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Religion Library: Anglican/Episcopalian

Vision for Society

Written by: Russell P. Dawn

At its origin and early in its development, the Anglican vision for society was that of a godly state.  The elements of the godly state included a godly monarch, a hierarchical Church polity, clergy who conformed to certain accepted standards of worship, and a belief system that was distinctly Protestant, but loosely defined so as to include as many people of the realm as possible.

In early modern England, control over the Church was crucial to control over society.  In no small part Henry VIII's break from the Roman Church and limited embrace of the Reformation can be seen in these terms.  He was named the supreme head on earth of the Church of England.  He sought to destroy all remnants of papal control over English society, suppressing monasteries (which existed outside the control of the local parish) and the cult of purgatory (which, through papal indulgences, gave the papacy a say over people's salvation, and therefore over their behavior).  He licensed the English Bible, a move with English nationalistic overtones.  Henry's son, Edward VI, carried on as supreme head of the Church.  Then, after his successor Mary I returned the English Church to the papacy, Elizabeth I brought back Protestantism and was named supreme governor (rather than supreme head) of the Church of England, for it was held that a woman could not be head of the Church.  Her successor James I retained the title.  Kings, he affirmed, ruled by divine right.

The rule of the godly prince was supported by a hierarchically governed Church.  Episcopacy, the system of Church polity that includes bishops as overseers, was viewed by the monarch as preferable to egalitarian structures, which would have decentralized control of the Church.  King James famously uttered the aphorism, "no bishop, no king."  Further, all clergy members were required to swear an oath of allegiance to the crown.

Beginning late in the reign of Edward, but more saliently during the longer monarchies of Elizabeth and James, clergy were also required to conduct worship services in conformity to the Book of Common Prayer (BCP).  This included wearing certain vestments (clerical attire) and following the prescribed order of service.  The clergy also had to subscribe to the Articles of Religion, a confession of faith that was Protestant in character, but ambiguous on a number of points so as not to offend those of various schools within Protestantism.  The goal was a national, Protestant Church that could embrace, and be embraced by, as much of the English populace as possible.

This vision of a godly state does not characterize Anglicanism today, not least because most Anglican denominations are not established (meaning they are not state churches).  But even where the Church is established, there is not an accompanying belief that the state should dictate what its citizens believe.  Anglicanism upholds freedom of conscience.


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