Faith at the Heart of Nations? Reflections on the future of church and state
Speaker: The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster; Chair: Paul Baumann, Receiver General, Westminster Abbey
Monday, 21st October 2019 at 6.30 PM
Westminster Abbey is unique in the world.
There are many churches and cathedrals in the world, some of which are more beautiful, more ancient, more glorious than Westminster Abbey. Think for example only in this country of Durham Cathedral, squatting magnificently on its rocky promontory high over the city of Durham overlooking the wide reaches of its county, alongside the castle also built by William the Conqueror in the 11th century. Think of the great cathedral in Canterbury with its sinuous extension and beautiful glass, and of York Minster with its magnificent bulk and breadth, each dominating their city and county. Think in France of Amiens Cathedral, its nave soaring ten metres higher than the nave of the Abbey. Think anyway of more obvious great churches, St Peter’s Basilica, Notre Dame in Paris. So many churches, cathedrals, abbeys, each splendid and magnificent in its own way. But none compares with Westminster Abbey.
These are not just the sentimental maunderings of a man approaching old age and retirement after almost thirteen years of dedication to the ministry and mission of the Abbey. It is simply the case that no other church or cathedral or abbey in the world has this particular mixture of attributes. Westminster Abbey continues to be a living church with 28 acts of worship each week, eight of them sung by the Abbey’s choir. The Abbey continues to be the place of coronation of the kings and queens of England, Great Britain and the United Kingdom. The Abbey houses the graves and memorials of many of the kings and queens of this country from 1066 until 1760, and many of the greatest men and women of our national life and international connection. And the Abbey has attracted around it the Palace of Westminster, and much more recently, added to the mix, the Government and state offices and in 2009 the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom judiciary. Nowhere in the world, I believe, is such a national and state community clustered around a great church.
We have an 11th century king to thank for what the Abbey has become. Edward reigned in England before Duke William of Normandy’s conquest of this country in 1066. He was king from 1042 until his death on 5th January 1066. He was buried here in the Abbey church on 6th January 1066 and was later to be known as St Edward the Confessor after the Pope had canonised him in 1161. He is still here, behind the high altar, in a beautiful shrine, surrounded by medieval kings of England, Henry III, Edward I, Edward III, Richard II and Henry V.
What then did St Edward decide and why did it make such a difference?
When Edward the Confessor became king of England in 1042, following the death of the last Danish monarch to have ruled this country, coming from exile in his mother’s Normandy, he resolved early in his reign to re-build the abbey and its church and to build a palace here as well. The Abbey church and its Benedictine community had been founded around AD 960, although there may have been an earlier church and community. King Edgar had given Dunstan, archbishop of Canterbury, formerly bishop of London, a Benedictine monk, who was keen to revive Benedictine monasticism, an unpromising piece of land, an island surrounded by tributaries of the Thames, a mile and a half from the City of London. This was that piece of land. There was nothing to speak of here but the quiet flowing of the river and a low-lying island.
The great church Edward the Confessor built, consecrated on 28th December 1065, of which you will find an image in the Bayeux tapestry, was in the Romanesque, the Norman, style of his mother’s land. That great Norman church here, by far the greatest and finest building in the kingdom, pre-dated the Norman conquest on 14th October 1066. The key point is that Edward built his palace next door to the Abbey.
King Edward’s motive surely was clear. He wished his rule of this country to be supported and buttressed and prayed for by the monks of the Abbey. And he wished his Abbey to have a role in forming and characterising the State, the country he ruled. It was to be a partnership: State and Church bound together, mutually supportive, together engaged in re-building the nation’s life, following the retreat of the Danes.
The Palace of Westminster Edward built has been through many changes over the centuries. Before the dissolution of the monastery here in 1540, parliament met here at the Abbey, first in the Chapter House and later in the monastic Refectory. But those were the early days of an English parliament, called from time to time by the king. The Palace of Westminster remains a royal palace but has since the 16th century been occupied by parliament. A fire almost destroyed the Palace in 1834, which was then re-modelled after the style of the Lady Chapel of Westminster Abbey by the architect Charles Barry, who is buried here in the nave.
