The Secker Society



By Michael W. Davis

In Canada, the United States, and, I’ve been delighted to learn, Australia, there are a considerable number of Anglican churchgoers—lay and clerical—who maintain a sense of the Anglican Communion’s historical grounding in the Church of England. What I’ve found, in my humble experience, has been that this manifests more intuitively than as a conscious sort of pan-Anglican identity. Those of us who support the aims of the Secker Society will think that both promising and concerning. We should be glad for any confirmation that our Anglican history is alive and well in the Communion; but we should also strive to be aware of the rich inheritance global Anglicanism still enjoys from our ancestry in the Church of England.

It’s been the practice of the various Anglican provinces to distance themselves from the literal Communion, whose heart is England, no doubt in part because any significant recognition of unity would be reminiscent of imperial evangelism. But this has been a great detriment to world Anglicanism. Whether one sits on the supposed ‘right’ or ‘left’ theologically, whether one’s sensibilities are Anglo-Catholic or altogether more Low Church, the deep divisions in the Anglican Communion only serve to slow our Church’s growth—or, more commonly, drive members away. Without entering the debate over the Continuing Anglican movement, I believe it goes without saying that we would all rather see a single united Anglicanism. And, again, whether subdividing is an appropriate response to internal dissent, we’ve done ourselves and our Church no favours by capitulating to modern prejudices, pretending our respective Anglican or Episcopal Church appeared the day our own country became independent. The Episcopal Church, USA has a history that extends long before 1785; the Anglican Church of Canada didn’t appear in 1861.

So we can say there’s a real, probably existential need for North American Anglicans to reconcile ourselves with our mother-church in England. The most considerable attempt at such a unity was the long overdue call for an Anglican Covenant—long overdue in that, how many Confessions have the Lutherans and Calvinists; and we’ve only just thought to add to the Thirty-Nine Articles? The most promising section of the proposed Covenant for our purposes would be, ‘Each Church affirms its gratitude for God’s gracious providence extended down to us through the ages: our origins in the Church of the apostles; the ancient common traditions; the rich history of the Church in Britain and Ireland reshaped by the Reformation… (2.1.2)’

That’s the most controversial clause in the whole document, except perhaps,

Acknowledging our interdependent life, each Church, reliant on the Holy Spirit, commits itself to act with diligence, care and caution in respect of any action which may provoke controversy, which by its intensity, substance or extent could threaten the unity of the communion and the effectiveness or credibility of its mission. (3.2.5)’

As anyone versed in the life of Archbishop Secker knows, a sense of historicity and unity of mission can be absolutely revolutionary in our Communion! I didn’t object to the Covenant, and didn’t think it was an attempt to ‘discipline’ the Episcopal Church or Anglican Church of Canada, as opponents claimed, so much as the single proposed bulwark against the very evident possibility of our family of churches falling apart. Strengthening the episcopacy is certainly one way to go about this, though as of 2012 it seems unlikely that this cause will take root in those provinces that are increasingly misaligned with the Mother Church and the global Communion. (American Anglicans have typically been E.I.N.O.—Episcopal in Name Only.)

A stronger role for the Queen in our global Communion is the clear alternative and should be the more popular, but is doubtless to be greeted by an unthoughtful stubbornness in certain quarters.

It’s entirely fitting that the English Reformation should have had numerous English Monarchs among its principal leaders. It seems almost providential that, within four successions and fifteen years, these Monarchs possessed religious prejudices that ran from orthodox Roman Catholicism to mainline Protestantism, finally arriving at our familiar via media. The Monarchy has been intimately involved in the history of Anglicanism, no more or less than the English people themselves—or even the episcopacy. Evangelicals find their advocate in Edward VI, Anglo-Catholics in Charles I, and Broad-Churchmen in Elizabeth I; to put it crudely, there’s at least one Monarch for every wing of Anglicanism. And, for better or worse, as the role of the Sovereign becomes increasingly symbolic in politics, so too does the Supreme Governor of the Church of England seem to be more of a courtesy. In the Anglican Communion at large, the Queen currently has no active role whatsoever except in Commonwealth realms, where the Queen may be acknowledged in petitions for civil government. Her religious significance, however, is almost non-existent outside England (though Church of England clergy continue to take an oath of allegiance to the Crown).

