Adjunct of the state and an enemy of socialism
Jack Conrad explains why nowadays religion has no progressive role and why non-religious Church of England property ought to be confiscated by a CPGB government
As part of the CPGB’s ongoing discussions Peter Manson has gone into print with his objections to section 3.16 of our standing Draft programme.1 That is the section dealing with religion. He singles me out in particular for criticism on this issue. Why? Because I remain unconvinced by his arguments and because I steadfastly defend the militant spirit of the existing draft.
Nonetheless, our differences are, according to him, secondary. He agrees with the main thrust of our programme. Comrade Manson is perhaps right, at least here. Moreover, religion itself, of course, is not a question of prime programmatic importance.
Sometimes, though, seemingly minor points, even what at first sight appears to be a hair-splitting detail, can go on to trigger or maybe reveal far bigger, far more important differences, crucially those of underlying temperament, method and orientation. Ultimately that can crystallise or resolve itself into revolutionism versus opportunism.
My motivation, my purpose, is not to stand guard over every word, every dot, every comma. Not even every formulation contained in the Draft programme. Far from it. The edition we were selling until a short time ago is littered with all manner of strange glitches. It was computer-scanned and the result was never properly proofed against the original before being committed to print. An invitation to future embarrassment if ever there was one.
More than that, work on the programme first began back in 1991. To say the least, a lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Hence, while keeping the programme as general, as brief and as spare as possible, there is doubtless plenty of room for improvement and updating.
However, the programme must not be watered down. After all, what begins as a ‘little backtracking’, a ‘little softening’, in spite of honest intentions, cracks open the door to opportunism and thus in time can come to endanger our entire project.
And here is my nagging worry. Comrade Manson innocently claims that all he proposes to introduce is a “tactical change” in our attitude towards the Church of England. Nothing more. Reading his article - and having debated and discussed the matter with him and others - I beg to differ.
When it comes to religion, I think the comrade preaches conciliation. The ‘How not to win friends’ title of his article is a bit of a give-away. He is referring to our existingDraft programme, after all.
Basically, the comrade considers that our programme fails to make religiously-minded friends for the communists when religiously-minded friends are there to be made. If there was, that is, the will - and a little bit more understanding - on our side. His efforts failing, he implies, as presently constituted, our programme adds to the number of our enemies.
Put another way, comrade Manson is making the claim that our programme diminishes the potential political weight of communism and albeit unwittingly aids the forces of reaction.
Let me remind readers of comrade Manson’s specific criticisms. To begin with there is his objection to the opening formulation in section 3.16. The statement that: “Unlike for previous oppressed classes in history, religion can play no progressive role for the working class in its struggle against today’s ruling class.”2 “Too absolute”, reckons our fretting comrade.
To back up this argument, comrade Manson cites the mobilisation of muslims, “many of them working class”, against the war in Iraq. Mistaken, naive and confused. As if opposition to the US-UK war by various mosques and associated muslim political organisations is, or was, synonymous with the struggle conducted by the working class against the ruling class. The two are hardly the same. Anyway, this citing of muslim opposition to the Iraq war also shows in no uncertain terms that comrade Manson’s objections to our programme go rather wider than just its attitude towards the Church of England.
Nevertheless, his stated intention is to defend the C of E, first and foremost its parish property. He objects to the last in the following set of three demands: “Separation of the Church of England from the state. End all subsidies for religious institutions. Confiscate all Church of England property not directly related to acts of worship.”
When it comes to confiscating non-religious C of E property, comrade Manson seems almost obsessively concerned with leaving church halls untouched and therefore safely in the hands of the present incumbents (why not vicarages, bishops’ palaces and seminaries too?).
Paris and Russia
As I have pointed out many times, when it comes to religion, our approach is broadly taken from the writings of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels and from manifestos, congresses and resolutions of the First, Second and Third Internationals. Just as importantly, there is the practice of the Paris Commune of 1871 and the Bolshevik government headed by Lenin, Trotsky and Zinoviev.
