Friday, 16 March 2012

Not Angels, But Anglicans

It is a strange feature of the Church of England that, for a few more months yet, neither of its Archbishops is currently an Englishman, nor even, I believe it is correct to say, a native speaker of English, although all Welsh-speakers in Wales rather than in Patagonia might as well be. Both Dr Williams and Dr Sentamu are really figures of the Anglican Communion rather than of the Church of England. And the Anglican Communion was overwhelmingly created by people who did not like the Church of England, or very often the English in general.

The Church of Ireland has provided two Presidents of the Irish Republic, including the ardently Irish-speaking first one, both of them in the days when that Republic’s Constitution still laid claim to “the whole island of Ireland”. James Ussher wrote to his Canterbury counterpart as “Brother Primate” and even “Brother Patriarch”; their equality was undoubted on either side. (Ussher’s calculations of the date of creation are by far the least interesting thing about him, and a full biography was quite recently published by Professor Alan Ford of Nottingham, who previously had the questionable pleasure of lecturing me at Durham on the Reformation.)

Anglicans and not Presbyterians may have founded the Orange Order and the Ulster Unionist Party, but the very many who are still in them, and very many are, are fully part of the “Ulster British” culture that includes never cheering for England against anyone, and supporting the Union strictly as a means of defending and of paying for what is really the State of Ulster. Only half of the Church of Ireland is in the Northern Ireland, with the other half cheerfully in the Republic.

The Governing Body of the Church in Wales includes Lord Elis-Thomas, the first person ever elected to the House of Commons specifically as a Welsh Nationalist before becoming the first ever such Peer, although the Leader of Plaid Cymru actively encourages his members to apply, and another previous holder of that office has in fact been ennobled. Most people assume that R S Thomas was a Chapel minister. He was not.

The Episcopal Church in the United States is a product of the American Revolution, deriving its name and orders from the Episcopal Church in Scotland, which then had a recent history of armed insurrection against the Hanoverian monarchy, and which remains heavily concentrated in the area where the SNP is also strongest. Half of all Jacobite fighters throughout these Islands were Scottish Episcopalians, with many Lowlanders among them adopting Highland dress as a sort of Jacobite uniform, leading to the false impression among the English that they were being invaded by Highlanders rather than, as very frequently in reality, by men whose only language was English and who worshipped according to the Book of Common Prayer. Especially in the nineteenth century, American Episcopalians have provided several extremely anti-British Presidents of the United States. I should be amazed if Australian Anglicans were any more or less monarchist or anti-monarchist than the population at large.

Most of the rest of the Anglican Communion’s founding fathers were either hardline Anglo-Catholics or hardline Evangelicals, and had deliberately gone to the ends of the earth, by no means only within the British Empire, in order to escape from the Church of England and start again from scratch, keeping in touch for purposes of spiritual and material support only with parishes whose clergy were, and are, seldom or never made bishops in England. In stark contrast to the Catholic Church in Zimbabwe, the Anglican Church there is closely allied to Robert Mugabe. There were plenty of Anglican clergymen and laymen in the Mau Mau.

And so on, and on, and on.

It is no wonder that there is such bafflement at the smug English oligarchic suggestion that Anglican identity consists in unity with whoever some Muslim or atheist Prime Minister of the United Kingdom chooses to give a seat in the British Parliament and Privy Council. It is not so much that most Anglicans have, say, moved away from that sort of thinking. It is that they had never, ever heard of it in the first place.


  1. How old were you David when you opted to cross the Tiber?

  2. Oh, there's a question. 21 or 22.