Friday, July 21, 2017

The Confusion of Constantine

Leithart recently wrote two review articles about the Church of England in the Victorian era. These articles send mixed messages, especially in light of Leithart's larger body of work and thought.

The first article described how the Church was afflicted with a plague of absentee ministers and absentee parishes. The former collected their salaries and pursued their own interests, the latter were jacking up the parish record numbers. Thus, the numbers of the Church of England were highly inflated and don't reflect church life in the slightest.

The second article described how an Evangelical layman was able to procure the ability to administer preferment. This was an old practice of the English church, where a church was staffed by men selected by the wealthy lay property owner who donated land to the building of said church. This process was a means to subvert episcopal hostility to evangelical ministers. Thus lay people helped the gospel go forth, despite the intransigence of her bishops.

These stories seem to militate against each other, and reveal the confusion of a church's involvement in the formation of a national identity and deeply intertwined with the functions of social prestige. I don't know if Leithart is bemused, or supportive, by the Evangelical layman's triumphing over stodgy bishops. But either way, both of these aspects are due to the fact that the church was tied in with the structures and institutions of the nation in such a binding way. This is the problem of, as Hooker put it , the church as the nation at prayer. This was mostly a fiction that was only ever true viz. coercion. The Glorious Revolution, and the resulting toleration that resulted, led to the Church of England only existing in national prominence as the legally established church. As ministers complained throughout the eighteenth century, many ceased to show up on Sundays now that coercion was severely diminished. If anything, this actually freed the Church of England to realize some of the problems of being attached to the nation and to the state, though many of these lessons went mostly unlearned. The current beauty of much of the Anglican Communion is the blossoming of it in the Global South, which has risen up to challenge the vile apostasy found in most of the West, most notable in putrid state of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.

When the Church of England ceased to be English of essence and was such only by accident, it was freed to obey Christ's commission and reveal His glory. Constantine is not really the problem. Christians should praise an emperor (or whatever governing authority) who eases over persecutions and appreciate any gifts. But Constantine was not merely a passing phenomenon, but a mistaken image of Christ. Constantine is less a problem than Eusebeius' immortalization of him, which has become the defacto model of Sacralist Christendom ever since. National life becomes Christianized, which means actual people hardly are. Hence, the parishes empty and powerful "lay" people, lazy and blind, turn churches into Pagan dominions, little play things in the hands of a national life. The occasional Evangelical layman is only a set up for a greater tragedy, as the general anemia of the Church of England today shows. When will Leithart admit that, as it turns out, the Anabaptists were right the whole time about the relation of the Church to the nation? How many tragedies will it take to wake up?

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