CHURCH OF ENGLAND AND THE BREXIT POLICY OF THE “NO COMMENT;”
WITHOUT DOGMATISM AFTER ICONOCLASM IN THESE TIMES OF PANDEMIA: INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK TAYLOR.
Por Fernando Gómez Herrero, email@example.com
Patrick Taylor is the Vicar of Holy Trinity Church in Stratford-upon-Avon, eternally linked to the burial ground of William Shakespeare (www.stratford-upon-avon.org). Stratford is smallish urban centre of historical significance with a considerable international touristic capture attached to the worldwide playwright. Stratford, 34,000 inhabitants, is about 40 miles [65 kms] from Birmingham, second city in the country behind the London metropolis of easy reach by car or train. MP from Stratford, Nadhim Sahawi, “BAME” of Iraki-Kurdish background is current government member, second in command of the Ministry of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under Alok Sharma, a second BAME figure of Indian-Hindu background. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) is based at Stratford of easy reach from the Church along the river Avon, where swans, property of the Queen, also reign. The theatre is now closed.
We speak with Patrick Taylor about diverse and burning themes: challenges of Covid-19, the neutral position of the Church of England vis-à-vis Brexit, the legacy of break-up and iconoclasm with the Church of Rome, the possible parallel with contemporary Brexit realities, the link with the Monarchy and the establishment or the ruling class and the legacy of iconoclasm of Roman Catholicism perceptible in Holy Trinity Church to this day, similarities and differences between Anglicanism and Catholicism, etc. What follows is the result of conversations prior to Brexit negotiations and during the closing measures apropos Covid-19 in the context of the midlands. Holy Trinity is also closed sine die due to the pandemic. When I finish editing this interview, the range number of deaths is between 6.159 and 12.000, since numbers are uncertain.
1/ Events have taken over since I first thought of this conversation with you about the Church of England and Brexit, how are things in relation to Covid-19 in relation to your immediate context of Holy Trinity Church, the town of Stratford and beyond, for example, Church is closed sine die?
The current crisis has taken us back to our primary purpose as the established church, which is to be a prayerful presence in every community, serving the people who live there, especially the most vulnerable. Closed church buildings means we have to be a bit creative in how we do this, but we continue to be the church!
2/ Is it fair to say that the decentralised nature of the Church of England (https://www.churchofengland.org/), could be both a virtue and a vice, for example in relation to any unified position, Brexit being one big issue? How do you like the CoE neutrality vis-à-vis Brexit?
The fact that the C of E has not taken a position on Brexit is an expression of one of our central values which is that we are a church for everyone so we have to be willing to accommodate those on both sides of the debate. To take a position would prevent us from being who we are meant to be as the established church.
3/ If I put you on the spot, your own position towards Brexit?
I voted to remain.
4/ You have talked to me about the general discrepancy between the clerical body of the Church of England and its parishioners, who mostly voted for Brexit fitting into the general demographic of older, whiter, more pro-establishment and generally more conservative-voting population, and there will be exceptions. But, does this rule hold?
I don’t know any clergy or bishops in the Church of England who are pro Brexit. Research tells us that those who attend services regularly have a higher percentage of pro-Brexit than the wider population. This does not seem to have caused too many problems within the church community, however, as we are all more or less united in wanting to serve our communities, no matter what their political (or religious) beliefs.
5/ It is somewhat easy and conventional in some academic and journalistic quarters to link up the Brexit break-up with Europe with the mid-1550s, Henry VIII and the distancing from Roman Catholicism, the so-called Glorious Revolution, the de-absolutizing of the Monarchy and yet its maintenance with one kind decapitated (Charles I), etc. your reaction?
The historical reality is the inverse of this shallow and lazy conclusion. The Reformation was a European movement with its centre of gravity in Germany and Switzerland. Zwingli (Swiss), Calvin (French) and Melanchthon (German) were key players for example. Thomas Cranmer, a key figure in the Reformation in England, gave Continental reformers refuge and married the daughter of a leading German reformer (Andreas Osiander). He traveled in Europe and was inspired by the reformation movement he saw there.