The death of St Edward the Confessor on 5th January 1066 was followed by the brief reign of Harold II and the beginning of the reign of William the Conqueror, William I of England, each of whom was crowned here in Edward’s Church on Christmas Day 1066.
The strong relationship of mutual support between Church and State was characteristic of the days of St Edward. Sometimes, the Church has been dominant over the State; at other times the State over the Church. Both Church and State have waxed and waned, been strong at times and weak at others.
One of the most remarkable moments in our history, a moment when the relationship between Church and State was vigorously tested, was when Pope Innocent III was in profound disagreement with the English authorities. The issue, in 1205, was over the appointment of a new archbishop of Canterbury. Innocent III who had become pope in 1198 and reigned until 1216 had a fixed idea of who he wanted to head the Church in England. John, king of England from 1199 until 1216, had a different idea from the pope.
The pope wished to appoint Stephen Langton as archbishop but the king was not content; nor were the monks of Canterbury Cathedral, who were to elect their archbishop. The pope was eventually to prevail. Pope Innocent III summoned sixteen of the monks of Canterbury and ordered them to elect Stephen Langton. The pope consecrated Langton a bishop and appointed him archbishop and the monks of Canterbury elected him.
King John could not accept it and refused to allow him to come to England. He proclaimed as a public enemy anyone who recognised Langton as archbishop and, on 15th July 1207, banned the monks from returning to their monastery in Canterbury. Pope Innocent III was determined to have his way. He responded to the king in March 1208 by placing England under an interdict. What this interdict meant was that no services of any kind could be held within churches or parishes in England: no baptisms, no weddings, no funerals, no masses, no sacraments. The people of England were deprived of the usual daily and weekly ministries of the Church not for a week or month, but over five years. Finally, the king submitted to the authority of the pope and the pope had his way. Stephen Langton came from Burgundy to claim his position and to be enthroned in Canterbury cathedral. He was to have his revenge. Working with the barons, he was to contain the power of the king with the signing of the Magna Carta.
The interdict had naturally extended to Westminster Abbey, though after a time the pope allowed the monks to celebrate a daily mass but behind closed doors. The Abbey recognised the power of the pope and in 1220, agreed that the abbot of Westminster should be directly answerable not to the bishop of London or archbishop of Canterbury but to the pope and should be appointed by him.
The exercise of papal authority by Innocent III was probably greater than that of any other pope in history. This instance of the Church commanding and controlling the State was unusual and unexpected.
An opposite issue, of the State controlling the Church, arose during the long reign of Edward III, who became king in 1327 and reigned for 50 years. Simon Langham was a monk of Westminster Abbey and became prior and then abbot of Westminster. He was also under the king a power in the land, as was the case with other abbots of Westminster. In 1362 he was appointed bishop of Ely and four years later became archbishop of Canterbury. During this time, the papacy was not in Rome but in Avignon and the pope was French.
But the king was fighting the French, as part of the Hundred Years War. And the pope, Urban V, in 1368 offered to make Simon Langham, who was both the archbishop of Canterbury and also the Chancellor of England, a cardinal. Edward III was adamant that Langham his archbishop should not owe allegiance to a French pope, thus compromising his loyalty to the king and to England. He could not be the liege man of the pope in Avignon and the liege man of the king in England. One or the other. If he wished to accept the red hat of the cardinal, he must resign as archbishop. So he did. And he died in Avignon, though his remains are buried here. Cardinal Langham having achieved, through his various responsibilities and offices, enormous wealth, left his estates to Westminster Abbey. His successor as abbot, Nicholas Litlyngton, was therefore able to begin again serous building work at the abbey that had been abandoned a century earlier. The nave, where we are sitting, began to be re-built, in the style of the 13th century Abbey church, in the late 14th century.
