[This post has now been followed up by a loose series labelled ‘But Seriously’ in which I explore the biblical texts on the relation of Church and state. For now just check other posts under the ‘But Seriously’ heading; I’ll try and get some better indexing or whatever as my blogging skills improve]
I frequently look at the website ‘Ship of Fools’, which is Christianity with a sense of humour. As well as forums and news it has the ‘Secret Worshipper’ feature where people in effect review church services and comment on them, and some pure fun bits like ‘Signs and Blunders’ – an assortment of usually unintentional ‘gaffes’ from posters, noticeboards, church newsletters etc. (One intentional one I liked was the American church noticeboard saying “Will whoever is praying for snow please stop”!) One of these features is ‘Born Again’ which amusingly suggests, on the basis of a resemblance, that some well-known figure is a reincarnation of someone (or occasionally something!) else; Ian Paisley of Christopher (Dracula/Saruman) Lee, for instance. Recently this feature suggested that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, might be a reincarnation of Gollum, the Andy Serkis CGI-generated character from the Lord of the Rings. I sort of saw what they were getting at; but at first I did feel that for once the suggestion was a bit cruel, that ‘Born Again’ had gone too far….
But later I realised that while it might be rather cruel as a personal comment on the Archbishop’s appearance, it might actually be quite relevant as a comment on the reality of the Anglican Church. Gollum of course starts life as ‘Smeagol’, an imperfect but not particularly evil hobbit-like person who comes into contact with the One Ring and is led to murder his brother Deagol and ends up as the Gollum we meet in The Hobbit and then in the LOTR saga. Not a bad person underneath, but corrupted by his addiction to his ‘Precious’, the evil, deceptive and destructive Ring of Power which in the end he simply will not let go of even when this means he casts himself into the fiery Crack of Doom in Mordor. For the Church of England, the corrupting Ring of Power is the Church’s ‘Precious’ established status….
OK, historically the Church of England didn’t start relatively innocent like Smeagol; it grew out of a Catholic Church already corrupted by being tangled with the state since the days of Constantine, so it started already addicted to its ‘Precious’ in the hands of Henry VIII who wanted religious uniformity and control of his subjects. Indeed despite a pretty good attempt under Edward and Elizabeth at restoring the Biblical gospel, one could argue that the narrowly national establishment of Anglicanism was a slightly worse form of establishment than the Roman version. (I should mention here for the record that though currently Anabaptistic much of my early education in Christianity came from Anglicans and I still really appreciate many Anglican scholars like Stott and Packer and other clergy and laity I’ve known myself.)
Right from square one under Henry, the Anglicans persecuted dissenters; not only the Roman Catholics, but also at the other end a party of Dutch Anabaptists were executed by them. Persecution (such as the imprisonment of John Bunyan) continued till the Act of Toleration under William III, and all manner of petty discrimination carried on even beyond that – exclusion of dissenters from the universities for many years, for example. However, as will be a major theme of this blog in many of its posts, the big issue is not the obvious problems like wars and persecutions but the simple fact that being an established church is disobeying the Word of God and confusing the gospel teaching in all kinds of ways. It is particularly frustrating to us serious non-conformists that when one reads books by the like of Richard Dawkins; generally more than half of his criticism of our faith is not dealing with real biblical issues (which he’s usually misunderstood anyway!), but with the completely unnecessary faults and problems of the various established churches, and of others like Ian Paisley who want unbiblical favour and privilege in the state. We find ourselves having to fight through all that unnecessary stuff – where, let’s be blunt, we agree with Dawkins that it’s wrong – before we can get a hearing for the real biblical teaching.
As things currently stand, the Anglican establishment no longer means the totalitarian uniformity it started as under Henry and Elizabeth; it no longer even means that Anglicans (albeit often nominal) are the majority of the population – partly of course because much of Anglicanism has put people off religion generally. But still the Church clings resolutely to its destructive ‘Precious’, still the good it does is undermined by the contradictions and practical problems of establishment; still establishment is probably the biggest bar to Christian unity simply because it is impossible to be united with Anglicanism without accepting their entanglement with the state, their position as precisely the kind of ‘kingdom of this world’ that Jesus rejected when he defended himself before Pilate.
So, on the one hand, yes, it’s cruel and wrong to compare Archbishop Justin’s appearance to Gollum – Ship of Fools please repent in sackcloth and ashes; but on the other hand, yes, Gollum with his split personality and his destructive addiction to his ‘Precious’ is a pretty good symbol of the Archbishop’s church and its contradictory personality with its unbiblical clinging to the rags that remain of the tempting power and influence of establishment.