On April 2 1871 the Paris Commune decreed the separation of church and state and the abolition of all state payments for religious purposes, as well as the nationalisation of all church property. Another decree followed on April 8 1871. It banned religious symbols, pictures, dogmas, prayers from schools - in a word, “all that belongs to the sphere of the individual’s conscience” - was ordered to be excluded from schools.3 A measure enthusiastically endorsed by Marx and Engels.
The Soviet government consciously trod in the titanic footsteps of the Paris Commune. In 1918 a decree was issued separating church from state and confiscating religious property. In August 1918 Izvestia carried a detailed clarification as well as instructions about how the decree was to be enacted. To further our discussion it is more than worthwhile to reproduce an outline of its nine points:
1. Management of all ecclesiastical property is to be transferred to the local soviets of workers’ and peasants’ deputies.
2. Representatives of the religious creed, who manage a church and other property, are required to submit, in triplicate, a list of all property intended for use in religious services to the local soviet.
3. The soviet deputies shall take over the property and give it to the adherents of the religious creed who want to use the property. This group would be composed of at least 20 citizens, who must sign an agreement. The agreement provides that these 20 citizens maintain the property and to use it solely for satisfying religious needs. They must prohibit in these buildings political meetings hostile to the Soviet government, the spreading or selling of literature hostile to the Soviet government, and sermons hostile to the Soviet government. If these conditions are not fulfilled, the 20 citizens would be held criminally liable.
4. If the persons who manage the ecclesiastical property refuse to do the above, the local soviet deputies must compile a list of the property in front of witnesses; churches of historic, artistic and archaeological value shall be transferred to the museum section of the commissariat of education.
5. If there are no local applicants to take over the building, the commissariat of education will determine the purpose it will be put to; so-called sacred items, not utilised in religious services, shall be turned over to citizens responsible for religious items.
6. All other property of churches and religious associations, and abolished departments, such as schools and charitable institutions, is to be immediately confiscated. This includes all landed property, funds and profit-making investments.
7. Failure to turn over monies will result in a charge of embezzlement; the illicit use of the property of the republic will also be a criminal offence.
8. Buildings of spiritual, educational and training establishments of any creed, as well as the building of the parish church schools, as national property, shall be turned over to the local soviets.
9. This decree prohibits the instruction in any creed in state, public and private educational institutions.4
Obviously specific national, cutural, political and historical conditions differ in detail. Nevertheless, as a fundamental economic measure, we too are committed to nationalise all land; and when it comes to the Church of England, we too would immediately confiscate all of its non-religious property. Naturally C of E members will be given free use of the churches and cathedrals that they genuinely require for religious purposes.
Comrade Manson insists he has no objection to the confiscation of Lambeth Palace’s bloated portfolio of stocks and shares, real estate holdings and other such assets - which in 2007 had “grown to £5.67 billion”, according to a church commissioners report.5
Nor is he against our commitment to take over all of the Church of England’s primary and secondary schools (we stand, in fact, for the nationalisation of all existing religiously sponsored primary and secondary schools and the removal of charitable status and other such subsidies thereafter from religious organisations).
However, putting church halls under local democratic control, turning them into community centres, making them available to all, will, comrade Manson fears, alienate the Church of England’s “dedicated activists”. So why not abandon plans to take away its charitable institutions? Why not retreat from nationalising its schools? These, especially the primary schools, are very dear to the heart of so-called ‘middle England’. The C of E establishment will certainly do its damnedest to use whatever grievance or incident it can to raise a storm against us. In all probability any attempted counterrevolution in Britain will take on a religious hue (ie, defend our christian country and way of life from the godless communists).
As if intimidated by the prospect, comrade Manson recoils. Naturally the resulting conciliationism is couched in language that is meant to appeal to our class instincts and tradition of solidarity. Hence comrade Manson’s leitmotif: “Very many” of these C of E “dedicated activists” are “working class”. We shall leave aside for the moment how many, or what proportion, of the Church of England’s “dedicated activists” are working class and how many of them middle class and bourgeois.
Frankly, though, comrade Manson’s way of putting things sounds ominously like the Socialist Workers Party’s John Rees and his pathetic and altogether desperate bid to excuse the horrible Respect (un)popular front project.
