Following my last post, and especially the initial comment by Phil Ritchie, I thought I would write a little more, especially as Phil asked about a Methodist perspective. What follows is entirely my own views.
I nearly became an Anglican. I had grown up in Methodism, and sensed God calling me to something – I didn’t know what – and to explore that I ended up studying Theology as an independent student at Trinity College, Bristol, an evangelical Anglican theological college.
While I was there, my calling crystallised. It was the ordained ministry. However, did I stay in my native Methodism or follow the highly attractive advertisement I was seeing for Anglicanism at Trinity?
Many factors came into play in making my decision, some pro- and some anti- both traditions. For the purposes of this discussion, there were two that I found decisive in feeling I could not go over to the Church of England. One was knowing that if I changed, I would have to be confirmed by a bishop in the so-called ‘historic succession’ as if I had never been a Christian before. That seemed – and still seems – to be a denial of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life prior to any such time. That was the most fundamental objection I had.
The second reason was that I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of an Established Church. Tying the church to the structures of government was to risk seduction by privilege, wealth and power. I didn’t regard it as being as insurmountable, but I cringed every time I saw an ordinand kneel (or even prostrate themselves) before a bishop and take the Oath of Allegiance.
The reason I don’t see the Oath of Allegiance as an insurmountable objection (although I’m uncomfortable with it) is because Article 37 of the C of E’s Thirty-Nine Articles, ‘Of the Civil Magistrates’, can be read simply to affirm that Christians respect those in civil authority. It just happens to be with the monarch in this country:
The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other her Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify; but only that prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.
That it should be used by bloggers such as Cranmer to accuse Pete Broadbent of not believing the Church of England’s doctrine by virtue of being a republican seems to push the language too far. It depends what import you put on the phrase ‘godly Princes’. Does that and must that merely invoke royal rulers? Romans 13 is more general about authority, even if it is written under the Roman Empire.
Those who fervently defend the connection of the Church of England to the monarchy should remember how equivocal (to put it mildly) Scripture is about royalty, something that Article 37 potentially overlooks. When Israel demands a king from Samuel, the Lord says it is a sign they have rejected him. They want a fashion accessory, and kings come with a record of oppression, was the reply. And in the New Testament, where there is no option but to live under Caesar, while his rule is respected, his claim to lordship is emphatically denied.
Royalists may counter that a republic brings all sorts of ugly notions, and until a few years ago they raised the spectre of Cherie Blair as First Lady. Yes, all forms of power and authority come with risk. The quasi-messianism of some who campaigned for Barack Obama should make us queasy, too.
But insofar as I understand these things, a biblical approach to authority includes the following:
1. Respect those who are called to rule;
2. Do not exalt them beyond their status as human sinners;
3. Be prepared to call them to account.
4. Pray for them.
Can a constitutional monarchy fit this description? Can Christians put their names to it. Can a republic? The calling to account seems to be the issue for me. How is an institution called to account when the eldest son automatically succeeds to the throne? And for a republic or democracy, does calling to account become corrupted to a desire merely for what the people fancy?
Maybe I am neither a royalist nor a republican.
I use that title for this blog post, being a version of what we in the free churches sometimes label ‘Anglican imperialism’. It is that unequal relationship which the Church of England maintains with us, despite protestations to the contrary.
Recently, their vicar retired, but before he stepped down he booked me to preach a farewell sermon there prior to our looming departure. It was fixed for last Sunday. Here’s the thing: when Methodist and Anglican churches are in formal LEPs (Local Ecumenical Partnerships) I can preside at a communion service. When we are only in covenants, I cannot. So I was expecting that a visiting Anglican priest would preside at the sacrament while I preached.
In fact, no priest was available for that 10:30 am service, so the church wardens had to ask the visiting priest at the 8 am communion to consecrate enough bread and wine for the later service, too. The Reader who led the service with me had to use a newly authorised liturgy called Public Worship with Communion by Extension. (And every time this comes up, she has to apply for permission to use it. Imagine how often that will be during a vacancy.) Strictly no-one must stand behind the communion table.
My Anglican friends were upset that I was not allowed to preside. Their support was touching, and came through very Anglican lenses. “Why can’t you exercise your priestly ministry with us?” Er – because I’m not a priest? The C of E would say I’m not a priest, because I haven’t had hands laid on me by a bishop who is part of that theological fiction known as the ‘historic succession’. (However, we did smuggle into the service me pronouncing what I would call ‘assurance of forgiveness’ and my Anglican friends with their priestly language would call ‘absolution’. And yes, I do normally use ‘you’ language rather than ‘us’ language in those prayers – not for ‘priestly’ reasons, but because people need to hear ‘you are forgiven’.)
Methodism would say I’m a priest in the same way that every Christian is a priest, and that I am not ordained to a separate priesthood. It still smuggles ordained presidency at the sacraments into our practice as the norm, on the grounds that good order should be kept at Holy Communion. And of course, I agree that the Lord’s Table is a place for good order, I just point to 1 Corinthians 11 where there is a massive problem of disorder at the Lord’s Supper, which Paul solves not with trained clergy but apostolic teaching.
So I’m not about to want to claim a separate priesthood for myself – I believe that is contrary to the New Testament. But Sunday’s experience reminded me of the institutional inequality between our traditions, and the way in which the grassroots are often ahead of the hierarchy in Christian work. I get angry at the legacy of Anglo-Catholic domination in past centuries that has led to this institutionalisation of inequality, where some are more equal than others. I recall an article in the Church Times in the late 1980s which pointed out that a nominal Catholic who finds living faith in Christ in an Anglican church can be received by transfer, because his or her Catholic confirmation is regarded as valid, since it has been administered by a bishop in the ‘historic succession’. However, should a free church Christian with an existing live faith who joins the Church of England must be confirmed as if they had never been received into the Christian church at all. Their prior Christian experience is effectively trashed in the so-called name of church order.
Anglicans refer to a triad of sources in determining Christian truth: Scripture, tradition and reason. Methodists add a fourth to make a quadrilateral: experience. To me, this is one area where adding that fourth source makes the difference. It exposes the ‘historic succession’ for the theological sham that it is. People’s experience of Christ must be allowed as a valid contribution to understanding Christian life and doctrine, just as in Acts 10 the Gentile reception of the Holy Spirit changed the church, as when Peter cited it at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15. Experience cannot trump everything else, but it must be allowed a place at the table. For too long, the rigid insistence on the ‘historic succession’ (and yes, I continue to put it in quote marks because I don’t accept its reality) has caused pastoral and ecumenical damage.
Not that I think there is any hope of the Church of England listening, mind you.