The Gospel According to England

Easter Special: In Defense of Anglicanism

“Quam volumus licet, patres conscripti, nos amemus, tamen nec numero Hispanos, nec robore Gallos, nec calliditate Pœnos, nec artibus Græcos, nec denique hoc ipso hujus gentis et terræ domestico nativoque sensu Italos ipsos et Latinos; sed pietate, ac religione, atque hac una sapientia, quod deorum immortalium numine omnia regi gubernarique perspeximus, omnes gentes nationesque superavimus.”

With these words, Bacon rounds off his essay On Atheism, one of a number of defences he made of the Church of England, then still in its infancy. While Queen Elizabeth I can boast to have presided over an economically flourishing England, it was equally a time of religious controversy and contention. Even those of us now firmly established in the Church and convinced of its legitimacy may stand in awe at the security with which Bacon declares it the greatest of all churches, and of the foresight which he held. The general tendency of the English population in the 16th century, newly converted to wholly novel denomination was, as it is today, a vague and noncommittal affirmation of the church and its right to exist, though their moderation stemmed from self-preservation rather than indifference. Anglicanism had been created, banned and then made obligatory, all under the same family — one tended to err on the side of caution.

That is not to say that England was a nation of secret Catholics masquerading as protestants. The pervading myth affirmed even by the ex Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams that Shakespeare, for example, was a Papist exposes a misunderstanding of the theological mind of the 16th century, which was given to fluctuations and held opinions which resisted easy classification. The sympathetic portrayal of Catholic clerical figures in Shakespeare’s work does not necessarily suggest — at least not exclusively — that he held any great affection for Catholicism. Monks and nuns were figures from ‘once upon a time’ and were readily conjured up as an easy means to transport the audience into a romanticised past. Anti-Catholicism was found just as often in the popular imagination, as in Thomas Middleton’s A Game at Chess, where, as was often the case, it comes accompanied by hispanophobia, casting both the Spaniards and the Papacy as hell-bent on world domination. Puritans, as well as prelates, were both satirised and vilified on the Elizabethan stage, and Bacon does much the same thing in his Advertisement Touching the Controuersyes of the Church of England, provoking both and pleasing neither. 

Opposed necessarily to both to Roman Catholicism and Lutheran Protestantism, there is no agreement upon specifics in Anglicanism, only agreement upon general principles. To argue that the Church of England is superior is not to say that it ought to have a global presence. Its very name negates this possibility and affirms the principle reason for its existence: “‘habet religio quae sunt aeternitatis, habet quae sunt temporis’; religion hath parts which belong to eternity, and parts which pertain to time.” Each church ought to do that which is best for the estate of itself and that which will produce the best fruit under the given circumstances. The Church of England, while opinion may differ on how well it has realised this objective, can be said to be the only Church which has recognised that it must adapt its practices in accord with the national character. It is Christianity for an incredulous, empirical people.

In his partially-written utopian novel New Atlantis, Bacon lays out a schema for a perfectly Christian and scientific English society. Washed up on the island of Bensalem, the shipwrecked sailors are delivered a scroll by the natives, written in a multitude of languages and informing them that they are welcome to remain on the island for sixteen days, given that they “swear (all of you) by the merits of the Saviour that ye are no pirates, nor have shed blood lawfully nor unlawfully within forty days past.” 

The condition here is not so much that one has not shed blood, but that one is willing to invoke the name of the Saviour. The price of admission, then, is simple common faith and the recognition of the same basic moral code. Questions of transubstantiation and filoques, liturgy and indulgences are left at the door, and the visitors are welcome to join their society and scientific enquiry for a time. The acceptance of guests is especially admirable in that the habitants of Bensalem practice a form of autarky verging on hermeticism, permitting only two boats to leave the island every twelve years; not in order to gather material resources, but information to advance their scientific studies. This, the text notes, is in sharp contrast to the Chinese who “sail where they will or can; which sheweth that their law of keeping out strangers is a law of pusillanimity and fear.” On ceremony and “extern policy,” says Bacon elsewhere, men may differ, whilst matters of the “highest nature” should be mutually recognised. “One faith, one baptism” and not one ceremony, one policy. Quarrels in religion, he notes, were alien to the pagan, because his religion “consisted rather in rites and ceremonies, than in any constant belief.” In Bensalem, Christianity is not a point of contention, but a necessary formality which maintains peace and stability on the island.