Ignore the fact that muslim businessmen, natural-born left reformists, patriarchs and clerics dominated. They did, after all, set, dictate or limit the agenda on crucial questions such as abortion, gay rights, immigration controls, etc. Instead, doggedly highlight, concentrate on and even exaggerate the proletarian sociological make-up of Respect’s rank and file. That is what Rees did time and again. And to their everlasting discredit other SWP tops loyally followed his dreadful and disastrous lead. In extremis, using his method, you might as well argue for maintaining the British army and its presence in Iraq. After all, most of its corporals and privates are working class, aren’t they?
There is the recurring sociological statement in comrade Manson’s article: ie, “very many” of the C of E’s “dedicated activists” are working class. But political analysis is rather lacking. A significant lacuna. Yet without exception each and every religious organisation nowadays involves the ideological and structural subordination of the class interests of workers to those of the bourgeoisie and/or the petty bourgeoisie.
However, there is the heartfelt example of comrade Manson’s own father. He is presented as typical of those “very many” working class C of E activists. Well, not quite. His father actually declined to join his local C of E congregation. So comrade Manson tells us … but almost as an afterthought, a footnote. Rather his father worshipped at the slightly nearer Presbyterian (later the United Reformed) church … where he did all manner of odd jobs in the church and its associated hall. Distance is meant to have been the deciding factor. He blithely informs us that his father could have opted for either cult. Yards, not history, theology and class relations proved decisive. And I am sure that is what he really believes about his dear old dad.
I never had the pleasure of meeting the comrade’s father. So I cannot tell one way or the other whether or not the son’s memories/assessment vis-à-vis his father’s apparently open, nonchalant, easy-going, almost lazy religious attachments, beliefs, choices and conduct are accurate. But using his father as a means to generalise is clearly badly mistaken.
Comrade Manson strongly implies that we can, should, must, extrapolate from his father’s ‘geographically determined’ actions and attitudes and the mass of working class christians. In point of fact, this way of approaching the questions means comrade Manson brushes aside essential historical, social and cultural factors that distinguish the state’s established church from the numerous breakaway protestant dissenters. Akin to conflating the Tory and Labour parties. A basic error and one which I shall explore below.
To further support his case comrade Manson paints a rather touching picture of the C of E at grassroots level. Whereas the mega-rich national church bureaucracy ought to be targeted for confiscation, the local parishes have to be treated with kid gloves.
The church’s active parishioners are, it would seem, potential allies, who must be tempted away from the deacons, bishops and archbishops. However, just saying we will take over the running, ownership and financing of their halls would apparently throw them straight into the arms of counterrevolution. So our comrade reckons. As if there were only a single determination moving the “very many” working class and other activists in the Church of England. A dubious proposition: doubtless many other, far more potent factors will come into play. Eg, our demands for extreme democracy and plan for superseding the market.
Anyway, there exists, according to comrade Manson, “two C of Es”. Naturally he champions the “church of the dedicated activists” against the church’s hierarchy. There are, he says, 1.2 million active lay members. Amongst them, of course, are comrade Manson’s “very many” workers. Heroically, working like Trojans, they, the lay members, raise the bulk of the money needed for the religious and non-religious activity locally. He provides a few more figures, again courtesy of the Church of England, which show that out of the £1 billion raised annually to cover the upkeep of churches and the salaries of clergy, three-quarters of the total originates in the parishes.
For reasons unknown to me - but presumably it could have something to do with fond memories of his religiously-minded father - what comrade Manson particularly wants to preserve is the C of E’s non-religious “social activities” … which take place in their halls today.
The comrade lists them: “scouts, guides, women’s fellowship, a youth club, badminton, business meetings, social events and Sunday schools”. Apparently they are “legitimate” non-religious church activities (though he categorises the latter - that is, Sunday schools - as a possible grey area because it is clearly religious).
Forget the fact that scouts and girl guides … business meetings, etc, can hardly be considered synonymous with the C of E. No-one that I know of, certainly not the CPGB, is threatening such “social activities”, Sunday schools included. Such threats cannot be found in, nor honestly inferred from, our Draft programme.
