Detractors of Anglicanism say it is wishy-washy and vulnerable to error.

Historians point out that James II’s Catholicism opposed religious plurality.  The King looked to France’s Louis XIV’s brand of Catholicism, which was not only devotional but supported religious absolutism.  James II intended to use this model in England in order to create a rational yet centralised Catholic nation.

Yet, England was still a nation of Protestants, dating from 150 years previously.  In order to bring England back to the Catholic Church, James II increased his standing army to 40,000 men.  Innkeepers who refused to accommodate Army officers lost their licences.  He also used the newly developed post office as a means of spying on dissenters.  He also ensured that local government officials supported him and filled Parliament with men who were onside.

A number of Christians in England — mostly Protestants, but even a number of Catholics — opposed this illiberal approach.  So, too, did the prominent political parties at the time, the Whigs and the Tories.  Together, they managed, despite the lack of instant communication we know today, to build a network to oppose James II’s reforms.  This revolt, known as the Glorious Revolution of 1688, was less bloody than the subsequent French revolution of 1789 (in which revolt against the monarchy and the Church featured prominently).  Nonetheless, it was marked by intense and violent popular uprisings which culminated in an Anglo-Dutch military invasion which saw William of Orange become King of England.

The Glorious Revolution was short, ending the following year.   Yet, it paved the way for the Acts of Union in 1707, readying the country for the Industrial Revolution and the building of the British Empire.  England became a modern, liberal state by becoming a constitutional monarchy, which effectively did away with the notion of the divine right of kings.  Parliament created a Bill of Rights which, among other things, guaranteed freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right of petition and abolition of cruel and unusual punishments.  (Of course, there were compromises that Catholics and dissenters had to make, e.g. the inability to hold public or university office.  Catholics were — and are to this day — not allowed to marry members of the Royal Family.  Nor can they ascend to the throne or to No. 10 Downing Street.)  

As a result, the Church of England embraced moderation in religion. Persecution stopped and the Anglican Church allowed freedom of religious expression. The parish vicar became a character whom English authors from the 1700s to the present love to satirise as a well-intentioned yet mealy-mouthed character intent on pleasing everyone with superficial platitudes.  On a more serious note, the 39 Articles of Religion have become watered down and are largely ignored to the point of heresy. 

Yet, on a social level, those raised in the Church of England and its various strands around the world are known for their breeding and manners, whatever their social class.  Until recently, it really was true that the Anglican Church was the ‘Tory Party at prayer’.  A good illustration is Prime Minister David Cameron, who told the London Evening Standard last year:

“I’ve a sort of fairly classic Church of England faith, a faith that grows hotter and colder by moments but…I suppose I sort of started life believing that one’s individual faith was important, but actually the institutions of the church were less important.

“I do think that organised religion can get things wrong but the Church of England and the other churches do play a very important role in society.”

Cameron waited until he was 18 years old to be confirmed to make sure it was what he really believed.

“I was a good, sceptical, questioning Christian when I was younger. I liked to think it through, thinking am I really sure about this? But I don’t feel I have a direct line [to God].

“I think that it’s perfectly possible to live a good life without having faith, by which I mean a positive and altruistic life, but I think the teachings of Jesus just as the teachings of other religions are a good guide to help us through.

“Do unto others as you would have them do to you; don’t walk on by. These are good and thoughtful ideas to bring to life.”

Cranmer quotes from a past Spectator interview, which gives us more insight into a characteristic Anglicanism:

Cameron knows … that ostentatious piety simply will not do, so when taxed with his family’s Anglicanism he plays it down. In an interview with Charles Moore, he said, ‘We didn’t all sit around reading the Bible every day,’ and when Moore pointed out that some of his family were holy and a great-uncle was a bishop, Cameron replied with a laugh, ‘Anglican and holy are not the same thing at all’ …

The point is that Cameron is steeped in an Anglican tradition of behaviour. This gives him an innate sense that there are certain things one simply cannot do: he too has a moral compass …

In the same interview, with Dylan Jones, Cameron claimed his support for the family ‘is not just some view that springs from religion or morality’, to which one may reply: not just from religion, certainly, but it is hard to imagine him talking in this way without being an Anglican.

Because the Church of England is, or has become, a way of being religious without sounding religious, it is easy for observers to overlook how stern and unbending Anglicans can still be. Cameron’s moral authority has not sprung out of thin air. As Ferdinand Mount has written of the Mount side of Cameron’s family, ‘a high moral tone came naturally to them’.

And, yes, this is true of many Englishmen I know.  Those who were raised in the C of E know that there are definite dos and don’ts — from table manners to personal responsibility.  Unfortunately, this is disappearing with each generation, but it has kept England in the popular mind as an eminently civilised country, one which millions of people flock to every year, to settle in or to visit.  The Church of England must have done something right.

For more information on the Glorious Revolution, see:

William and Mary, a “Glorious Revolution” and Bill of Rights

1688: The First Modern Revolution

English Bill of Rights 1689

‘England’s Revolution’, The Economist, October 17, 2009, pp 101-102