The Anglican (Protestant Church of England) church set in a formerly beautiful park on the cliffs above Puerto de la Cruz (Tenerife) is a thriving church community, endowed with two exceptionally fine pieces of architecture: the church itself, and its attendent rectory. The Anglican British community in the town see to it that their place of worship is full at every service. A visitor from Mars might be justified in noting that the Protestant church, at any rate in the Canary Islands, is popular and populous. The same cannot be said for the state of the Anglican Church ‘at home’ in England.
There, the world-wide Anglican Communion has its jewel in the crown, with the Queen as its titular head. The Church of England was established during the 16th century by a Protestant reformation in revolt against the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. Henry VIII broke with Rome for marital reasons of his own, and his minister Thomas Cromwell oversaw the creation of a Protestant church in England, confiscating land and buildings of Catholic provenance, and driving the priests either to seek shelter in the houses of Anglo-Catholics in the north and west, or emigrate as best they could. Both Henry and his doomed son Edward VI manoeuvred to establish Protestant doctrines and practices. The work was continued under Elizabeth I, who formalised Anglican principles. The second Book of Common Prayer was revised in Edward’s brief reign with some modifications (1559), and its use was formally enforced by the Act of Uniformity. In 1563 the Thirty-Nine Articles were issued by the highest authority of the new church as a statement of its beliefs and practices.
The idea was to establish a national, episcopal church with the monarch as supreme governor –in fact a species of protestant Pope. Those who refused to attend Anglican Church services were fined or worse. The Queen opposed all attempts to modify her Anglican Church. Roman Catholics who would not give up their faith became known as recusants. Whether or not they survived depended on power, wealth and position. The Howard Dukes of Norfolk, for instance, never converted, and the present Duke is unofficial head of the Catholics in England.
During the 20th century theological liberalism arose, seeking emphasis on the need for the Church to adapt to modern knowledge and conditions. This led to a diversity of views, emerging clearly in the controversy over ordination of women: the Church of England’s Synod voted to admit women to the priesthood in 1992.
Loss of faith and growing scepticism developed in the England of 1920 – 1960. Two devastating world wars and countless smaller ones had had a serious effect on all thinking Englishmen and women. Those struggling to stay firm in their belief were not helped by Anglican bishops who made public their doubts. A prominent cleric (Dr. Hewlett Johnson) was known as ‘The Red Dean’, because he believed that Stalin had established ‘an earthly paradise’. 300,000 copies were sold of a book by the suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, Dr. J.A.Robinson. The book was a distillation of the Bishop’s favourite German theologians, called Honest to God – a short paperback written after a trying attack of lumbago. Archbishops of York and Canterbury have puzzled Anglicans by peculiar statements, or just by being peculiar themselves. Ramsey Archbishop of Canterbury wrote of his colleague and successor, Donald Coggan, ‘I liked him and was as yet unaware of his glaring deficiencies’. Ramsey was the hundredth Archbishop of Canterbury, an appointment of Harold Macmillan. He is historically significant. A.N. Wilson has written about him, ‘Michael Ramsey . . . systematically and deliberately set in place the means to dismantle the Church of England.’ Geoffrey Fisher had preceded Ramsey as Archbishop, as well as having been his Headmaster at Repton. He told Macmillan that he did not consider Ramsey a suitable successor.
With the coming of mass education, most English people had, by the 1960s, ceased to hope and pray for eternal felicity after death, in an Anglican heaven, replacing the discipline with a new belief in their right to happiness in this world.
The English national character is now unwell. Some say mortally ill. What used to distinguish the English character was its tough Protestantism, now vanished but not replaced. What could replace it? Some of us think that the English have become a nation without a national character.
But what did we mean by it? Protestantism used to mean an acceptance of austerity, honesty, modesty, an unshakeable belief in the wrongness of being drunk, a rejection of fanaticism in any form, and trust in our elected governors. Foreigners used to be amazed by the English capacity for self-control, sometimes disparaged as ‘the stiff upper lip’. It has been said that this dedication to self-discipline encouraged and galvanised the economy, though it might have restricted the imagination. It has also been said, perhaps correctly, that the Church of England’s form of Christianity was moralistic and to a certain extent inhumane.
Travellers in modern England who care about such things report that the religious centres maintained by the Church of England are lifeless, frequently empty, both of congregation and thought. What has happened? Is religious decline down to modern society? Could it be an internal turmoil found within the national religion itself? Most people questioned in national polls give the answer that they have found it easy (and easier) to believe without belonging, which would explain the absenteeism at Matins.
The decline has not been an easy one. Never smooth. There have been occasional resurgencies, measured by church attendance figures, Sunday schools, revival missions (Billy Graham!), media coverage (stars expounding their religious belief on television), surveys of attitude etc. The decline of the Church of England is undeniable, even if attendance within the limits of the Bishopric of Gibraltar (in other words, in foreign lands) is high. Some say that the Church of England is a comatose patient, if not actually dying. Not a month goes by without news of more Anglican priests converting to Rome. This is a sad story, and it is the story of England in the latter half of the 20th and beginning of the 21st. It is no longer any good to rely on the centuries-old adage, “I know what I believe”. In the old days, it was scripture that kept the contentious potential of this aspect under control. There were ideas, you know, within English Protestantism which were a ready-made threat to itself, and which existed, perhaps not very actively, a long time before 1920. Maybe they had been active since knowledge spread of the irreligious ideologies of the French in 1789.
Some thinkers talk of religion in England having ‘lost its influence’, but does that mean that religious decline is imposed by impersonal force? It is a question of choice. The English have chosen to reject the religion imposed upon them in the fifteenth century, with its panoply, its disciplines, its church schools, its archbishops and their palaces. Almost every English town or village has lost its vicarage because the Church of England sold it. The rectory was where the rector lived, and exercised a considerable influence, mostly for good, over the villagers.
England has become a lay community, not over-disciplined, not over-sober, preferring idleness to toil, motor transport to Shanks’s pony, sex with many as opposed to faithful marriage, and a devout betrayal of prayer. What will become of us?