So far, the honours are even: Church one; State one. Two further moments of major disruption between Church and State can be mentioned: the first in the early 16th century; the second in the first half of the 17th century.
The first of these was in the reign of Henry VIII. When he came to the throne in 1509, Henry was a faithful Catholic married to a Spanish princess. In 1521, he wrote in riposte to Martin Luther a powerful defence of the seven Sacraments of the Church. The pope approved and gave him the title Defender of the Faith, still held by the Queen. But his attitudes were to change as he found himself unable to father a male heir and as his eye wandered to other possible partners. In the end, he was to be married to six wives, two of whom he beheaded, but only to father three surviving legitimate children, each of whom went on to reign in their turn: Edward VI, Mary I and Elizabeth I. In 1532, and over the following two years, the king was determined to rule in his own kingdom and not to be hampered and dominated by the pope. The English parliament named the king as the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England. The pope’s authority was effectively abolished in England.
Although the king’s opinions wavered and were influenced by those closest to him at the time, he continued to regard himself as a Catholic. Even so, he allowed his agent Thomas Cromwell, known as the king’s vicegerent, to establish a campaign against the monastic orders in England. Cromwell had been a servant and adviser to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, the king’s great counsellor for fifteen years from 1514 until 1529, but had then transferred his allegiance to the king. From 1534 until his downfall in 1540, Cromwell was chief adviser to the king. But he fell. Perhaps his great power led him to complacency. He made mistakes and was executed. His work had been the dissolution of all the monasteries in England. This Abbey here in Westminster was dissolved in 1540 and was to become for ten years the cathedral of a newly created diocese of Westminster, though later in 1550 it would be re-amalgamated with the diocese of London. Most of the former monasteries were destroyed and their land taken by the king or given to his friends or associates; others as here were transformed into cathedrals for new dioceses.
The great monastic orders, which had been highly influential religiously and culturally in England, ceased to be and have never been revived. The question has been much debated whether Cromwell’s dramatic work went with or against the grain of popular public opinion. Was England ready for a Protestant reformation or was it happy to remain Catholic? The current opinion is that Catholicism was not on the wane but was alive and flourishing. The dissolution of the monasteries was imposed from above. A similar power later, in the time of Edward VI, imposed an English language prayer book. Queen Mary’s re-imposed Catholicism perhaps lost some of its authority when she married the Spanish king. The settlement Elizabeth I eventually imposed allowed a degree of ceremony and formality and a middle way, so that the English Church was neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic but is described as Catholic and Reformed. Clearly, however, in all this the State imposed change on the Church; the Church itself was comparatively supine.
The second moment of disruption during the reign of Charles I in the middle of the 17th century was again an imposition of the State on the Church. Unlike James I, who had cleverly held together the various factions within the Church, Charles I sought to repress the explicitly Protestant Churches. This brought an inevitable reaction, which was led by a Member of Parliament Oliver Cromwell, who fought and won a Civil War against the king, and had him executed on 30th January 1649. This led to eleven years of Commonwealth and the Protectorate, when Cromwell himself and then his son ruled. But the Puritan Church imposed by Cromwell on the people of England was not to their taste. After the failure of Cromwell’s son Richard, the king’s son returned in 1660 and reigned as Charles II with the approval of the people, who were glad to hear music again and to enjoy their familiar entertainments, which had been banned during the interregnum, the Commonwealth. The diarist Samuel Pepys on 1st May 1660 wrote, ‘To-day I hear they were very merry at Deal, setting up the King’s flag upon one of their maypoles, and drinking his health upon their knees in the streets, and firing the guns, which the soldiers of the Castle threatened; but durst not oppose.’ On 31st May 1660, Pepys wrote, ‘This day the month ends, I in very good health, and all the world in a merry mood because of the King’s coming.’
