By Chip Prehn
Late one night in 1985, I was walking around the inside of Canterbury Cathedral in good company. I was seeing that stupendous building for the first time with an American bishop who knew the place well and a canon of Canterbury who had the keys. We were the only human beings there. It was approaching midnight. Earlier in the evening we had enjoyed a splendid repast at the Beehive, a restaurant known for its preparation of fresh Dover sole and a very decent cellar. I was thus enchanted with Canterbury even before we entered the colossal cathedral.
When we stepped inside the cavernous building, we were met with an unusual quiet. The silence and the darkness were soon complemented by the tapping sound of our shoes and the one or two lights overhead which the canon made happen with obvious track-record and skill. How beautiful! How wonderfully suggestive and moody was that place at that moment! The atmosphere inspired each of the visitors to awe and an honest reverence. I could not believe my good fortune and the blessing of it.
We went directly down the steps into the crypt area. Here the bishop said a prayer while standing over anonymous stones beneath which were the mutilated earthly remains of St. Thomas of Canterbury. The bishop considered St. Thomas one of his patrons. This was I think fitting because this bishop had paid for his allegedly conservative but definitely orthodox beliefs.
As we made our way slowly up the steps from the crypt into the church, massive and dark, the Canon switching lights on and off so we could see this and that, the bishop rehearsed the story of St. Thomas and King Henry the Second. Conflict between priests and princes fueled the conversation for a time, then we moved to the topics of the Church of England as a “state church,” the conflict between church and state, and the usefulness of the English monarch as the supreme governor.
“We don’t have to worry much about church and state in the United States,” I said. “And since we have no kings, we’re not likely to be braining any archbishops!” It was a very American thing to say, in more ways than one. Fresh out of seminary, I erroneously presumed that my contribution to the conversation was learned, wise, and reasonable. My bishop frowned. The canon grinned.
“There were established churches in the thirteen colonies,” said the canon. “And I mean besides the Church in Virginia.”
“But after the Revolution, they were all disestablished,” said I.
“No,” said the canon, “the Congregational Church was not disestablished in Massachusetts until the 1830s.”
This fact the Briton knew and I did not, and I said so. In a few minutes, the canon spoke again.
“The motto E pluribus unum is a good idea, but not always put into practice, at least when it comes to religion. The assumption at the founding of the USA, and for long after, was that everyone ought to be Protestant. So there really was an established church in the United States, I mean when you think about it. And that church was established well into the twentieth century. Your Catholics noticed this quite early.”
Neither had I heard this proposition ever before. I might have replied that the idea was “very interesting,” but I was too full of a certain kind of patriotic ideology to appreciate what was being proposed.
The bishop interrupted us, saying, “I think conflict between church and state is coming in the United States.” His hands were joined behind his back. He was sticking out his lower jaw a bit and looking way up to the vaulted ceiling which evoked transcendence in its design, the light, and the shadows.
We walked in silence by the tomb of the Black Prince, the extraordinary son, heir, and knight of King Edward the Third who died an admired prince before he had reached his prime. In part to assuage his grief, the king founded the chivalric Order of the Garter. It is interesting how much the memory of an admirable young man can influence an entire people for almost seven hundred years.
TThe monarch has an important role to play in England,” said the canon. The bishop required no tuition in this subject and nodded. I was all ears.
With both hands, the canon flipped some switches in the transept where St. Thomas was attacked and slain by four knights seeking the favor of Thomas’s old friend the king. He said, “The Queen can take on a cause independent of or even against the government, for example. She does not often do this. But she can do it because she is an independent force in the polity. She is the head of the nation without being the head of the government. It is a great advantage for the whole realm.”
I had never considered this.
The canon of Canterbury continued without pulling any punches. “Oh think of it! Queen Elizabeth could directly oppose the Prime Minister, if she wanted to. She would never abuse this privilege, of course; it’s not in her nature. But she could exercise this prerogative if she chose to do so. Moral suasion is her way and, I would say, her calling. She has the stature and the influence to serve as an advocate for one forgotten group of people and in this way could effect changes. Or she could back a Prime Minister as he faces down an erring Parliament. She could declare that Great Britain should not go to war. She could be a voice on behalf of one poor widow living in Liverpool, and everyone in England would listen to her. She might support a bishop or an archbishop who is doing the right thing and is hated for it. This is because the crown is independent of the government. She’s the best Churchman we have.”