True, communists are committed to take over ownership and control of all non-religious church property, the thousands of church halls included. When it comes to them, the church halls, the take-over will doubtless involve some level or degree of confrontation with the parochial church council (which, let me emphasise, is usually under the thumb of the local minister).
Ownership and control should, though, not be confused with use. Yet because of changed ownership and control, because we would transform C of E church halls into community halls, we stand accused of seeking to delegitimise the kinds of activates listed above. To repeat, I am glad to say that any such charge is completely unfounded.
One might just as well maintain that because we want to hand over the share and property portfolio of the Church of England, crucially to the working class organised into the state, we are hell-bent on outlawing religion.
Rest assured, under a CPGB government, scouts, girl guides, women’s fellowship, youth clubs, badminton, business meetings, Sunday schools, etc would be allowed to continue without any undue let or hindrance. So would the full and ever proliferating panoply of religious cults. The C of E not excepted.
Indeed when it comes to the scouts, girl guides, women’s fellowship, etc (and we would surely widen this pinched list by opening up use to others who are at present excluded), we would assuredly provide much better, much improved facilities. Old, neglected, dilapidated and badly equipped buildings would be restored and upgraded.
The Church of England openly, but shamefully, admits that more than a few of its wonderful buildings, church halls included, are in urgent need of repair. The total cost is estimated at around £350 million. A sum the Church of England insists it simply cannot afford (despite English Heritage grants and 100% government tax breaks). Church commissioners complain that they do not have sufficient income. So buildings deteriorate; often they become unsafe, then vacant, then left to go to wrack and ruin.
We shall not be so parsimonious when it comes to preserving what is our common built heritage. What the C of E cannot afford must pass into collective stewardship. Eg, St Paul’s in London, Winchester cathedral or York minister are national treasures. Not maintaining such great architectural achievements of the past would be criminal. The same applies to other less grandiose, but nonetheless aesthetically valuable, buildings. Far too many decommissioned churches are now carpet warehouses. A disgrace.
Flow of money
The comrade makes great play of the origins of day-to-day C of E finances. He almost announces it as a revelation - in the Church of England wealth flows upwards … “funding for parishes’ religious and non-religious work is overwhelmingly raised locally”. Wow, what a surprise.
Money goes from the pockets and purses of those below in the parishes and from there it makes its way into the bank accounts of the episcopacy that directs the whole edifice from above. But when has that not been so? A useful quote: “Historically, individual parishes both raised and spent the vast majority of the church’s funding, meaning that clergy pay depended on the wealth of the parish, and parish advowsons (the right to appoint clergy to particular parishes) could become extremely valuable gifts”.6
The upper classes, including the church bureaucracy, are by definition parasitic, not productive. If those below were not exploited by the Church of England, how else did those enchanting parish churches and modestly luxurious vicarages, the exquisite alms houses and lavish bishop’s palaces, the magnificent monasteries and towering cathedrals of medieval England get built in the first place?
On the basis of his apparent discovery, however, comrade Manson reasons along completely unwarranted lines. Rather than parishes being “subsidised” by past exploitation, it is the local activists, through a “kind of tithe”, who pay for the salaries of clergy and upkeep of church buildings. History is included in the comrade’s account, but only to be disappeared from the equation. Sad to say, that seems to be comrade Manson’s method. Even as a conjuring trick it fails.
I do not dispute that parishioners pay for their vicar and the upkeep of their church (yes, that is why there are very rich parishes and very poor parishes). Why should I dispute such a historicfact? What I do dispute, though, is comrade Manson’s attempt to remove history from our contemporary analysis of parish affairs.
After all, he seriously invites us to believe that today’s apparent self-sufficiency can “hardly be said to depend on past exploitative power relations”. Really? Where then does today’s Church of England come from, if not past exploitative class relations? How can one separate the present from the past? Surely any attempt to do so is unMarxist. Ours, remember, is a historical as well as a dialectical materialism. Not for nothing did Capital Vol 1 end with a long, detailed and searing investigation into the origins of capitalist accumulation.
