The Anglican Way: Poets, Priests, and Princes

Throughout this series on The Anglican Way, I have attempted to point us beyond merely the doctrine of Anglicanism to come to recognize something of the experience of Anglicanism. This is not because I find doctrine to be unimportant, as is evidenced by the large amount I have written on the subject, but because doctrine only brings us so far in understanding a tradition. Doctrine is like a skeleton. Without the skeleton, the body falls limp, unable to have structure and substance. Yet if the body were nothing but a skeleton, there would be no life in it. So the Anglican Way is about not just doctrine but doctrine-in-motion, the traditional way in which the faith of Anglicanism has been expressed.

With that in mind, I think that it is hard to understand Anglicanism without understanding its relationship to monarchy. And in turn, the relationship to monarchy is difficult to understand without accepting the place of poetry and drama in Anglican tradition. The heart and soul of Anglican faith is expressed liturgically, after all, and liturgy is nothing if not poetic and dramatic.

The Sacred Poetic

It should not be a surprise that many of the great figures of early Anglicanism were renowned almost as much for their literary achievements as their theology. Take, for instance, the poet John Donne who became a priest in 1615 but was well known both before and after for his poetic exploration of faith. Or the eighteenth century Irish Anglican Jonathan Swift, known far and wide for his fiction and satire, but only remembered by a few for being the Dean of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Men like these found an artistic expression for their faith not because the Church lacked a more appropriate outlet but precisely because the Church that they knew, the Church that was their mother, was herself an artist. Is it any wonder that arguably the greatest Anglican theologian of the twentieth century was not a priest or a bishop but a professor of literature and a writer of fantastic stories named C. S. Lewis? This is the water in which the ship of Anglicanism sails, and it is impossible for us to reach that ship if we are unwilling to get a little bit wet in the process.

God Save the King

Anglicanism is also a tradition that is deeply tied in to a particular understanding of the role of the state in relation to the Church and the figure of the monarch who bridges the gap between the two. This, of course, is something that many Anglicans around the world have tried to get away from, particularly in America where the democratic notions of the enlightenment are revered in an almost god-like way, but the Anglican view of monarchy is inescapable in the Anglicanism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Henry VIII relied on the idea of the divine right of kings to justify separation from Rome, and Charles I defended this notion all the way to the scaffold. Episcopacy and monarchy are tied to each other, both being believed by early high Anglicans to be expressions of God’s providential order. This does not mean that the king is infallible nor that he can alter the faith as he pleases. Some bishops eventually became non-jurors because they had sworn an allegiance to James II that they would not abandon, but some of those same bishops had earlier been willing to go to the Tower of London to oppose policies under James that they believed to be contrary to the catholic faith. Defiance of the king, however, is not the ideal. When all is in working order, the state functions for the good of the people while upholding the principles of the faith, the Church functions for the salvation of the people while respecting the place of the state, and the monarch stands as the embodiment of both, leading both through his example as much as through decree.

Monarchy in a Democratic World

And yet, the vast majority of Anglicans today live in places where there is no monarch, and even in England where the queen is still considered the supreme governor of the Church, the power and prestige of the monarchy has been reduced to something purely ceremonial and symbolic. So what place, if any, does this history of divine right monarchy have in worldwide Anglicanism?

One of the things I enjoyed most about reading Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia was the way in which he described the kings and queens of his fairytale world. They were brave, kind, and just. They defended the weak and they were the first to march into battle. When they made mistakes, they made penance. When they were victorious, they shared the victory with those who had sworn loyalty to them. That is what monarchy is about. The monarch is to model Christian virtue and heroism. When that kind of a symbol of strong leadership is wedded to the ceremonial of ancient liturgical worship, there is a development of character that takes place in the heart of the believer. It is not something that can be achieved simply through instruction. It has to be experienced.

Kings and queens in the real world have never been so good as the kings and queens of Narnia. In fact, some of them have been downright horrid. Nevertheless, the ideal of kingship is meant to be found in the office of the monarch, and the majesty of that office, the regal, larger-than-life nature of the king, helps to communicate that ideal, because ultimately the kingship of classical Anglicanism is not about the individual man or woman sitting on the throne but about the kingship of God. The monarch on earth is an icon of the monarch in heaven. It always jars me a bit when I see pictures of Queen Elizabeth out and about in her Sunday best or King Juan Carlos I of Spain wearing a business suit. There is something missing when there aren’t crowns, robes, long red carpets, and men with swords at their side. As the old saying goes, the medium is the message.

Worship as Poetry in Motion

That said, the days of the old monarchy are long past in Europe and never existed in America or in other parts of the world. Perhaps this is ultimately for the best, as the abuses of monarchy often outweighed its benefits. Nevertheless, modern Anglicanism retains something of the spirit of this ideal in the poetry of worship. Ours is not a dry worship built solely upon puritan notions of biblical correctness. Ours is a worship in which we may experience the God of the Bible, in which there are priests, processions, crosses, chalices, vestments, movements, gestures, and even occasionally incense, all of which is in the service of bringing not just our minds but our whole being into the presence and holiness of God.

The way that we come to know God is not all that different from the way that we come to know anyone else. If I want to know my next door neighbor, I could do a bunch of research on him and find out what he does for a living, where his favorite restaurants are, how he votes, and how old his children are, but knowing all of that would not actually bring me to know him. The only way for me to know him is to come into his presence and listen as he speaks to me and shares his life with me. We know God the same way. This is why the locus of our doctrine as Anglicans is not confessional but liturgical. We are kinesthetic beings. We learn through doing. We learn through symbols that we can experience with our senses. We learn through stepping into the narrative rather than hearing it described to us.

Worship that does not express the majesty of God is just as unsettling as monarchy that does not express the majesty of kingship. And truly godly worship should let us know that the one we worship is truly our king.

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About Fr. Jonathan

Your average traditional crunchy Christ follower with a penchant for pop culture, politics, and puns.
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5 Responses to The Anglican Way: Poets, Priests, and Princes

  1. Very well said indeed. The tendency to dismiss the aesthetic elements of the faith as so much window dressing in order to get to the supposed “real” underneath ultimately leads to a kind of liturgical gnosticism. Worship such as God desires is in both Spirit and Truth: that is, the ineffable as well as the definitely touchable, tastable, visible. Worship that is all form and no content may fall short, but there can be no real content without form!

    Monarchy, it seems to me, is one of those forms. Americans have come up with some substitutes of our own, but one still senses the longing for majesty — and that does perhaps explain the perdurance of liturgical churches on these shores, with their retained fragments of antique royal heritage — the banners, processions, festal music. Thanks for your insights on this.

  2. Javier says:

    Great writing Father. It gives me an idea of how our theologians are very well related with literature. It is very important for me since I am a literature major. Blessings1

  3. Pingback: The Precious Name of Jesus | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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