6/ CoE came into being out of this big crisis and trauma, which you must "celebrate" since CoE is what is out of those complex processes, do you?
What I celebrate about the C of E is it’s embracing of the “via media” whereby it is both catholic and reformed, not placing itself firmly in either camp (hence the Brexit position!). This avoidance of extremism is the result of the history of its foundation and also one of its greatest strengths. Anglicanism is sensible, thoughtful and restrained, avoiding the extremes of both Catholicism (e.g. the power of the Pope) and Protestantism (e.g. Puritanism).
7/ Are there big doctrinal differences between CoE and/or other Christian denomination (Roman Catholicism included): two or three items will suffice. Is this something that that takes a lot of mental space in your practice as vicar of Holy Trinity?
Many visitors find it hard to tell whether Holy Trinity is Protestant or Catholic! You will struggle to find many obvious differences in the liturgy, but the key contrasts are to do with ecclesiastical structures and developments, e.g. married priests, women priests, autonomy of parishes.
7/ You have spoken to me about the structure of the CoE. If I understand it correctly, less hierarchical structure than the Catholic structure, true? What else would you like to mention?
The C of E has a synodical system of government which means there is a grass roots up decision making process which goes from PCC to Deanery Synod to Diocesan Synod to General Synod. Every synod has both a house of clergy and house of laity, meaning we are not entirely clergy/Bishop led. However, we are an episcopal church which believes in Apostolic Succession so there is an inbuilt tension between the two structures (lay and ordained). This means people sometimes ask “who is in charge?” and no one really knows the answer! It’s a partnership between clergy and laity, which keep things in balance and is hence very Anglican!
8/ What are the key issues informing CoE in the immediate present and future from your perspective?
Sexuality, gender, sexual identity and human relationships. There is a wide gulf developing between those with liberal social ethics and those who are more conservative/traditional. In the end it all comes down to how you interpret the Bible (hermeneutics).
The other major issue is a combination of ageing and shrinking congregations and lots of historic buildings which are a huge drain on resources because we don’t receive any government money to maintain them and so it all has to be done through local fundraising.
9/ Surely some Catholics will scratch their heads with a priest having a family, you are married and have children, tell them know something about it in relation to your position in Holy Trinity.
There is nothing within the teaching of Christianity which means priest have to be celibate. It is just a position the church has developed for practical reasons. I am called to be a priest, a husband and a father, and I experience no conflict between these callings.
10/ A certain prejudice among Catholics is that the theological dimension of CoE is more "relaxed," that it is less dogmatic, but this may be unfair, please clarify.
Anglicans are encouraged to reflect for themselves and come to their own conclusions rather than to just swallow what they are told to believe. There are boundaries to our orthodoxy but quite a bit of space in between!
11/ Does it make sense to speak in terms of core beliefs?
Yes, but Anglicans don’t have a separate statement of core beliefs. They are expressed in our liturgy (which includes the creeds of course!).
12/ How do you face up to challenges such as Brexit Britain and currently covid-19? Tough times.How do you see your role and the role of CoE in the present and future?
See my answer to Q1.
13/ In relation to the past, a strong interest of mine is the iconoclastic legacy of the Reformation England and of the Civil War that is perceptible in Holy Trinity.
We walked the other day noticing some defigurations. It must have been a truly traumatic experience to make and break Christian iconography, figure and reconfigure rituals and tenets of the faith in moments of general societal turmoil. Britain has the whole language of conformism... Is this still relevant today?
Duffy argues that the old traditions of the pre-reformation era continued to be valued at a parish level after the reformation. Congregations are still not easily told what they must do! The conformism is most evident at the top of the hierarchy. The closer to parish level you get, the more people are willing to do what suits them (or what they can get away with!).
14/ I have mentioned to you that I visited Hampton Court and attended the Choral Matins at the Chapel Royal (in this order) there. Elegant place and a very nice and witty sermon. This is a Royal Peculiar directly linked to the Monarchy and not the Church of England. One great detail: a portrait of Charles I as martyr, celebrated the 30 Jan and he added the wry comment that he caused the Civil War. So, Church and State and the Monarchy riding the same bicycle? Are vicars required to be loyal Royalists?
