Please bear with the twisty-turns of this thought-process...
Who can forget the words of Thomas More in A Man for all seasons that the King’s Supremacy was in direct contradiction to the rights of the Church granted in Magna Carta and in the King’s own coronation oath, along with something about the Bishop of Rome being granted supreme powers while Christ was personally present on earth? Such words haunt us as Anglicans, but are they accurate? Eight-hundred years after Magna Carta’s signing, what does it all mean for us?
It appears that More made a study of the matter (as so many scholars did at Oxford) prior to his execution and could not see any evidence that the King could be confirmed as Supreme Head of the Church. In this, Cranmer was the better scholar, being aware and honestly admitting that the Emperor of Constantinople, as an anointed head of Church and State, had acted in such a capacity until very recently, until the fall of the New Rome. As an aside, following the Battle of Hastings, the Anglo-Saxon royal family went to Constantinople; you see, the ties between the Anglo-Saxon monarchy and Constantinople were strong. The interference of the Papacy in the affairs of state had led to the Anglo-Saxon downfall, as William the Bastard had been given the throne instead of Harold. It was not the first time that the Pope had stuck his oar in across the English Channel, and it would not be the last.
It is noteworthy that we see an outbreak of Caesar-Papism (the rule of the Church by a monarch) in England and in Russia following the Fall of Constantinople. Arguably, synod/conciliar/sobernost rule does not die out prior to the Reformation but, in both East and West, makes its most noticeable resurgence in the Reformation churches and in Russia. The Russian Czar sees himself as the continuation of the Emperor of Constantinople in opposition to the Bishop of Rome and the King of England settles the question that had been on everybody’s mind for centuries: who runs the Church of England?
In fact, we could also bring the Augsburg Confession into the mix. In the late Tenth Century, you see a good deal of pagan kings become Christian around the same time: Vladimir of Kiev in 988, Mieszko of Poland in 966, Olaf Trygvasson of Norway in 984. Similarly, King Henry did not move towards a break with Rome until he had, on paper, what exactly the Reformation on the Continent was all about, in the words of the Augsburg Confession. Arguably, he did not like what he was hearing through the grapevine about Dr. Luther and that ilk. But when the written words from the noblemen at Augsburg came through, it was at that time that Henry started to relax. It is not certain that because one followed the other that one caused the other, but, incidentally, one can see that Denmark-Norway-Iceland (one kingdom) join the Reformation in 1536, Sweden does so in that same year.
Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy is in 1534, just four years after the Augsburg Confession was presented by noblemen to the German Emperor and the Ten Articles of 1536 come in the same year as all of Scandinavia joins the Reformation. This is often overlooked, but the unmentioned fact may be that there is a tendency for the Princes of the Germanic-Scandinavian tribes to move as a whole. They did so in the Eleventh Century (Vladimir was a Viking, not a Russian) and they did so again at the Reformation. The strong connection between Scandinavia and England can be evidenced by pointing out that parts of the United Kingdom at one time were under a Norwegian Archbishop. The Reformation of the Germanic-Scandinavian countries was a Prince-led Reformation in many ways, just as those tribes’ original conversion to Christianity was a conversion that was Prince-led. The Reformation sparked by the noblemen of the Augsburg Confession is in many ways a Reformation towards Caesaro-Papism.
But what does Magna Carta have to do with all of this? A great deal, one might say. If Magna Carta, as Thomas More claims, is against the King of England being supreme it is equally against the Bishop of Rome sticking his oar in… the Thames. To say that Thomas More’s view is the only Catholic view is supremely Roman Catholic, but it is not necessarily Catholic or Orthodox.
Leading up to Magna Carta, to the “first limitation of the rights of a king” was a controversy about where the power of the Church (and especially the election of a bishop) lay and there were three possibilities: Locally, Papal-y, or Monarchical-ly. In this case, the Monarch and the Pope were (briefly) on the same side. They both were interfering with a local election, in this case election by the monks of Canterbury who had traditionally elected the Archbishop of Canterbury.