The apparent naturalism, equality of exchange and entrepreneurial flare of extended capitalist accumulation began with and therefore rests upon - or, if one wishes to use the phrase, is subsidised by - the naked robbery and bloody expropriation of Britain’s peasants: ie, the separation of the producers from the means of production; that and enslaving millions of black Africans and their brutal and murderous transportation to the Americas.
Let me defend the opening statement in section 3.16 of the Draft programme. That is: “Unlike for previous oppressed classes in history, religion can play no progressive role for the working class in its struggle against today’s ruling class.” A formulation, as the reader will recall, considered far too absolute by comrade Manson.
In fact, as we have shown, he attempts to soften our assessment of religion, tries to dilute it, wants even to give religion a positive gloss by bringing into his argument the mobilisation of muslims - remember, “many of them working class” - against the US-UK war in Iraq.
Necessarily, we must delve back into the past in order to produce clarity here (as well as elsewhere). So let us begin at the beginning.
In pre-history religion was the handmaiden of science. Gropingly, the first humans tried to understand themselves, nature and society in the best way they could. That meant constantly repeated and constantly reinforced religious taboos, ceremonies and stories.
Knowledge was that way individually memorised, generalised throughout the tribe and passed on generation to generation. Clearly during such times religion played an entirely progressive role. Indeed the human revolution, which marked what Engels called the “transition from ape to man”, inevitably had a religious form.
The assessment of religion has to be reversed, or at least substantially qualified, with the emergence of classes. Oppressors - be they warrior chiefs, kings or high priests - justified, safeguarded, promoted and fought for their narrow, selfish interests by manufacturing new religious ideas and financing a huge religious machine to awe, befuddle and reconcile the masses.
True, the oppressed questioned, resisted and fought back using variant and often explicitly rival religious ideologies. Religion and religious disputes thereby became both a means and a site for class war. But in general it was an unequal contest. The ideas of the oppressors were the dominant ideas.
Hence the patriarchal solar cult against the female and communistic lunar cult, Jewish zealots against sadducee Herodians, emperor Constantine’s Nicene faction against Jamesian heretics, cathars against the medieval catholic hierarchy, shia against sunni muslims, protestants against catholics. The list goes on and on.
Only with the 1789 French revolution was that age-old pattern decisively broken. Even then there still existed the necessity of generating intoxicating enthusiasms and obfuscatory illusions. The bourgeois revolution is by definition a minority revolution. So in order to mobilise the majority the bourgeoisie had to deny or cloak its “real interests”.7
Dissembling, downright lying, can still take religious form … but now not necessarily so. With the steady increase in atheism, secularism and non-observance, from the late 18th century onwards that was bound to be the case.
That notwithstanding, the proletarian revolution is completely different. Another qualitative break and in its own way a dialectical return. It is truly enlightened. It is entirely unselfish. It is really universal. Ours is a revolution whose central aim is the liberation of humanity from the shackles of class society. That is why, in order to fulfil its historic mission, the working class - as a class that in its own interests must abolish exploitation - eschews religion … and all other sectionalist and divisive ideologies (nationalism, racism, sexism, feminism, workerism, greenism, etc).
More, the global transition from capitalism to communism means that a rounded, a rational, a scientific understanding of society is no luxury. In a word, the “truths revealed and propounded by Marxism are an absolute necessity”.8
At this point in the argument there is no need to revisit comrade Manson’s wrong-headed claims concerning muslim opposition to the Iraq war. As noted above, he conflates mobilisation against what was seen by muslim opinion as a war against co-religionists with the working class and its struggle against the ruling class. Different phenomena, clearly.
However, the moot question remains. Can religion play any sort of progressive role for the working class in its battle for extreme democracy, socialism and communism? The only serious answer must be ‘no’. Nowadays religion qua religion is utterly reactionary.
