Project Canterbury

The Church in Bondage

By R. A. Hilary Knox
Chaplain Fellow of Trinity College Oxford

London: The Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1914.

Three Sermons on the Church of England in the Past, in the Present, and in the Future

Sermon 1. Naboth's Vineyard in Pawn. The Past.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

We are proposing, dear brethren, on these three Sundays, to examine, and, where necessary, to criticize the position in which we stand as members of the Church of England. It is not pleasant, to reopen old sores; it is not always advisable, to wash dirty linen in public; but it is a good thing from time to time to take stock of our position, to face the facts, and to make sure, as the result of our scrutiny, exactly what it is we are driving at.

I know that there are many people who are always [1/2] ready to resent such criticisms, and to stamp them with the name of disloyalty. But loyalty does not mean loving a thing so blindly, as to be blind to its faults; it means loving it in spite of its faults and trying, to the best of your power, to amend them. "England, with all thy faults, I love thee still," is the true attitude of the patriot to his country: and because to a certain extent the Church of England is of human, not of divine origin, we must needs say the same of the Church of England.

There is too much talk nowadays of disloyal priests. If you really like the Church of England just as it is, with all its anomalies and all its disunion, then you have no reason to be proud of remaining a member of it, any more than a man who is in love with life, rich, prosperous, and happily married, can make a merit of not committing suicide. But if you are poor, and disappointed, and in ill-health, then it may cost you some effort, and win you some credit, to resist the temptation to self-murder; just so, if you are profoundly dissatisfied with the Church of England, if you dislike a married priesthood and a vernacular liturgy and Communion in both kinds, and yet remain a member of the Church of England, instead of taking the easy step of submission to the Papacy, then it is time to begin to take credit to yourself for being loyal.

Let us, then, look at our position fearlessly. And firstly, how did we come by it? It is a process not creditable in its origins. As Ahab coveted the vineyard of Naboth, in spite of his own broad possessions, so King Henry the Eighth, not content with the temporal power he could claim over his subjects, determined to be their spiritual master as well. Blessed Thomas More, Blessed John Fisher, and many others, refused, like Naboth, to give up the inheritance of their fathers, and met with Naboth's end. The Reformation in England was cradled in lust and cruelty; but apart from its motives, what was its effect upon the state of the Church?

[3] We all know one answer to that question; most of us were taught it in the nursery. That the poor people in England before the Reformation were oppressed and ignorant and superstitious, the priests immoral and uneducated, that a pious King, Edward the Sixth, and his far-sighted ministers, changed all this from entirely disinterested motives, leaving the Church of England pure and free from unwarranted Papal aggression. And we all know that that view is false, and admitted to be false even by historians who are in no sense Catholic.

There never was any oppression of the poor like that conducted by the nobles at the time of the Reformation. There never was a worse blow dealt at national education than the suppression of the monasteries; there never was a worse educated priesthood than the priesthood in the days of the sixth Edward. Priests may sometimes have been immoral before the Reformation, but it was not necessary then to declare publicly, as the Reformers had to declare, that the unworthiness of the minister did not hinder the effect of the Sacrament; there were not then Bishops who lived in open bigamy, like Scory, the Reforming Bishop of Rochester.

Superstition in the fifteenth century worshipped the winking Rood of Boxley; was it any worse than the superstition which burnt witches wholesale in the reign of James the First? Even Edward the Sixth had peculiar ideas of truth and honesty; his ministers were notorious for rapacity and misgovernment; Elizabeth pocketed the money which Mary had saved out of her own revenues for the restoration of the monastic life. No doubt there were foul deeds done on both sides; but certainly no Englishman has a right to be proud of that period. The nursery view will hardly satisfy us in the light of modern historical research.