One Roman doctor of theology told me, “autocephaly [self-rule] doesn’t work” – and this he spoke as much against Orthodoxy as he did against Anglicanism. But to say so is to ignore the fact that nobody is as “autocephalous” as the Benedictines (each house is independent and they are democratic), and that in the hands of the Benedictines was the mission of the Church in Europe at one point. We generally talk about the Bishop of Rome, as commander-in-chief, overseeing and directing the missionary efforts of the whole Church. Yes, he sent out missionaries during the middle ages. Yes, he sent out St. Augustine of Canterbury to Canterbury. But the “estates” of power in the Western Church are three: Papal, Monarchical, and Local. All three can serve or hinder the missionary effort of the Church. All three did.
Now, a monastery needs the approval of the local Bishop, it is true. The whole church since the beginning seems to be, as one priest said to me “an urban religion.” Yes. A diocese is headquartered in a city and a parish is generally out in the country. But a western monastery was almost always, until the Thirteenth Century, in the rural areas. It is true that Nicaea outlined that there could only be one orthodox bishop per city, but parallel to that reality, in communion with that reality, was the Celtic Church, where the Abbots and his monks chose the bishops and sent them out to do the mission of the Church. In the Celtic Church, we see this third principle most clearly; it was rural, familial and monastic. The centers of this church were rural, not cities; this church is not diocesan, it is associative and cross-geographic, we might even say, denominational. A Celtic Monastery is set up (much like an “order” of the later church, and in many respects like orthodox monasteries – which seem to excommunicate each other at will) as a connection of associative monasteries - monasteries that sent out bishops, strangely enough. This again, although very rural, was in communion with the Roman churches both East and West until, at least, the Synod of Whitby.
In the mission to the Anglo-Saxons under St. Augustine of Canterbury we see perhaps the most ideal symbiotic action between the three “estates”: The Pope sends, the King authorizes, the Monastery establishes the Church in England. After that, all bets are off. We see the fights between local elections/kings and the Pope (St. Chad versus St. Wilfred); between Kings and Pope/Local popularity (Henry II versus St. Thomas Beckett); and the “final” showdown between the King and Pope, with greater or lesser local popularity, in the English Reformation. This isn’t the only place we see such a matter. On the continent, the same tension exists, not just the “Investiture Controversy” or the “Conciliar Movement” but also with the monasteries: Sometimes monasteries in France, for example, side with a king, sometimes against a king and with the Pope.
Magna Carta establishes that the Church of England “shall be free” – free with all its ancient rights and privileges. But the optimum thing I think that we should always remember, and history bears this out, is the Church “shall be free.” Remember that there are three different organs or “estates” of power in the Church: Patriarch, King and Monastery/Chapter House/Local Parish. Each one can serve or interfere with the ultimate mission of the Church, to proclaim the Gospel. Each one did and does. That is why the Church (which like the “Jerusalem Above” is free and not in bondage) constantly bobs and weaves throughout the middle ages, for the sake of the Gospel. She still does.
How does this matter for today? The Roman juridical view (and with greater or lesser extent the Protestant view) is that the Church is an organization with Sacraments. The Orthodox/Celtic/Monastic model is that the Church is a Sacrament with organization (and this view, although I do not believe it is his idea originally, I credit to His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA). This does not set aside the importance of Holy Orders, but remember that the Rule of St. Benedict establishes no regula concerning the Blessed Sacrament, the Saying of Mass, Baptism, etc. There is, in fact, much more in the Celtic monastic rules about the Mass than there is in The Benedictine Rule. We know that monasteries have Sacraments, but as the Church it is “a Sacrament with organization”. The Monastery should for the sake of good order submit to the local bishop (or under unusual circumstances – for the sake of its freedom to be a sign proclaiming the Gospel - to a Patriarch or King). Submitting to a King or Prince is ultimately what the Lutheran monasteries did. A monastery while regulated by a bishop also regulates (in a very specific sense) a bishop, in that it provides many Bishops and Priests their regula, their rule, training and discipline of prayer, and often (and always in the Eastern Church) the Bishop is a monk. Historically, the King allows admittance to preachers to preach in his land, and this is another means of the checks and balances (mutual-regulation) of power.
