Having tried to sketch a biblical defense of constitutional monarchy, thus laying the foundations for us to resist the Zeitgeist of hyper-democratic zeal that fills our world, the second step is to trace the history of England to see how it is that this country has an Established Church which has the unique privilege of being catholic, evangelical, liberal (tolerant, reasonable), and even increasingly pentecostal (experiential).
The mythical St George, patron saint of England
Although there is already evidence of British Christianity by the third century, the Church of England generally marks the beginning of its formal history in AD 597 with Pope Gregory sending the missionary Augustine (no relation to the theological genius Augustine of Hippo) to help the Britons evangelize the Anglo-Saxons. He became the first Archbishop of Canterbury.
The next character worthy of mention is King Alfred, rightly called The Great. It is said that he was anointed by the Pope to be King while still a child (at which point he was not even heir apparent to the throne). As King he then drafts a Doom Book (law code), circa AD 890, which very deliberately frames English law in biblical perspective. Only after beginning with an introduction which includes the Ten Commandments, a translation of “several chapters of Exodus”, and the Apostolic Letter of Acts 15:23-29 does he then offer an account of English law.
Fast-forward to Henry VIII and we see Catholic England reaching its zenith as the king is awarded the title of Defender of the Faith in 1521 by the Pope. This comes as reward for Henry’s attempts to counter Luther’s reforming zeal with a tract that argued contra Luther that there were indeed seven sacraments, in keeping with Catholic dogma.
And to this day the English monarch continues to hold that title.
Something bizarre then happens. Being an unstable character with an uncontrollable desire for a male heir, no sooner has Henry VIII been commended by the Pope for his faithful Catholicism than he is getting in a strop because the Pope won’t let him divorce (or rather, annul his marriage to) his wife. And so in 1532 he declares himself head of the Church of England, thus breaking off all relationship between the Church of England and the Church of Rome.
Into this somewhat messy situation comes Thomas Cranmer, a somewhat equivocating character (who ultimately dies as a courageous martyr) who is faced with the challenging task of putting together an English liturgy. And after several revisions he finally succeeds in putting together a Book of Common Prayer that manages to hold true to Biblical (‘Evangelical’, ‘Reformed’) doctrine, while also managing to retain the best of Catholic tradition (frequent communion, liturgical drama).
Holding together a respect for Catholic tradition with an obedience to Evangelical doctrine is no easy thing, and for a few years the nation swings back and forth between bloody Catholicism (Queen Mary had nearly 300 Evangelicals put to death in less than four years) and oppressive Puritanism (Cromwell notoriously tried to ban Christmas).
When the monarchy is restored after Cromwell, the “ideal of encompassing all the people of England in one religious organization, taken for granted by the Tudors, had to be abandoned” (ref.) and since then England has had an established church which, in theory at least, is both Catholic and Reformed whilst being politically tolerant of unorthodox (‘Non-Conformist’) views.
Much could be said about Wesley and Whitefield and the missions movement by which the English Church blessed the world, but we’ll skip past that to the twentieth century, and the second wave of the Charismatic Movement that began in the 1960. Without going into any detail, we note only that this was the beginning of what is now perhaps the most influential stream of the Anglican church. And if you think that’s an exaggeration, consider that the well-known Alpha Course developed by charismatic Anglican Nicky Gumbel is probably the world’s best known basic discipleship course, and has been attended by over 15 million people worldwide.
Need for Revival
So then, we see that today’s English Christian (‘Anglican’) can justly see himself as being part of a Christian tradition that is simultaneously catholic, evangelical, liberal and pentecostal (which, I will at some point have time to argue in writing, are the four essential epistemic pillars of the Christian imagination). And thus I boldly suggest that England has a Christian heritage which is perhaps richer than that of any other nation, and which means that the English church is uniquely poised to be used by God to bless the nations and prepare the globe for the long-awaited return of the Messiah.
But unfortunately the situation is not all rosy. For although the Anglican church as a whole is all of those things, it is rare to find any one Anglican who embodies even two of these characteristics. Too few of the Charismatics have a deep and robust confidence in the authority of Scripture, too many of the Evangelicals are quenching the Spirit by their cessationist fear of the unknown, too many of the Catholics would rather be in the Roman Church than the Anglican, and too many of the liberals seem unconvinced of the rational reasonableness of orthodox Christian truth.
Yet there is hope. And so we end with that word of Smith Wigglesworth (a confirmed Anglican!) that “When the Word and the Spirit come together, there will be the biggest movement of the Holy Spirit that the nation, and indeed, the world, has ever seen. It will mark the beginning of a revival that will eclipse anything that has been witnessed within these shores, even the Wesleyan and the Welsh revivals of former years. The outpouring of God’s Spirit will flow over from the United Kingdom to the mainland of Europe, and from there, will begin a missionary move to the ends of the earth.“
Will you join me in praying that God would revive and reform Christian England?