“No, we don’t really have this situation in the United States, do we?” mused the bishop.
The canon agreed. “Your head of state is the chief of a political party.”
I thought about this, and I have thought about it since. His was an important observation of what is perhaps a weakness in a democratic republic. I said to the canon something not very well informed about the separation of powers and the Supreme Court or the Senate or the House of Representatives being able to act on behalf of some group. The canon seemed doubtful. The bishop was not so sure.
“Who in the United States protects a religious minority?” asked the bishop. “I don’t mean who protects the minority from the state or the IRS. I mean – who protects the minority from its own opposition within the denomination? The denomination may try to destroy the minority within the fold. The way things work is that the denomination may in fact expel or virtually destroy the lambs who dissent from a decision or a policy or a change. But the minority can’t really appeal to the state, can it? No. The state will say it does not want to deal with a religious matter, that to do so would violate the constitution. It is a flaw in the system. The minority has little recourse against the majority or even against an elite minority holding the power.”
“Well then,” laughed the canon, “You need a queen – especially like ours!”
I had never considered this question in my entire life, but I have considered it a good bit since that midnight tour in Canterbury Cathedral in ’85.
I have not been opposed to a few of the innovations in the Episcopal Church since the 1970s, but the changes often created sudden minorities and these minorities had little continuing voice within their own denomination. “That’s democracy,” people will say, “if you don’t like democracy, maybe you should move to another country.”
I am quite ashamed of the way the majority of Episcopalians, and the hierarchy as a whole, have handled religious minorities in the last fifty years. Promises were made that were not kept. Good Episcopalians were called “medieval” or otherwise backwards, or they were told that they lack the sense of justice and need to pray for charity. (Plenty of them did pray for more charity in their church.) I favored the new Prayer Book, but I was aghast at the way so many otherwise fine clergy of any number of theological outlooks belittled, insulted, and dismissed any Episcopalian who questioned the change in the early 1980s. I have always believed that it is the Holy Spirit Who must bring real and necessary changes to the Church. I do not see the Holy Spirit as one and the same thing as clever power politics.
Sometimes I get the feeling that the “democracy” of the Episcopal Church too much reflects the “democracy” of the Republic: the vocabulary of inclusion and the language of generous progress are used by the de facto elite to conceal the real business at hand which can be boiled down to power and control behind the scenes. Since this dynamic has underlain most of human history, whether in monarchies or republics, there is no use Episcopalians denying it. And this fact puts a question well beyond the boundaries of this article: By what means and in what manner—according to what political philosophy—should a sincere follower of Jesus the King be both governed and given his or her liberty?
The power politics of General Convention (I have never met a deputy who can say he or she enjoyed this triennial gathering, on balance), the facile “this-is-how-America-works” philosophy regnant in the decision-making process (which includes the insinuation “love it or leave it”), the significant abbreviation of discussion itself in the 2022 synod, the maneuverings of ecclesiastical politicos (they do seem to enjoy what they have gradually made in their own image): These developments have effectively destroyed the Episcopal Church as most of us knew and loved it. She was once a theologically diverse body reflecting the considerable complexity of historic Anglican Christianity. The terrible irony is that TEC has made no progress in one sense: TEC remains a particular and very recognizable single type “at prayer.” TEC is diverse in some very important and delightful ways, but in other very important ways TEC is narrower and more sectarian than it has been in over a century.
We are missing something. For two hundred years, theological diversity obtained in TEC. As an ecclesial entity, we finally acknowledged that our WASP hegemony discouraged many other kinds of people from feeling comfortable in our fold. Beginning with Bishop John Hines, we worked hard to redress the obvious imbalance. This is good news! But did we lose sight of other kinds of diversity, perhaps just as important? If the agnostic E.O. Wilson is going to be authoritative in church matters, why don’t we follow through with real diversity?