These last two moments of deep disruption and change in the life of the State and the Church clearly see the State imposing change on the Church. So the tally so far is Church: one; State: three.
I now turn to the 19th century and to an era of significant change for the Church of England and the other Churches and for the relationship between the State and the Church.
Since the Reformation, the Church of England had been regarded as the Established Church, the official Church of the English State. As in the Middle Ages and during the time of the Tudor, Stuart and Hanoverian monarchs, the Bishops of the Church of England sat as members of the Upper House of Parliament, the House of Lords. Though there were Roman Catholics and Protestant sectaries of various kinds, the Church of England was the recognised, authorised and approved official Church and those who adhered to other religious practices were to some degree or another disapproved or actively hounded or even persecuted. But there were to be big changes, during the reigns of George IV and William IV and the seventeen years from the death of George III to the accession of Queen Victoria in 1837. This was curious since neither of these two sons of George III seemed to have any interest in religion. George III had been adamant against change, certainly involving the Church. Once he was dead, change was to come. And changes were imposed by the State on the Church.
The Church itself seemed entirely unprepared for these changes. The Reform Act of 1832 began the process of increasing the size of the electorate and allowing more people to choose their Members of Parliament. When the Bill was introduced to Parliament in 1831, 21 out of 22 Bishops present in the House of Lords voted against it. A second Bill was brought before Parliament and then a third. The reaction to these two initial failures had been violent. The archbishop of Canterbury had his coach overturned by a mob in Canterbury, and the bishop of Bristol had his palace almost destroyed. The Bill finally achieved support in both Houses of Parliament and became the Reform Act with the Royal Assent. But the Bishops had been quite out of touch with the mood and wishes of the people.
The State had already showed itself willing to change its attitude to the Church. Even during the reign of George III in 1791, a tentative change was agreed in relation to Catholic Emancipation; Catholics would be allowed to attend their own churches, to maintain Catholic schools and for Catholic individuals to become lawyers. Then in 1829, under the leadership of the Duke of Wellington and Robert Peel, further change was to take place. Robert Peel had been a firm opponent of Catholic Emancipation, wishing to preserve inviolate the settlement of the Church of England. But there was a hot issue. Hot issues change circumstances. An Irish Catholic, Daniel O’Connell, had been elected to an Irish parliamentary seat. But as a Catholic, he was prevented from taking his seat in the House of Commons. Time and again he came to the House of Commons. Each time, he was refused permission to swear the oath of allegiance to the Crown and so could not take his seat. Finally, the mood changed. Those who opposed Catholic Emancipation gave up their opposition. At last, O’Connell, and after him other Roman Catholics, would be able to take up their seats in the House of Commons.
Then in 1834, once again against the will of the Bishops, Robert Peel, during his hundred days’ first administration as Prime Minister, created an Ecclesiastical Commission. Large funds controlled by the Bishoprics and the Cathedrals would now be disbursed in order to provide parish churches in the emerging industrial towns and cities. Thus ministry would be available everywhere with the clergy in every parish receiving a modest income. As a result of an Act of Parliament in 1836, the Commission was turned into a standing body, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In 1948, the name was changed to Church Commissioners. The Church Commissioners still have an important place in the Church of England. Today they control £8 billion, originally derived from funds taken from the Bishops and the Cathedrals, and use the money for the housing and financial support of the clergy.
Anthony Trollope’s novel The Warden written in 1855 gives us a curious insight into the effect on the bishops of the Church of England of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. In the novel, Trollope contrasted the income of his fictional Bishop of Barchester with that of his successor. Bishop Grantly of Barchester was said to have received an income of £8,000 a year in the 1840s. His successor Bishop Proudie, his name indicating his pride and pomposity, found his income reduced, much to his wife’s consternation, to £5,000 a year. This was the impact of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The bishops of the Church of England did not however suffer greatly as their income was reduced. In 1901, the bishop of an ordinary diocese was paid £5,000 a year, the archbishop of York £10,000 and the archbishop of Canterbury was paid £15,000. To point the contrast, at that time, the Prime Minister received £5,000 a year and a senior office clerk was probably in receipt of around £150 a year. Labourers received a good deal less than a pound a week. I suppose from their stipend, the bishops had to find their own expenses. Even so, they were well rewarded for their ministry.
