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The rise and fall of English Christendom

By Peter Sellick - posted Tuesday, 27 March 2018


The first time I realised that there was a problem between being a Christian and living in a secular state was when I was sitting in a cinema in 1968. It was the practice of the day to play the national anthem (God Save the Queen) before the movies began during which the audience would stand. I was with my friend, a lecturer in theology. Much to my amazement, he remained firmly in his seat.

The troubled relationship between theological and state power goes back to ancient Israel and the eventual failure of its experiment with kingship. It continued with the crucifixion of Jesus carried out by the occupying Roman state at the behest of the religious authorities. When questioned by Pilate as to whether he was king of the Jews, Jesus replied that his kingdom is not from this world. Christians are exhorted in the New Testament not to be conformed to this world and assured that they are citizens of heaven.

It is clear that the kingdom of God/heaven is not derived from worldly power and that it looks to a higher authority. In a newly published book by Bruce Kaye, who was General Secretary of the Anglican Church in Australia (1994-2004) this tension between royal and ecclesial power is examined in one particular form of Christendom, that of the Church of England.

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Kaye traces the ebb and flow of relationships between the king, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope from before the Norman conquest to the present day. The problem was that if the king of England was to have absolute rule over his dominion, then he could not abide a foreign power (the pope) having any jurisdiction at all. Much of the strife was worked out in the investiture controversy; who had the authority to choose and invest bishops? The solution to this problem was eventually solved by Henry VIII who cut ties with Rome and in the Act of Supremacy (1534) that established the English Monarch as the head of the Church of England. A situation that persists to this day.

Christendom refers to the joint rule of a Christian nation by a Monarch and the head of the Church. In English Christendom, the most successful example was that established by William the Conqueror, his Archbishop Lanfranc and the pope of the time Alexander III. This is when the Anglo-Norman church was established. Unfortunately, this peaceful and productive relationship between the three sources of authority was threatened by popes who wanted to extend their power (Innocent III) or monarchs who could not abide any authority in the land but their own (King John 1199).

The English Christendom was eventually compromised by the presence of Catholics and nonconformist denominations especially in the Australian colonies. The primate of The Anglican Church in Australia displaced the Queen as head of the church when it became autocephalous in 1962. The Church of England in America was severed from its head by the war of independence. The idea that an English monarch could still be head of what became the episcopal Church after the war was abhorrent. The demise of Christendom can be summed up in one word: "democracy". While in the United Kingdom the Church of England is the established church, with the monarch as its head, this has become an anomaly that the democratic spirit will eventually sweep aside (perhaps with the death of Queen Elizabeth).

Kaye's historical treatment of Christendom illustrates how the Church continued to transform itself in order to cope with its changed situations. While the Anglican Communion holds to certain traditions, and looks to a common history, its expression may vary widely depending upon the culture in which it finds itself. This does produce tensions, particularly between African and Western parts of the communion. However this may be the reason the communion holds together.

Kaye brings his analysis to the present day with a discussion of how the Church can be faithful to its Lord while at the same time being subject to civil power. He takes Stanley Hauerwas' point that Christians, being citizens of "another country" must live as strangers and aliens in their own land. Thus, with the elimination of any kind of partnership between civil and Church authorities, Christians are left in an age-old dilemma:

For the much later heirs of the English Christendom, the issue of continuity with both past and present was vastly more complex especially in terms of the institutions from the past. In reality the underlying question was essentially the same, how to live in the present but be bound to a kingdom not of this world and whose ultimate end can only be spoken of apocalyptically. Institutions for continuity were at the centre of the interface between the two worlds in which christians were called to live, this world and Jesus's kingdom not of this world. That has remained the case throughout the whole of christian history. Each age has its own form of the problem, as indeed does the modern world, especially Western Christianity.

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We are now living in the end times of Christendom as my article on the loss of authority of the Church makes abundantly clear. The Church has returned to its pre-Constantinian state and the experiment with theocracy is over. The problem that this state presents is really an opportunity for the Church to live as an alternative to the mores of this world, to plot its own path without the blurring of its identity that always takes place when it comes too close to secular power. We can become again the salt of the earth, the leaven that leavens all of the dough.

As individual Christians this means that the Church must be transformed from a social nicety to radical difference, to become an alternative polity that looks to a kingdom not of this world. It means that individualist Christianity is abandoned for a place in a community. The Church may again take up its prophetic voice and speak truth to all of the powers of the world who are indeed legion. It means that the Church turns away from the ideology of progress and growth and learns to live in patience waiting taking enough for its own needs and no more.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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