Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Whose Erastianism is it anyway?
Erastianism: The doctrine stating that in ecclesiastical affairs the state rules over the church.
One of the arguments that our Roman Catholic detractors like to make, every now and again, is that Anglicanism was simply an Erastian sect created because of Henry's divorce problems. Therefore, they reason, we are supposed to concede that the English Reformation was a bastard child, completely illegitimate, and that, for that reason among their many wild claims, we should all go back to Mama Rome with our tails between our legs, and beseech their indulgence to be allowed back.
Well, of course, it had to be Erastian, right? It was called, after all, the Church of England. Never mind that it had always been called that, and the kings of England had always appointed the bishops, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. Never mind that every church in Europe had been a State Church since before anyone could remember. Never mind that the pope's power to intervene was almost never used throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation era, since wise popes had no cause to be entangled with various national affairs.
Two important considerations need to be weighed against the importance that Roman Catholic polemicists place upon the alleged expanded role of the monarch in English Church affairs. The first is the pastoral responsibility of the English bishops during the reigns of Henry and of Edward, and then during the reign of Elizabeth after the death of Bloody Mary (a title earned by the zeal and volume of persecution).
Whatever one may think about Henry's sexual troubles, or about his attempted solution to the problem of having a male heir, or about the violence he inflicted on those unfortunate enough to serve in his court, he was not the father of the English Reformation. The bishops who survived him, and found themselves serving under the young King Edward, rose to the occasion both before and after Henry's death. Whatever the king's motives, and whatever his methods, the bishops took the opportunity to establish doctrine according to their convictions, and nothing less.
True, it was under Edward's brief reign that they felt liberated to teach fully according to their convictions, and to establish Reformed doctrine without abandoning Catholic Order, striking that balance unique to the English Church. But even before that, the work of the English bishops was not based on the king's divorce problems, nor were those concerns particularly relevant to their pastoral work to teach the way of salvation to the people of England. After the martyrdom of Thomas Cranmer (a man we ought be calling, at least, Blessed) and, of course, so many others, when Elizabeth restored the Catholick Reformation to England, it was the pastoral work of English bishops that restored sound doctrine, and of other English scholars and theologians such as Richard Hooker.
The other important consideration is the simple reality that the Church of England was no more Erastian than the Church of the so-called Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V beginning in 1519, also called Carlos I in his role as King of Spain, which had begun in 1516. He was heir to the Hapsburg dynasty, and in his role as Holy Roman Emperor, if only to demonstrate his absolute power, he briefly imprisoned the Pope himself. This show of power did not go unnoticed, and remained a symbol of the real status quo as a late as the reign of King Phillip (which began in 1556). The papacy was no more a free institution, governed strictly by religious rather than state concern, than the See of Canterbury may have been on Henry's worst day.
Indeed, about Henry's desire for a divorce, a historian may be hard pressed to explain any real difference between what he wanted from the pope, and what the King of France had been granted. Later, concerning the reign of Elizabeth I, the pope was simply a pawn in the power struggle between two empires and their competing commercial interests, interests that led to the pope, in effect, demanding that the people of England weaken themselves by a civil war, murder their Queen, and let themselves be conquered by Spain. Even the mere legalese of our modern insurance industry would label the storm that sank the Armada, an "Act of God." Or, as the scripture says, "Even the wind and sea obey Him." (Mark 4:41)
If we are supposed to be impressed by the logic of our Roman Catholic critics, and to see some Erastian menace as having bastardized our Anglican foundations (for the sake of argument, let us pretend to concede), then the subservience of the papacy, that is, the subjugation of the See of Rome to the Spanish Crown, could have been no less Erastian in practice. Indeed, that subservience was transparent; it was blatantly obvious to all.
So, how important is the charge of English Erastianism? Should it be a practical concern to us? Should it shake our confidence as Anglicans? What matters for us, given the harsh times in which they found themselves, in a historical context that saw no such concept as Religious freedom (not, in any genuine sense, before the Constitution of the United States over two centuries later), was the responsible approach of the English Reformers, as men of God who rose to the occasion. The teaching and pastoral guidance of the Church of England produced a way forward into true and Catholick doctrine, complete with the Gospel proclaimed from its pulpits, and the sacraments administered at its altars.