Does it follow that religious people will not participate in, will not help forward the revolution? Hardly. They will, they must be organised, educated and encouraged to accept communist discipline and leadership. Revolution raises, propels, sweeps into activity millions upon millions who at present are politically backward, inert or hostile to the left. Doubtless that includes masses of christians, hindus, muslims, etc.
However, any residual religious ideas they retain in their heads will not serve to provide a correct strategy, the necessary means of class analysis, the flexible forms of organisation, that vital grasp of historical laws and the not inconsiderable role of contingency. Marxism alone provides that.
Religion can serve only to divert, to lull, to confuse. Not only the case with official or explicitly pro-ruling class religions. It is also most definitely the case with unofficial, minority and even radically oppositional religions.
Be it catholic liberation theology in Latin America, the black churches in the US or the Muslim Association of Britain/Muslim Initiative in the UK, though they mobilise against this or that injustice, this or that war, this or that government, they are neither willing nor capable of taking the struggle of the working class forward. Quite the opposite in fact.
Hence, while we must energetically seek to engage with their rank and file in strikes, demonstrations, movements, elections, etc, we do so in order to split those below from what is an institutionalised body of ideological and organisational misleadership above. In other words in the process of the class struggle we want to free those below not only from imams, rabbis and bishops, but the idea of god too.
The above argument helps explain the opening formulation in section 3.16 of our Draft programme (the one objected to by comrade Manson). To reiterate once more: “Unlike for previous oppressed classes in history, religion can play no progressive role for the working class in its struggle against today’s ruling class.”
Albeit in a single sentence, it pithily and accurately sums up our assessment of religion: in the past and under prevailing and future circumstances.
Moving on, let us now consider the Church of England in more detail. The notion that in its present-day manifestation, crucially, for our purposes here, at a parish level, the Church of England can be separated from the past is surely unMarxist. The present is nothing but the historic past flowing into an uncertain future. The present is really nothing, a fleeting nano-moment. And, of course, the Church of England actually claims, celebrates and promotes itself as the “unbroken continuation of the early apostolic and later medieval universal church”.9
Though normally subordinate to the feudal aristocracy, centrally the monarchy, the church served as co-exploiter and co-ruler. It not only provided the bulk of state administrators and oversaw the production of intellectual ideas; the church exploited “vast manorial estates” which put bishops on a par with the greatest military barons in the land.10
In point of fact, the monarch aside, the church counted as the biggest landlord in England. Huge wealth was amassed, not least due to the celibacy rule. There being no legal children to inherit title or rights over assets, the church tended to grow progressively richer and richer.
The clerisy has never constituted an undifferentiated social class. Under feudalism bishops lived like princes. There were, though, numerous low paid priests. John Bull (circa 1340-81) was typical of this stratum economically. A humble, roving preacher, he just about managed to eke out a living. Of course, in his untypical case he went on to become one of the famed leaders of the 1381 peasants’ revolt. But in the main, at a parish level, priests acted as subalterns. They loyally relayed the pope’s encyclicals, preached the virtues of submission to god’s appointed rulers and insisted upon the holy duty christians had of paying tithes in full and on time (which amounted to one-tenth of produce or income).
With the Act of Supremacy (1534) Henry VIII broke with Rome and seized the wealth of the monasteries. Every school pupil knows that. And yet the church remained legally and administratively a continuity. Eg, the system of church courts and canon law were left more or less untouched, along with traditional doctrine. Hence the continued stress on transubstantiation, the sacrament, contrition and doing penance, and the ideas of purgatory, hell, individual salvation and other such mumbo jumbo.
Naturally, since the 16th century there have been all manner of theological, liturgical and organisational changes. So, while the Church of England stayed firmly catholic, it incorporated various protestant elements, innovations and modes of thought, including those adopted from Martin Bucer (1491-1551), Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) and John Calvin (1509-64). But what in particular marked out the Church of England from both the catholic and protestant churches on the continent was its Erastianism - ie, accepting and being under state control.