Back when TEC was more religiously diverse, being diverse could be unpleasant at times. Back in those days, we all accepted the trope that “democracy can be messy” with alacrity, because we all felt more or less welcome. When you feel loved and welcomed, you will be a good sport when your view gets outvoted for a season. The conflict, for example, between the Low Church and the budding Anglo-Catholic movement in the 1840s is not all that savory. There were ugly episodes. One advocate would dismiss another with a “sulfurous snort” (Carlyle). There were also marvelous, impassioned speeches that—regardless of which cause they advanced—helped define who we are as a religious body. One party naturally wished at times that the other party or parties would just go away and die on the vine. But Episcopalians did not let that happen, and the church held together. I must seriously doubt whether the fact that most of the voting membership were of the same social class was the only reason why the Episcopal Church held together.
In any case, I confess as a man with ancestors who fought the bloody British that I sometimes wonder if a monarch serving as supreme governor could have been of great service to us Anglicans on this side of the Atlantic in the last twenty-five years especially? Perhaps a queen or a king could have urged warring parties to desist and accept each other as equal siblings in the same family. Perhaps he or she could have put an end to winner-take-all politics in the American Church. It is difficult to ascertain how much the English monarch is responsible for it, but the Church of England has clearly entered the post-postmodern era with members of all the various parties in good standing — and each group holding views as diverse as American Episcopalians have ever held. Simply put, TEC failed to accomplish this feat. What really takes the breath away is that key leaders in TEC appear not to care much about this outcome. This is a shame. The late Bishop of West Texas in the early 1990s would tell his clergy a very wise thing: “Being right about something is a terrible reason to destroy a community.”
And what if the teachings and emphases of a religious minority in a church turn out to be true? Has not this been the case rather often in the history of religions? In this case, the American constitutional arrangement replicated by an American ecclesiastical entity will have excluded the truth by the “free” exercise of raw majoritarian power.
In fact, a number of the Founders of the United States were quite concerned lest a tyranny of the majority would take control of the central government of the United States. They were reasonably happy with the Constitution as they drafted and understood it, but this was a lingering concern among the Federalists and others including that great aristo-democrat, Thomas Jefferson.
It stands to reason that these circumspect leaders of the early Republic held onto their fear of majoritarian tyranny as they considered American religious bodies. I am not yet familiar enough with the sources or the scholarship to confirm or deny the idea. De Tocqueville famously addressed the majoritarian threat in his Democracy in America (1835), which appears to be more read than ever before. But in his astonishingly wise and prescient treatise, the curious Frenchman did not address whether a democratic-republican constitution might protect the religious rights of a minority within the larger ecclesial body. What is as likely as another explanation is that most Signers and Drafters were so conditioned by the frequently fissiparous religion of Americans that it was assumed by those who set the national course in Philadelphia that a religious minority would, of course, have the liberty to have the courage of one’s convictions and start a new church. This would go hand-in-hand with the Enlightenment belief that religious disagreements are hardly worth the trouble, much less fighting over. Hence the majority should then just send the dissenters away with their jewels and victuals, never neglecting the fair-the-wells for the sake of good commerce.
These are still mere musings of one who stumped his tow on an idea while on a late-night stroll through Canterbury Cathedral. I was an ignorant young priest, but the Canon and the Bishop cared enough to mentor me and to suggest ways how I might think independently of the herd in a pan-Atlantic manner. I can hear those words of the bishop – “Conflict between church and state is coming” – and I cannot forget the canon’s daring to suggest that monarchy could be a useful thing for Americans. He hoped to get a rise out of the red-blooded American, but I see now that he was both pretty serious and not naïve about the subject.
God rest their souls in peace, the monarchist English canon and the prophetic American bishop. I shall look for them, if I make it, in the Beehive of Heaven.
And may God rest in peace the soul of the monarch they both admired and loved, Elizabeth Regina. I pray that the glory Christ promised to His own dear lambs is hers today. For she was a strong Christian monarch who kept the Faith and endeavored, sometimes against large odds, to love the good and to do it.