Thursday, November 22, 2012

Church 3

                        The Contemporary Scene

Shortly after the publication of Paine's Age of Reason with its deist
critique of the Bible, a certain Bishop Watson replied with an 
"An Apology for the Bible in a Series of Letters addressed to Thomas 
Paine". George III commented that he wasn't aware the Bible needed 
an apology. Blake noted in his Annotations to Watson's Apology "that 
Paine has not attacked Christianity; Watson has defended Antichrist". 
On the back of the title page Blake wrote: "To defend the Bible in this
year 1798 would cost a man his life. The Beast and the Whore rule
without control".

The Beast and the Whore, two of the more flamboyant images of
Revelation, in Blake's vernacular symbolized respectively the State
and the Church. 

                                    A State Church

England has always had a State Church. Although many fat books
have been written about it, the English Reformation primarily
signified Henry VIII's declaration of independence from the papacy.
Through the Middle Ages religious and temporal authority had
existed side by side in continuous alliance and usually with a
minimum of tension. At the high point of papal authority in 1077 a
Holy Roman Emperor waited for three days in the snow outside the
door until Pope Gregory VII saw fit to receive him. The Pope
considered the kings and princes of Europe his spiritual children. 

Henry VIII was a child who grew up. When the Pope denied him
permission to put away his wife in favor of a later romantic interest,
Henry declared himself in effect the pope of the English Church and
gave himself the necessary dispensation. That was the major event
of the English Reformation; thereafter the ultimate authority of the
Church of England resided with the Crown. 

By Blake's standards a State Church is the ultimate abomination.
He was aware that in the second century at least one Emperor had
attempted to enforce the worship of his person as God throughout
the Roman Empire, resulting in considerable persecution of those
Jews and Christians who refused. Much of the New Testament
addressed the problem. In 312 A.D. Constantine took over the
Church and made it an arm of the State. That's the way Blake saw it
in the 18th Century. 

In America we take for granted the separation of Church and State
as a constitutional principle. This limits the sort of power that
corrupted Henry VIII. In England many people feel comfortable with
a State Church, but traditions of freedom have limited its power. A
large proportion of the population exist in religious groups outside of
the State Church, and probably an even larger proportion have no
significant religious attachment. 

Even in Blake's day the tradition of dissent was an accepted part of
the established order. True, the State Church operated Oxford and
Cambridge for its own purposes, primarily preparing clergymen. But
dissenting academies had arisen to provide a form of education in
many ways superior to that of the established universities,
especially in the new areas of science and industry. Dissenters
largely carried out the Industrial Revolution. 

The 17th Century had witnessed an explosion of dissent in which
the head of State and Church had lost his own head. But the
Restoration in 1660 reinstated the former arrangements. The
Commonwealth struggle had led to a general disgust with religious
controversy. Enthusiasm came to be despised and feared by clergy
and laity alike. Conventional 18th Century religion had little to do
with the feelings. It was rather an intellectual and political matter. 

One of Blake's four zoas, Urizen aptly portrays the God of the
majority of Anglicans during Blake's age. The State Church existed
as a facade or symbol of order and authority, but with limited power,
temporal or spiritual. 

The State Church, like the Jewish Sanhedrin, represented a
minority of the people, the conservative establishment types, the
squirearchy, the people who for centuries had controlled society.
Frequently the landowner's younger son became the priest, though
his character may have been dissolute. Politics dictated clerical
appointments. Pluralism was common, the same man being
appointed to a number of church positions. He would hire a curate
to look after each parish's affairs, often at a tenth of the income
which the parish provided him. 

The bishops served primarily as political officials; they spent most of
their time in London sitting in the House of Lords, where they
generally provided a faithful voting block for the Crown. Tithes were
the law of the land and enforced much as the income tax is today,
much of the proceeds going to the clergy. It was a convenient
arrangement, but it could not last; there was too much dissent, too
much growth, too much creativity. Change was overtaking all
England's institutions, and the Church was no exception. The
religious changes had been quietly gathering force for centuries. 

Side by side with Henry VIII's Reformation had existed a grass
roots movement which we may call the Radical Reformation. It was
made up of less worldly types than Henry, people who took their
religion more seriously. One such group departed England in 1619
aboard the Mayflower. Their descendants became the Established
Church in New England and spun off dissents from their dissent,
like that of Roger Williams. 

William Penn brought shiploads of other irregulars to found a new
colony. The Pilgrims, the Baptists, the Quakers of necessity learned
to coexist--with one another, with other Eurpoean religious groups,
and with the Cavaliers of Virginia, who were solidly Anglican. All
cooperated in throwing off the yoke of the mother country. In this
melting pot religious groups learned to compete in an ecclesiastical
form of free enterprise. It represented quite an improvement over
the religious wars that had decimated Europe in previous centuries. 

The same fluid climate existed in the mother country. Every group
that immigrated contained members who remained behind and
found a place in English society. The State Church, with its large
and unwieldy ecclesiastical bureaucracy, existed alongside an
infrastructure of non-Conformist groups. What these groups lacked
in political clout they made up for in creativity, character, industry,
and commercial acumen. Each group has a fascinating story. In the
next post we look at two of them which had a specific relationship to
the mind of William Blake

No comments: