The Church of England and Its 'Head.'

By Wedd, George | Contemporary Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

The Church of England and Its 'Head.'


Wedd, George, Contemporary Review


In the arguments over the future of the Monarchy which have raged over the last year or two - since the Prince of Wales and his wife announced that they had separated, and later that they were to divorce - one of the recurrent themes has been the question whether the Prince could in the fullness of time become 'Head' of the Church of England, having so obviously fallen short of that Church's teaching on the meaning of marriage. It may therefore be useful to examine what the Monarch's position in the Church really is. This has to be considered historically; the Church of England took up its position vis-a-vis the State in the sixteenth century, and what was settled then remains the position now.

What, in fact, was settled? Through the sonorous language of the Acts and the Articles, and through their concentration on judicial process, one can see a pendulum in motion. It was started to swing by Henry, pushed hard under Edward, harshly reversed under Mary, and brought to a trembling halt by the good judgement of Elizabeth. It was all done in Parliament. The constitution of England was, as the constitution of the United Kingdom is now, perfectly clear and capable of being expressed in six words: the Crown in Parliament is absolute. When King, Lords and Commons are of one mind, they can do exactly what they like. In the reign of Henry VIII the winning of the initiative by the House of Commons was still two generations away. Historians sometimes describe Tudor Parliaments as being servile; this understates the flow of loyalty, amounting almost to adoration, which wrapped round Henry and his second daughter, Elizabeth. The young Henry was a golden, almost god-like figure, physically splendid (the suit of armour made for him as a young man, now in the Royal Armoury, shows this to perfection), jovial, well-educated (he was a second son, and there had been some idea of putting him into the Church) and in every way a vast improvement on any King even the oldest could remember. The obese, sick, dangerous tyrant of his last years was a long way in the future. So if the King, for reasons of his own, wanted reform of the Church, his loving Parliament - the Reformation Parliament - cried 'And about time, too!' and set about doing what he wanted with vigour.

There is a great dispute among historians at this point. Some say the religion of England was vigorous, and irresponsible reformers, borrowing ideas from Germany, wrecked something valuable and beautiful. Others say that the English had been fed up with clerical abuses for at least two generations and welcomed the opportunity for reform. Perhaps a clue lies elsewhere. Although no Western state had a bureaucracy, there was one running in Western Europe: the Roman Curia, the Western world's first modern civil service (China, of course, had had mandarins for centuries). Every bureaucracy follows two laws (I write as a lifelong civil servant). The first is that it seeks work to do, because it is aware of its own ability to do it. The second is that it seeks means to maintain itself, because the labourer is worthy of his hire. The reference of cases to Rome was onerous; and the financial burdens of the Papacy seemed to be growing. It was estimated in the early years of the sixteenth century that the revenue of 'two English counties' went out of the country as First-Fruits, Annates and Peter's Pence, plus the Roman custom of paying Curial clerics by appointing them to English livings which they never visited; that would be about 4 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product - incidentally, much the same as we pay to the European Community today, giving rise to much the same resentment.

It is the business of an historian to be interested in things that do not happen, as well as in those that do, when all the pointers indicate that something was likely. There was much expectation that the King of France, Francis I, would go the same way as Henry. He had the same grievance against the Papacy, that it was too much under the thumb of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. …

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