The tally now is more clearly in favour of the State over the Church, rather than the Church over the State. The State has consistently imposed change on the Church, rather than the Church achieving or imposing change on the State. Perhaps this is obvious. The State has all the power. The Church’s power is more subtle, applied more directly to individuals through a ministry of service. But perhaps it seems less obvious that the State should have the effect of imposing so much change unwillingly on the Church. And the story of the relationship between the Church and the State has changed dramatically in recent years. The Church has become largely free of State control.
In the years after the First World War, there began a tentative move known as the Life and Liberty Movement, led among others by William Temple, who would be archbishop of Canterbury for two years before his early death in 1944, allowing the Church of England to set its own regulations and make its own decisions, rather than having them made by Parliament. Parliament had rejected work undertaken by the Church of England on a revised Prayer Book both in 1927 and in 1928. The Church was aggrieved and published the revised Prayer Book in any case; it became widely used, though unauthorised, and therefore technically unlawful. This reverse fuelled a concern in the Church of England to establish its own elected governing body, bishops, clergy and laity coming together in 1970 as the General Synod of the Church of England. In 1974, the General Synod won the power to make its own decisions about worship and doctrine. Archbishop Michael Ramsey, who had been a curate in 1928, very distressed by the decision of Parliament, brought the matter to a culmination on the last day of his ministry as archbishop of Canterbury, on 14th November 1974. There have subsequently been major changes in the style and content of orders of worship in the Church of England.
The Church of England is now largely a self-governing institution not controlled by the State but still strongly linked to it, most characteristically through the position of the Sovereign as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. The Queen opens the newly elected General Synod every five years. And bishops are still formally appointed by the Prime Minister, though now there is an elaborate process of church-based decision-making giving advice to the Prime Minister.
Although there have been political moves, from almost two hundred years ago, to separate Church and State through disestablishing the Church of England, as the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920, nevertheless there is little political steam around the issue in current times. There have been proposals from within the Church that disestablishment could free the Church to be more truly itself, to be more radical and imaginative in its approach to its life and mission. However, despite discussion in recent years, 25 diocesan bishops, including the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of London, Durham and Winchester, continue to sit as members of the House of Lords and participate in debates and votes.
Speaking personally, I am clear that the disestablishment of the Church of England, in other words a radical separation between the Church and the State, would not be for the benefit of the people of our country, and would be for the good neither of the State itself nor of the Church. This came home to me in a vivid way quite early in my time here at the Abbey.
In 2007, the world marked the bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act. This was the act of parliament that had been prepared and argued for by William Wilberforce and others and abolished the British trade in slaves. It did not effectively abolish slavery, and indeed we are conscious in our own day that slavery continues to exist. There is a whole new movement working against slavery in the modern era, in which the Abbey is involved. In March 2007 we marked the two hundred years since the bill had become law with a special service here in the Abbey, attended by The Queen and descendants of slaves and descendants of abolitionists. It seemed to me typical in this country that we should mark an historic moment like this in church. In France, I noted, the President unveiled a statue in a Parisian park. The United Kingdom, unlike France, is not a secular State. It is a country in which national celebrations are in church or at least supported by the Church.