And there is another unsatisfying view, the view of the Roman Catholics. According to this, Henry the Eighth simply left the Church of Rome, and founded a new Church, the Church of England, of which he made [3/4] himself Supreme Head. That again is profoundly un-historical. Blessed Thomas More did not die because he objected to Henry the Eighth tyrannizing over a new Church invented the day before yesterday. He died because Henry was tyrannizing over the Church of the ages, the Church of God. Bishop Gardiner did not suffer imprisonment in the Tower because he thought the Second Prayer Book unworthy of a brand-new Reformed Church; he was imprisoned because he thought it unworthy of the Church of the ages, the Church of God.

According to modern Roman theory, More was a fool to die, and Gardiner a fool to be imprisoned; all that they had to do was to go over to the Church of Rome, and leave the Church of England. Why didn't they? Because at that date no one had ever suggested that there were two Churches in England, the Church of England and the Church of Rome; there was only one Church, and that in captivity. Till some years after the accession of Elizabeth there was no such thing as the Church of England existing as a separate body.

Now, what we tend to forget is that the Reformation Settlement was never meant to be anything more than a makeshift, a jury-mast, a temporary compromise which would keep Roman Catholics and protestants together without satisfying either of them. Nobody pretended to like it, not even Elizabeth. You can see the traces of that makeshift arrangement in the Prayer Book itself: "until the Queen shall take further order," "until the said discipline be restored, which is much to be wished." Nobody ever pretends that it is final or satisfactory. The prefaces to the Prayer Book are all in the same strain: "You can't have everything you want; for the sake of public order you've got to use this book, and you'll find yourself in the pillory if you don't."

Only a woman could have invented the Reformation Settlement. For it is the woman's business to serve up [4/5] the remains of what you had hot for dinner last night as a cold lunch for to-day; to darn socks in preference to buying new ones; to cut down her husband's knickerbockers to make trousers for her son. And the Reformation as carried out by Elizabeth was a continual process of darning and patching and cutting down ceremonies, and hashing up odds and ends of the Catholic religion; the result was not meant to be lovely or ideal; it was all plugged up with sealing-wax, and varnished over, and held together with little pieces of string. But it worked. It just worked, and that was all.

But in England, when we have made a compromise, a mere modus vivendi, under stress of some sudden emergency, in a few years we all fall to worshipping it and belauding it and treating it as part of the unalterable design of nature. Sensible people may realize, for example, that the Insurance Act was a useful measure and admit it's the best we can do, without liking it or expecting other people to like it; what they cannot stand is that Liberals should institute a "Joy Day," and go about waving their caps in the air, as if this were what England had been sighing for, whereas it is the plain fact that, however necessary it is, the greater part of England is groaning under it. Just in the same way the Reformation Settlement, which was simply an attempt to make the best of a bad job, soon came to be held up by the Anglican Divines as if it were of God's institution, as if it had anything whatever to do with the primitive Church.

And then the fatal thing happened: persecution arose. When Laud's head fell on the scaffold, when the saying of the Prayer Book Mass became a criminal offence, the Church of England became for the first time a fixed idea in the heart of the nation. Till then no one had ever died for the Church of England. Blessed Thomas More did not die for the Church of England; he died for his idea of what the Church in England ought to be like. Cranmer did not die for the Church of [5/6] England; he died for his idea, quite a different one, of what the Church in England ought to be like. As the result of Cromwell's persecution, the Church of England came to have, in men's minds, a separate existence of its own, but only, as it were, by accident. The Reformation Settlement was never meant to be permanent. In the seventeenth century it became so.

And the Reformation Settlement was never meant to be inclusive. But in the eighteenth century it became so. There is a great deal of nonsense talked about this. Queen Elizabeth didn't mean you to think what you liked, she meant you to think what she liked. She didn't want to include people of every possible school of thought. She meant to include all people who had no fancy for losing their heads on the block, or their ears in the pillory.

