View from the Rectory - November 2019




One of the challenges of an editorial deadline two weeks prior to the end of the month is that with events moving so fast comment quickly becomes outdated. That might seem a fair excuse to avoid such a contentious subject as Brexit and certainly I have no intention of using this column to advocate a particular cause. In truth, the longer it goes on the more confused I become and should we have a general election soon, or indeed a further referendum, I’d be sorely tempted to stay away from the polling station altogether. That said, the Brexit dilemma is fascinating for what it reveals about our national character and identity. This is not the first time that we have attempted to refashion our relationship with the greater part of Europe in the face of opposition both at home and abroad. By the Act of Supremacy (1534) Henry VIII declared himself to be Supreme Governor of the Church in England. This was not primarily a religious matter. Henry’s matrimonial problems are well known but what made his action possible  was  a growing consciousness of the nation state. At the time Spain was just emerging from centuries of Muslim domination and much of Europe was a patchwork of princedoms and ducal provinces under the loose federation that was the Holy Roman Empire. Only England and France were well established as nations and the more wealthy and confident they became the more their rulers  resented the influence of Rome, effectively a foreign jurisdiction operating in their realms through the church. Henry’s act of 1534 was effectively a nationalisation of ecclesiastical resources, a garnering of all papal authority to the crown thus maximising its wealth and authority. If asked, what then is the Catholic Church? Henry and his advisors would have argued that it is a fellowship of national episcopal churches much as the Anglican Communion is today.  Henry was hopeful that the king of France would follow suit but in the event he realised that the forces ranged against him were too great and therefore England became something of an ecclesiastical anomaly.

The isolation of the English Church left it susceptible to developing Protestant ideas and from the reign of Henry’s daughter Elizabeth  (1558-1603) to the Restoration of Charles II (1660) the church was fought over by parties with widely varying preferences for a religious settlement. The Puritans were  the ardent Brexiteers of the day who wanted root and branch reform severing all links with the past. The Recusants (amongst whom were Guy Fawkes and friends) were the arch remainers seeking a way to restore papal authority and the Latin Mass. In between were the majority of folk who were reasonably content with the Elizabethan Settlement which was in many ways sufficiently vague to provide a home for all but the dogmatic leavers and remainers.  For those who are heartily sick of the Brexit debate this comparison with past events does not augur well. The dispute raged for a hundred years and even after the restoration of Charles II it wasn’t really settled. Disputes as to the true identity of the Church of England were reignited in the 19th Century in fierce debates between Anglo-Catholics and Evangelicals and to the present day have not really been resolved. It’s just that the focus of interest has long since moved elsewhere.  If there is anything to be learned from this I suggest it is that the temperament of this nation is such that we seldom, if ever, yield to the extremes of either side. Ideological purity is something from which we tend to recoil.  In the 16th C  we left, and I imagine that we will leave again, but, more than likely, the settlement will be a compromise acceptable to most but leaving some frustrated and embittered.

Elizabeth’s settlement of religion in 1559 was more about political expediency than religious principle. As such it was attacked and ridiculed by zealots of both extremes. Yet the more it was attacked the more its virtues were revealed and from the 1570s onwards it had a succession of eloquent defenders including Bishop John Jewel of Salisbury, the great theologian Richard Hooker and the celebrated clergy poets, John Donne and George Herbert.  At a less exalted level it was parish priests like the then Rector of West Parley, Robert Tower, who really made the Settlement work as a via media between extremes even when they themselves didn’t particularly like it.   Tower’s ministry here began in 1537 only three years after Henry’s break with Rome. He was nurtured in the Latin Mass and his reluctance, 30 years later, to refashion the old chalice into the seemly communion cup as commanded by the authorities  indicates where his preferences lay. He was a reluctant user of the new English rites but he was also a conformist. Ultimately he did what was required of him but he did so in a spirit sympathetic to all that he treasured from the past. This would have brought comfort to parishioners for whom the church and its ancient rites gave sacred meaning to times, seasons and events. Priests like Tower softened the harsh blows of the Reformation to the extent that by the 1590s – when the very aged Tower was still in West parley – parishioners in many places were defending the Prayer Book against Puritan agitators. What had once been a threat to tradition had, under the custodianship of a reluctantly conformist clergy, become the repository of tradition. It was this process which gave birth to a distinctively Anglican identity and method, something which neither leavers nor remainers would have forecast in the early years of the Reformation.

Little has been written about the religious implications of Brexit for the very good reason that whereas in the 16th C religion was at the heart of everything, it now struggles to find any place at all in the public square. The world and our nation are vastly different from what they were in the age of the first Brexit  but we musn’t underestimate the strengths of those threads which run through our history. The spirit of pragmatism and compromise forged in the heat of Reformation is with us still. It suggests to me that in the first instance few people will be happy with the Brexit  we get but that in time we will make it work.

Charles Booth


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