The nature of British society has changed radically since the Second World War. When that war came to an end in 1945, Britain still had an Empire, which would evolve into a Commonwealth of Nations, many of them with The Queen as Head of State. That evolution happened through a very few years, from the independence of India and Pakistan in 1947, to the independence of Ghana in 1957, followed rapidly by what the then Prime Minister Harold Macmillan called a wind of change, with nearly every country of the Empire becoming a republic or a self-governing realm by the early 1960s. The Queen continues as Head of the Commonwealth, and will be succeeded by the Prince of Wales, and relationships continue to be warm and friendly between the Commonwealth countries and the United Kingdom.
And of course this country itself has changed, largely through inward migration from Commonwealth and other countries. This began at a significant level in 1948. The depredations of the Second World War meant that the United Kingdom had a need for additional workers to sustain the life of the nation and to enable post-war recovery. People came first to work here from the West Indies and then people of Asian heritage from parts of Africa, being ejected by new African governments. People came from Pakistan to work in Lancashire at a time when the British cotton industry was subject to foreign rivalry and needed to work a 24 hour day and 7 day week, though the inevitable collapse of the British cotton industry came not many years later.
The need for additional manpower in this country after the war, joined with the aspirations of those arriving to work here have led over the past seventy or so years to a British population now representing almost every nation in the world and every world faith.
There remains therefore an important task: to enable the members of the various world faiths not simply to sit alongside one another but actively to collaborate and cooperate for the good of all their members and indeed for the good of the nation as a whole. There have been and are organisations which aim to bring faith leaders together. Some of them are deliberate attempts to do so for their own sake; others bring faith leaders together for a particular purpose.
It has been a privilege for me for some years to be part of a group of faith leaders brought together for breakfast meetings with the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. We developed a plan for how we should react in the event of a major terrorist incident in the capital city. There would be a fortnight of events culminating in a special service of commemoration in Westminster Abbey. Astonishingly quickly after the plan had been developed, an attack on the Palace of Westminster led to the death of a police officer and other victims in March 2017. The faith communities came together the next day in Trafalgar Square; other events followed including an occupation of Westminster Bridge when Muslim, Christian and other women linked hands to commemorate the victims and to model collaboration. The service here in the Abbey was supported by the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry, who spent time with the families of the victims and the police first responders.
At the annual Commonwealth Day service attended by The Queen and other members of the Royal Family every year, prayers are said from the various faith traditions. This is a wonderful example of collaboration between the faiths, behind which are annual and more regular meetings and other occasions through the year of a similar kind.
Last Tuesday, in my sermon at a celebration of the current Abbey Church’s first 750 years with The Queen, I spoke of the need as I saw it for the Government to be more consistently and positively engaged with the faith communities and to offer practical support and encouragement for their development. I saw this as a positive development of the relationship between Church and State that has characterised the British system.
From my long years in Church education I took one particular example, which I repeat now. One third of our State funded schools have been founded by the Church of England and the Catholic Church and they flourish in our system of maintained education. But too many Muslim children are being educated in poorly funded independent schools. There should be a clear duty on Government to encourage excellent State funded Muslim schools. Irish immigrants in the 19th century were able to study in emerging Catholic schools. That community is fully incorporated in our society. A substantial number of State funded Muslim schools would contribute to similar incorporation, to mutual engagement and flourishing.
In the 19th century and through much of the 20th century, many commentators confidently predicted that religion would fade away and that people would become autonomous, free individuals, able to make their own decisions in life and no longer haunted by the idea of a divine being controlling or manipulating people one way or the other.
There are many signs that religion and religious belief and practice are alive and well. There has been some significant growth for the many denominations and faiths that continue to offer ministry and pastoral care to their adherents and others in this country.
Of course, as with the Church of England, all these denominational and faith communities must continue to have and develop their own particular character. However, the place of religion in our national life needs to be honoured and respected by the organs of the State, and where possible, to be supported and encouraged. This is particularly obvious in the close relationship between Government and the religious communities over Church and other Faith schools. And the principle can be and should be extended.
In 2012, The Queen addressed this issue at an event for the nine major world faiths at Lambeth Palace, the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Her Majesty said, ‘We should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.’