A similar standard of Christian moral code, loose on specifics and broad in its reach, is proposed in Orwell’s The Lion and the Unicorn, in which he writes of what he terms a “specifically English socialist movement” which has, as its guiding principle, a specifically English Christian morality:

“It will disestablish the Church, but will not persecute religion. It will retain a vague reverence for the Christian moral code, and from time to time will refer to England as ‘a Christian country’.”

This unconscious adherence to Christian morality of course necessitates a certain iconoclasm. The greater the presence of icons and ceremonies, the more conscious the Englishman is of having a moral law imposed upon him, especially if it is perceived as foreign. Today the little hierarchy that remains in the Anglican church, cobbled together during the Elizabethan reformation, serves as a parody of the Papal order, deliberately delegitimizing itself, diffusing Christianity among the wider population through its own disassemblage. After all, why should common sense require the intervention of hierarchy or ceremony? 

In writing his Christian appology Mere Christianity, C S Lewis’s objective was not to address matters of ‘high theology’, which he says “ought never to be treated except by real experts,” but outline a Christianity which accorded with the beliefs of all denominations, presenting a work of Christian apologetics which provoked no contentions. While he claimed to have no intention of convincing the reader of Anglicanism, it is this non-committal, pluralist approach to Christ, this refusal to engage in high (or even medium) theology which makes it so distinctly Anglican.

Other Christians have struggled with plurality in the faith, and more concretely plurality in the Gospels. How are we to reconcile the four differing accounts of Jesus with the belief that he led a single life? Tatian attempted to do so in the 2nd century with his Diatessaron, welding Man, Lion, Ox and Eagle into a master narrative. But the Anglican is at home with plurality. He knows that each portrait of Christ has some spiritual, social or political utility; that meaning can be teased out of scripture to suit the time and purpose. In the Anglosphere, Christ has served various purposes as a figure of socialism, women’s liberation, and was even deployed by Mrs. Thatcher as the prophet of wealth creation. (“No-one would remember the good Samaritan if he’d only had good intentions; he had money as well.”)

Christ was a master of irony and allegory, and it is unsurprising that the British would have penetrated further the meaning of the gospels than any other nation. Christianity has suffered from literal-minded interpretation of the scriptures, from the Desert Fathers who read Matthew 5:30 (“If your right hand offend you…”) and took to castrating themselves, to the American Creationists whose absence of hermeneutic subtilty continues to embarrass the rest of Christianity. Natural empiricists, the English have rejected the miracles ever since their improbability was demonstrated by Hume, and carried interpretation of the scriptures into new, more fruitful territory. Enoch Powell in his seminal exegesis of the gospels published in 1994, notes of the gospels that “failure to recognize [allegory] has been a fruitful source of misunderstanding.” Interrogating this ‘code language’ he discovers that the centurion of Matthew and Luke represents the gentile world; the miraculous healing, conversion. Another instance of historical misinterpretation is the use of the words ‘poor’ and ‘rich’, which according to Powell, do not refer to literal poverty and wealth, but “denote those who respectively claim, or do not claim, merit accumulated by observance of the Law.” Failure to decode this passage correctly has led to the generalised assumption that Christ preached poverty. The cross, too, is an unfortunate and enduring testament to poor scriptural interpretation, given that Christ was actually stoned to death.

Through this interrogation of scripture, we may approach a Christ that suits the national character; a Christ skeptical of the supernatural; averse to pomp, ceremony and symbols; interested in practical, political application of ideas and good statesmanship. As the Church of England has proposed to give away hectares of its own land to be used for affordable social housing, complying with Matthew 19:21 and demonstrating that the more the English Church dissipates the greater the presence of Christ in England, we might hope that, by stripping away ceremony, worship and perhaps eventually dispensing of the necessity of God, it may one day find itself in the perfect state of the hermit in the desert, crying “I have sold even the word that commands me to sell all and give to the poor.”

William Guppy is a writer from London. He’s the author of Ha Ha Ha Delightful.

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