The Church of England’s clerisy became to all intents and purposes self-confessed agents of the crown. And at a local or village level the nationalised church exercised what amounted to a naked dictatorship on behalf of the state. Everyone was obliged to attend its services. Everyone had to pay tithes. Everyone was subject to its jurisdiction. Heresy, non-attendance, working on Sundays or saints’ days, sexual deviancy were all subject to church-sanctioned punishment. Of course, the rich could and did buy themselves out. But undoubtedly in post-reformation England the parish priest functioned as the first line, or the principal means, of social control.
Something fully appreciated by the monarchy and its higher bureaucracy. The parish church was seen as keeping the common herd passive and obedient. Religion was venerated as the crown’s chief ideological prop. “People are governed by the pulpit more than the sword in time of peace,” said Charles I.11
Apart from members of the aristocracy, who at a village level were always remote, the priest was by far the best educated member of society. And, as Christopher Hill observes, in an age before newspapers, radio and television, it is “scarcely” possible to “exaggerate the influence the parson had in forming the political, economic and moral outlook of his parishioners”.12
This is where today’s Church of England comes from, including its parish organisation, property and hierarchical social relations. Surely something that must be fully incorporated into any Marxist account, not hamfistedly discounted.
The English revolution saw a temporary rupture. The Church of England was disestablished. TheBook of common prayer was replaced by the Directory of public worship. Bishops were removed from parliament and had their great landed estates expropriated. Tithes were disputed. Presbyterianism became the conservative establishment. Parliament replaced the monarch as the source of church authority. However, despite this, about one quarter of the English clergy refused to conform. After all the world had been turned up-side down. In conditions of revolutionary flux independent sects flourished and even came to dominate. They were self-governing. They elected their own ministers. They were self-financing. They preached social equality and militant republicanism. Correlated to this democratic spirit, congregations were popular, lower class, female and combatative.
With the end of the short-lived Commonwealth in 1660, there was a partial religious as well as apartial political counterrevolution. Bishops had their lands and their seats in the House of Lords restored. But they never recovered their political domination. Church courts too continued to lose power and narrow in scope. But ministers not ordained by bishops, those deemed theologically untrustworthy - in other words, the defeated puritans - were driven out from the re-established Church of England. Around two thousand ministers (along with 150 dons and schoolteachers) were dismissed from their posts without compensation - hence they joined the independents in non-conformism.
While this body of non-conformists endlessly produced theological divisions and abundant varieties of new sects, there can be no disputing the underlying class issues and forces involved. The Church of England was after the 1640-60 interregnum thoroughly, consistently, fawningly, monarchical, aristocratic, moderate Whig or Tory and bound up with landed interests.
E.g. which particular ordained minister got which particular parish was typically down to the benefactor: a bishop, the crown, the local squire or some corporate body (ie, cathedrals, trusts and Oxford and Cambridge colleges). Amazingly, this still pertains. Patronage is inherited by title or land and means that the strangest individuals get to appoint vicars. Note: in the BBC sitcom The vicar of Dibley, it is, so I am told, the Cambridge-educated toff, the rich rightwinger, David Horton (played by Gary Waldon), who is the benefactor.
At a parish level the Church of England generally embodied the unity of squire and parson. The pulpit represented, strove to serve the party of order, the party of privilege and established tradition. The parish church really was the Tory Party at prayer. Congregations were predominantly middle class, deferential and smugly bigoted. In rural areas especially, this remains the case. Of course, that did not, and does not, mean the ‘lower sort’ entirely stayed away. Some did and still do join the C of E. But they tend to constitute the most docile, the least questioning, the lackeys, the dupes, the most dependent … in a word, the deserving poor.
Not surprisingly, non-conformism continued to attract rather different congregations to their chapels and meeting houses. Eg, those opposed to the monarchy, anti-Tories, radicals, rebels, levellers, the independently minded. And to one degree they were correspondingly persecuted. Non-conformists were barred from universities and official government posts, arrested, flogged, fined, imprisoned, etc. John Bunyan (1628-1688) wrote Pilgrim’s progress while serving a 12-year stretch in Bedford gaol.