But it’s no more than an assumption—a matter of contemporary convention—that the Queen has no place whatever in the greater Communion. Insofar as our Anglican Provinces are in communion with the Mother Church, and the Queen is the Governor-General of the Mother Church, we may certainly make the argument that the Queen is the symbolic head of the Anglican Communion in the same deference by which the Archbishop of Canterbury is the spiritual leader of the Communion. The question is, Why should we make such an argument? As we said, acknowledging ‘our origins in the Church of the apostles; the ancient common traditions; [and] the rich history of the Church in Britain and Ireland reshaped by the Reformation’ would be controversial, both because (a) it would raise flags that recall for many the history of imperialism, and (b) it would agitate the de-centralizers that predominate our North American provinces. But if this must be done, the Crown would be the ideal symbol for a moral, rather than a political, realignment.

There can hardly be any doubt that the Monarchy has always been a crucial agent of conscience in the history of the Empire, especially in the last couple of centuries. We remember King George III’s introductory address to John Adams as the independent United States’ first Minister to the United Kingdom:

‘I wish you, sir, to believe, and that it may be understood in America, that I have done nothing in the late contest but what I thought myself indispensably bound to do, by the duty which I owed to my people. I will be very frank with you. I was the last to consent to the separation; but the separation has been made, and having become inevitable, I have always said, as I say now, that I would be the first to meet the friendship of the United States as an independent power.’

And later,

‘… let the circumstances of language, religion, and blood have their natural and full effect.’

These comments were made in 1785. Though the War of 1812 betrayed lingering political divisions between England and the United States, the King’s comments could only serve to evidence reconciliation between the two people—or, perhaps, a kinship that was never broken, and never could be broken.

Similarly, we have Monarchs acting as advocates for indigenous peoples under colonial rule, where many of those peoples converted to Christianity in tremendous numbers. On 1 November 1858, following the disaster of the Sepoy Rebellion, Queen Victoria transferred power from the East India Company to the British government, that the Indian subcontinent, in her own words, ‘should breathe feelings of generosity, benevolence, and religious toleration’. The modern Church of South India and Church of North India together have 5.5 million members. In staunch contrast to the often-inhumane treatment of Aboriginal Australians, in 1875 Queen Victoria declared that the colonial government ought not ‘derogate from the rights of the tribes or people inhabiting such islands or places’. While public land in Australia is to this day called ‘Crown land’, the Crown itself was one of the very first to recognize the integral place of Aborigines in Australian society. Today, 73% of Aborigines are Christian—higher than the national average of 61%.

What more could we ask for than such a warm and fair reconciliation between the disparate Church of England and the Anglican provinces around the world—those of North America especially? Perhaps we’ll never see perfectly eye to eye on moral and theological matters; and perhaps Anglicans on our side of the Pond will keep bitterly resisting any means of corporate decision-making. So be it. But we should at least hope that, in the midst of this disagreement, we could still be a family of churches, and strive for some peace more productive and satisfying than cold silence? There’s no more appropriate symbol of such unity and high-mindedness, without abuse or domination, than Elizabeth II, and her successors, whom we might choose to someday regard as the Supreme Governor of the Anglican Communion. For our bishops to disagree is, perhaps, inevitable. But the role of a sort of Prince of the Church who has no acting ecclesiastical authority, standing rather as a symbol of our unity and conscience, would do wonders for our Communion. As Article XXXVII states:

‘…. we give not our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments… but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.’

The thin line between the secular sphere and the ecclesiastical has been further distorted in recent years, most notably in the marriage and abortion debates. The Queen could serve our worldwide Church as a symbol of our enduring obligation to do right, not only by God, but also by our fellow man.

And what’s essential is that this position be civil and not clerical also, as is the case with the Lords Spiritual in the United Kingdom. The office of Supreme Governor, while undoubtedly central to the English ecclesiastical hierarchy, benefits from being as uninvolved in church politics as it is today. Whoever is the Archbishop of Canterbury; whether he’s inclined more toward the Liturgy of the Word or the Liturgy of the Holy Communion; whether he’s more mystic and scholar or preacher and missionary; whether his theology is more traditional or progressive—we may do well to have a Supreme Governor leading our Communion who needn’t take sides in those disagreements. Let those discussions be had openly and frankly, but God forbid such debates should continue to tear apart the worldwide Church. If we, as Anglicans, can’t bring ourselves to pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury each Sunday, let’s at least mutter a prayer for Elizabeth our Sovereign Lady. Let’s have one individual, practical or even symbolical, whom we can stand to remind us that our Church is very much active in this life, on this earth; and that our fellow Christians are also our fellow men. Or, in the words of St. Peter,

Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the king.

Originally published in in the Summer-Autumn 2014 issue of Anglican Tradition (Renewal), © 2014.

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