Canon C 13 Of the Oath of Allegiance
1. Every person whose election to any archbishopric or bishopric is to be confirmed, or who is to be consecrated or translated to any suffragan bishopric, or to be ordained priest or deacon, or to be instituted, installed, licensed or admitted to any office in the Church of England or otherwise serve in any place, shall first, in the presence of the archbishop or bishop by whom his election to such archbishopric or bishopric is to be confirmed, or in whose province such suffragan bishopric is situate, or by whom he is to be ordained, instituted, installed, licensed or admitted, or of the commissary of such archbishop or bishop, take the Oath of Allegiance in the form following:
I, A B, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.
15/ I have asked around without clear answers yet, do VIP members of the British Establishment have to become CoE, I am thinking mostly recently and most visibly of Meghan Markle in order to marry Prince Harry... What they are now relocating in North America... Could a British Monarch not be CoE, a secular representative, or a member of another religion, even an atheist? Isn't this a good example of a certain quaint archaism of a very English flavour?
This is outside my field but I believe the monarch has to be C of E as they are Head of the Church. However, beyond this I don’t believe it’s vital. Otherwise we would be looking at a disestablished church.
16/ You have mentioned to me that such iconoclasm or "stripping of the altars" bears now no theological content for CoE. That is, figures and images are welcome and used by those priests or parishioners who wish to use them, although English churches do still have fewer "distractions," images and other elements, than the Catholic ones.
Yes, but some of the theological principles of the reformation are alive and well, e.g. the nature of Holy Communion, the role of the Saints, prayer for the dead, the prominence of scripture and the significance of participation in the church vs. Personal commitment to Christ.
17/ CoE, the established church of England and by extension Britain with local national denominations in Scotland, Wales and Ireland. Cuis regius, eius religio? Fair to speak of the English peculiarity within the more general picture of Christianity?
Christianity is an Incarnational religion which means it has to be lived out in the particular context of different places. As a result the church will look a bit different in different places and cultures but the test of whether it is Christian or not is simply faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (it’s as simple as that!).
18/ Britain is a very secularised society, I would go as far as say it is the most secularised European society I have seen. And yet, the CoE has --still-- a perceptible presence, if a discreet or subtle, if you wish, detectable in official circles and ceremonies, what other dimensions are out there?
Do you mean what other religions and philosophies? There is a myth that secularism is a neutral position which has been kept pure from the corrupting influence of religion. The reality, I would argue, is that Secularism is a position of belief which carries with it its own values and philosophies and should be valued alongside (but not seen as superior to or better than) any other non-extreme religious or philosophical position. There is talk of us now being a “post-secular” society where the idea of a natural slide to secularism since the enlightenment has been shown to be no longer true.
19/ How robust is the discourse emanating from CoE? Can you give me one good example. In other words, do you see the role of CoE to tell its parishioners what to do socially, politically? How does they find guidance in relation to how to cast a vote, behave, acknowledge important moments in their lives (births, deaths, commitments, etc.). Does Patrick Taylor mostly emphathise and bring comfort in moments of turmoil, or does he also censure and rebuke and admonish, or what else? Is this a matter of persuasion and soft ways like the bobbies with no guns in the streets instead of harsh inquistions?
The C of E doesn’t like to “tell”! There is some breadth here, with more conservative parishes being more prescriptive, but the majority are more liberal and so we try to offer an inspiring way of living and approach to faith that we hope people will feel they want to take up. We prefer to serve and help rather than admonish! Some lament that fact that we no longer tell people they are going to hell because of their sins, but I am yet to find someone who decided to start going to church because they heard that message!
20/ Challenges for CoE and hopes for CoE.
Challenges -see above (8).
Hopes: to grow in its ability to be a safe and welcoming space for everyone, no matter what their background, sexuality or beliefs. A community where everyone is valued for who they are, discover the love of Jesus Christ for themselves and then reach out to others in love so that they too can discover this Good News.
Warwick, 9 April 2020