Now back to the matter of the Magna Carta: It had a grand influence on the English Bill of Rights, then the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It also had an influence on the American Church. For America, England’s Parliament and King had not been serving the people well; neither had it served the Church well. At first, the Church of England (especially the Bishop of London) was hesitant to provide Bishops to America; later America did not seem to want Bishops. The result was that no one was confirmed without going to England, nobody was ordained without a boat ride either. Here two organs and estates of the Church (King and Episcopate) were defective in their serving the mission of the Church in America. This resulted in attempts such as Methodism and others to secure an Episcopate for America. In fact, the American Church situation prior to the establishment of the Protestant Episcopal Church is interesting because it is a diocesan-less missionary effort: It lacks local Episcopacy, is overseen by the Bishop of London, helped by societies, and “established” by colonial governments, but it remains a Sacrament with pseudo-organization, not an organization with sacraments.
Eventually, we see the local effort in which Samuel Seabury is sent off to be consecrated by the Non-Juring church, itself something of an organizational anomaly. This is looked down upon as it was an “irregular” election by ten missionaries of the Society for Propagating the Gospel who elected Seabury and off he went on a boat ride to find consecration. But, in this sense, it is no less irregular than a monastery electing a bishop; in fact, if you consider the connection between the Celtic monasteries and mission work and the missionary nature of the SPG, it bears an uncanny resemblance. Clearly, this election of Seabury corresponds to the local/monastic-type organ/estate of the Church. Seabury's election was looked down upon because it was an unelected “representation” of the Church and was looked down upon by Bishop White, who was elected under the principles of representative democracy. Even White's election, however, is still an example of the local organ of the Church.
We have a continuation of this in the “Continuing Anglican” model. Fast forwarding, the early continuing bishops in America were elected by similar small groups, for example Bishop Dees. And such bishops were early looked upon by the “Congress of St. Louis” - that body which formed the Continuing Anglican churches in North America - as the early Episcopalians looked upon the election of Samuel Seabury, an election by people who didn’t significantly represent anybody. But then, what made the “Congress of St. Louis” much better than the election of Seabury by missionaries of the SPG? The Congress was, after all, an assembly of members of societies, sometimes the delegates of parishes.
Going forward, while the role of the English Parliament in the election of Bishops should not be disregarded as a legitimate “representation” of the people and, therefore, something of the outworking of Magna Carta, it cannot continue to represent the English Christians in the election of Bishops. As the United Kingdom ceases to be a Christian nation, the whole concept that Richard Hooker pronounced that every citizen of the commonwealth is a member of the Church of England cannot be maintained when such a majority of the citizenry are apathetic or in apostasy. Even Prince Charles says that he is the “Defender of Faiths”, and so the English Parliament must become when it has to represent the People, coming as they do from such diverse backgrounds.
All of this is to say that as England and elsewhere move further into Post-Christianity, the principles of Magna Carta can again shine forth, that the Church of England and the Anglican tradition, unhampered by Pope or King, can locally be free to elect bishops and preach the Gospel in synod-communion with other bishops. The English Monarchy has ceased to be a place of protection and, for us in America, ceased to be a long time ago. There are but two courses of action, communion with like-minded bishops in synod-communion or submission to Rome. Either way, the Church will do what She has always done, seek political connection and protection in whatever way will serve and not hinder the proclamation of the Gospel.
This may not strike us as the most romantic or comforting of possibilities for the future. We all have a tendency to shed the most idealistic light on the past instead of recognizing that Christians of the past faced the same uncertain future that we do. Yet "ideals" of organization and stability aside, we must recognize that the most important ideal is that the Church be what She needs to be and proclaim what She needs to proclaim. Making that happen, through all the political chaos, is what has always made the life of the Church a romance and an adventure.
Fr. Peter Geromel is Assisting Priest at Church of the Incarnation and an adjunct professor of Philosophy at Northampton Community College. Educated at Virginia Military Institute, Hillsdale College, Reformed Episcopal Seminary and the University of Dallas, Fr. Peter has authored Sublime Duty: Its Emphasis in The Anglican Way, Christ & College: A Guide from The Anglican Way, and Frankincense & Mirth on High. He manages Traditional Anglican Resources.