A recent Anglican work has summed up the difference between our Church and the Church of Rome in the words: "The Church of Rome says, You must and you shall; the Church of England says, You may if you like." That is grossly unhistorical. The Church of Rome said, You must do this, or you will go to hell. The Church of England said, You must do this, or you will go to prison. That is about the extent of the difference. You had to swallow the Thirty-nine Articles whole, not merely to be a Priest, but to be a Judge, or a Member of Parliament, or an officer in the army, or anything of the sort. The result of this was not to make English people orthodox, but to make them insincere. Sooner than lose their jobs, they would swear to doctrines they did not in the least believe, and receive the Sacrament without faith, and even, if necessary, in mortal sin.

In the eighteenth century belief reached its low-water mark; and people declared their adherence to the doctrines of the National Church, when they were at heart Roman Catholics, or at heart Mohammedans and heretics. And if a thing becomes true in fact in England, it only takes it a hundred years to be true in theory. [6/7] Rightly or wrongly, the Church of England is inclusive to-day, but it was not meant to be. Queen Elizabeth would have put you and me in the Tower in the next room to the Bishop of Hereford.

In the seventeenth century the Reformation Settlement became, what it was never meant to be, permanent. In the eighteenth century it became, what it was never meant to be, inclusive. In the nineteenth century it became, what it was never meant to be, governed by Bishops. Elizabeth's Bishops were her henchmen; they did the work, and, if necessary, had the responsibility shifted on to them. The Caroline Bishops ruled the Church, but they ruled it in virtue of the Court of Star Chamber and the Court of High Commission. They had authority, but it came straight from the Crown. They never pretended to be primitive Bishops, each a Pope in his own diocese. The jurisdiction which had been taken away from the Naboth of the Vatican, had been vested, for practical purposes, in the Crown. By the nineteenth century it had devolved, from the Crown, into the hands of a Parliament full of Jews and unbelievers, and a Privy Council which nobody ever pretended to take seriously.

The Bishops were meant to be a kind of ecclesiastical body of police, spying on their clergy and handing over delinquents to the arm of the law. But the persecution begun on those lines was so unpopular that the Bishops proceeded in future to bear rule over their clergy as if in their own right. Rightly or wrongly, a large part of the clergy is content to be so ruled. But as a matter of law, when a modern Bishop says (as they frequently do), "This is illegal, but I will allow you to do it," he is doing precisely what the policeman round the corner does, when he consents, in consideration of half-a-crown, not to summon you for riding on the footpath. By refusing of licences and withdrawing of grants the Bishops have become, what they were never meant to be, rulers of the Church.

[8] And now, what is the practical moral to be drawn from this review of the past? Surely this, that the Church of England has quite failed to be what it was meant to be, and therefore it remains for us to determine what it shall become. From week to week, like Samson breaking loose from the bonds of the Philistines, its growing energies snap more and more of the red-tape restrictions in which it was once so carefully enclosed.

We are the Church of England. Naboth's vineyard is committed into our hands; it is for you and me to train its tendrils, to dig it and dung it with constant labour, to root out the rampant weeds of heresy that flourish within its broken-down hedges. Strong in the power of no human or secular support, but fortified with the grace of our enduring Sacraments, and guided by the Spirit of God who bears witness in his Church, we have to labour and fight for our religion, not to live and die peaceably in the assurance of its consolations. We have to fight, not for our own spiritual comforts or conveniences, not for our private preference in lace and Church furniture, but for the honour of God, for the worship that is due from us, day and night, to Jesus in the holy Sacrament of the Altar, for the dignity of the holy Mother of God, whose dowry, whether we will it or no, has been left on our hands.

We have got to convert England. We are not meant to dwell proudly on our chequered history, and refer, with the vanity of Englishmen, to our glorious heritage, and our incomparable liturgy. Rather, by the purity of our lives and the steadfastness of our faith even unto death, we are to strengthen the things which remain, which are ready to die, that at the last, like faithful and wise stewards, we may be found worthy to enter into the joy of our Lord.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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