals will predominate.
If Gordon Brown, in the last months of his current Government, secures legislation ending the requirement that the monarch be an Anglican, then the Church of England will, de facto, be disestablished. It will hardly protest: the liberal wing will welcome this, to give fuller expression to the Church’s new understanding of its history. For good or ill, the changes will be as great as those of the 1530s.
Jonathan Clark is Hall Distinguished Professor of British History in the University of Kansas.