Though driven underground, the non-conformists could not be crushed. The 1688 ‘glorious’ revolution was therefore swiftly followed by an act of toleration which gave the king’s protestantsubjects freedom of worship. The motivation was clear. Unity of Great Britain against catholic counterrevolution. As a result, the Church of England’s monopoly gave way to multiple choice. Thus begun, though, the legally accepted division of the nation into church and chapel.
Especially after the Napoleonic wars, and then the failure of Chartism, a refracted non-conformism served as an alternative to revolutionary political involvement and change. Quietism, resignation, gradualism and success in business increasingly characterised Presbyterianism, Quakerism, Methodism, etc. Nonetheless, class differences continue to separate Anglicanism from non-conformism. Palpable and surely undeniable.
Studies show that, though the relationship between class and religion has become more fragmented, “broad patterns of behaviour are evident”. Participation in the Church of England “has tended to involve the middle classes”: ie, not that many of the activists are working class. Anglicans are therefore still “more likely to vote Conservative” rather than Labour. On the other hand Methodism “attracts greater numbers of working class participants”.13 Meanwhile, crucially due to successive waves of poor Irish migrants, and now Poles, the Roman catholic church in Britain has overwhelmingly working class congregations. Note: Roman catholics only secured equal rights in 1829 (and there remains in force the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars catholics from inheriting the crown).
True, in the 19th and 20th centuries the Church of England successfully, triumphantly, spread to the four corners of the globe; it followed, made way for, or took over from the British empire. Two overseas dioceses in 1800 increased to 72 in 1882, and to 450 (in 28 provinces) in the 1990s.
Yet, as we have seen, with the unstoppable growth of dissent and non-conformism, the Church of England saw its political influence and legal powers slowly drain away and with the end of compulsory attendance its dreary services have attracted fewer and fewer souls. A decline that became ever more pronounced with the rise of the working class. “In Victorian Britain … the least religious social group, considered in terms of religious practice, was urban working class adult males”.14
As the C of E lost out externally, it became more and more divided internally. Indeed, today, as can be seen in no uncertain terms by the Lambeth conference, the C of E, and the Anglican communion as a whole, is unmistakably split into three well entrenched parties: broad-church compromisers, high-church Anglo-catholics and evangelical protestant fundamentalists. Women bishops and practising homosexual clergy are merely today’s particular obsession.
But are there “two C of Es” in the sense comrade Manson imagines? A reactionary church above and a potentially progressive church below? No, not in my opinion. The Church of England has an elaborate, well tested and unified line of command which at the top disappears or merges into the state core. By way of analogy it has field marshals, generals, brigadiers, lieutenants, captains, sergeants, corporals and privates.
At the pinnacle of the Church of England stands the monarch. Amongst Elizabeth Windsor’s many gaudy constitutional titles is ‘Supreme governor of the Church of England’. Here is the field marshal. The canons of the Church of England state: “We acknowledge that the queen’s excellent majesty, acting according to the laws of the realm, is the highest power under god in this kingdom, and has supreme authority over all persons in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil”.15
Today, though, “supreme authority” really lies with the prime minister. After a formal ‘consultation’ with the Crown Nominations Commission, he or she chooses the archbishops to the provinces of Canterbury and York and the 43 diocesan bishops (the generals and brigadiers).
What about the assistant bishops, cathedral clergy and 200-300 vicars who operate under the command of each bishop? They are lieutenants and captains: ie, an integral part of the officer corps (a few parish priests will expect promotion up the ladder to the highest ranks).
Moreover, it can usefully be pointed out, many licensed priests have time-fixed terms of tenure. Nowadays they rely on bishops for reappointment. Those who fail to conform, toady and please can be evicted and are thereby made immediately jobless and homeless.
A stifling and oppressive hierarchical relationship symbolised by the fact that no member of the clergy can be instituted and inducted into a parish without first swearing the oath of allegiance to the monarch and taking the oath of canonical obedience “in all things lawful and honest” to the bishop.16
The Church of England is certainly no democratic “church of congregations”, a fact testified to by the homosexual Anglo-catholic, Michael Hampson (a former vicar). The same first-hand source confirms from his own bitter experience, that the “parish clergy are lowest rung … of that hierarchy, sworn to allegiance and