The role of the established church in making and renewing the greatness of traditional Britain - Conference Talk - Peter Myers

by The Editor

The role of the established church in making and renewing the greatness of traditional Britain - Conference Talk - Peter Myers
Peter Myers talk to the Traditional Britain Conference 2012.

I’d like to begin by thanking the committee for inviting Church Society to contribute to your conference today. For those of you who haven’t heard of us, Church Society is the direct descendent of over a dozen Protestant organisations set up to protect the Biblical faith of the Church of England.

Our earliest forebear, the Protestant Association, dates to 1835. In the 19th century we tackled the rise of Catholic theology in the CofE, and in the 20th century we tackled the rise of Liberal theology. Our journal, the Churchman, is over 100 years old and provides conservative theology which is both academic and pastoral. Through our Trust we have influence in the appointment of ministers in over 100 parishes throughout the country. We are involved in Westminster politics with campaigns such as Keep Marriage Special, and we are involved in Church of England politics both at synod and elsewhere. Our work takes place both at the national and local levels. We are classically Protestant, and socially conservative.

So as you can see, there are many points of connection between Church Society and the Traditional Britian Group. So I would commend membership of the Society to you and emphasise again how grateful we are for your invitation. Now, having introduced the Society, let me introduce my theme: The Church of England – should it remain established?

The Church of England: an Increasingly Liberal and Liberalising Institution


Church Society was invited to address your conference because apparently some of you feel the Church of England should be disconnected from its privileged role in British government. It’s an opinion that I can understand and empathise with. Increasingly the Church of England appears liberal, socialist, “progressive” (or “regressive”), out of touch, unchristian and unbelieving. Rather than being a force for maintaining the traditional structures of our society the Church of England is contributing to the erosion of the traditional family unit by denying the equally valuable but distinct roles of men and women in its marriage vows in its introduction of female presbyters and in its likely introduction of female bishops

And it is this denial of the distinction between the sexes which is inevitably leading to the calls to redefine the institution of marriage itself. If men and women are seen as completely indistinct in their roles, and completely interchangeable, then it's no surprise that many presbyters and even some bishops are seemingly in support of gay marriage, and willing to bless civil partnerships.

Now don't get me wrong: women are valuable, and the ministry of women is valuable. A large conservative evangelical church in the City of London employs 13 women in non-administrative roles. That's a higher percentage per head employee than in any of the surrounding banks and buildings. It employs more women than all the rest of the churches in the deanery put together. So women are valued, and their ministry is valued, but none of them take on the role of presbyter, because the roles they play in the church reflect the biblical pattern for the family and the sexes.

And of course: everyone is welcome in church, gay and straight alike. Let me clarify that the Bible never condemns people for being gay. What God says in the Bible is that the best and right place for a sexual relationship is heterosexual marriage. The Bible tells us that everyone, including me, gets that wrong. I struggle with lust, as I also struggle to obey the other 9 commandments. But I’m welcome in church because the Christian gospel offers me forgiveness, and Jesus gives me his Spirit to transform my life and make me like Christ. So everyone is welcome because we’re all sinners in need of forgiveness.

However, that is not a license to deny that my sin is wrong, nor to redefine the nature of marriage. And so rather than carefully articulating these biblical and pastoral positions the Church of England has increasingly bought into the spirit of the age.

In a misunderstanding of the nature of equality, the CofE has denied that men and women can have any distinction in their roles at all. But being equal does not mean being the same: and by assuming that men and women are identical it is not surprising that they are increasingly treated as completely interchangeable. If men and women are indistinct and identical, then why not replace the woman in a marriage with another man?

This is the kind of thinking which is increasing in prominence in the Church of England. The CofE is increasingly a liberal and liberalising institution, seeking to question traditional values and hence undermine traditional institutions. And this liberalising institution is sewn into the fabric of our society, and so I can understand why many of you may wish to see the back of it.

Developing a Reflected Philosophy of Tradition and Change


But I want to argue with you this morning that jettisoning the Church of England will do the country no favours, and I'm going to argue that with you by asking you to reflect for a moment on your understanding of change and tradition. In other words, I'm going to ask you to consider: What is the core and what is the husk of traditional Britain?

Everyone has a philosophy of tradition, which is itself a philosophy of change. Let me explain what I mean: if you are someone who wishes to maintain tradition, then that necessarily means that the world around you is changing, otherwise why would the tradition you care about need to be maintained? The maintenance of tradition implies the erosion of tradition

And what is ‘tradition’? Well, I'm not a sociologist, but if I may offer a layman's definition just for the sake of our discussion: Tradition is the values, institutions, networks and rituals which constitute our socio-cultural identity. And it is for this reason that tradition is so central to the identity and function of any society. The values, institutions, networks and rituals which make up the tradition we wish to maintain are intimately connected to every aspect of our daily lives.

My youngest son is 2, and already he has a clear understanding of the difference between boys and girls. He can play rough and tumble with his mates, but he must be more gentle and respectful with his female friends. He understands that he can mess around on my living room carpet, but when in church, or at nursery, he's already learnt in that setting to sit quietly and listen. The values, institutions, networks and rituals that constitute our tradition and our culture directly impact every aspect of life, and hence form the framework and structures necessary for my 2 year old to learn how to behave and have fruitful relationships with other people.

The problem, however, is this: precisely because tradition is connected to every aspect of our daily lives, as the world around us changes the traditions we wish to maintain will unavoidably undergo change also. Take, for example, the British countryside: I'm sure that all of us here value our countryside and would wish to see it maintained. However, what does that mean for your attitude toward developments in farm technology?

While all of us want to see the countryside protected, we're not Amish peasants are we? Advocating the complete rejection of machinery such as tractors, combine harvesters, or seeders. Yet at the same time, I consider it likely that many here would value the preservation of traditional skills such as horsemanship and some traditional forms of pest-control such as fox-hunting.

So tradition is connected to every aspect of daily lives, and daily lives are constantly changing, but can you see the problem this raises? If change is happening all the time, and all traditions are deeply connected to such change, then at some point you need to decide what it is about the tradition that you want to keep. Traditionalists are constantly faced with the challenge of deciding what is the core of the tradition we seek to protect and what is the husk that we're happy to see fall away? Why are horsemanship and fox-hunting part of the core you may wish to protect, but hand and ox-drawn ploughs are something you're prepared to let go?

Conservativism: A Methodology in Need of an Underpinning Ideology


Koyzis, a North American Christian social scientist, puts this in very straightforward terms when he describes the conservative dilemma. In a world of change, the big question facing all conservatives is this: What is it that we wish to conserve? (1)

Koyzis takes this observation a step further to argue that that question reveals something about the nature of conservativism, and the point he makes is this: Conservativism is not itself an ideology. You see an ideology, such as mine—Evangelical, Protestant, and Anglican—is a fixed set of ideas, hence the term ideology. It is an ideology encapsulated by the 39 Articles very well:

Articles 1-5 give the substance of that ideology:

There is one God in three persons. The second person, the Son of God became man, died for my sins and rose again.

Articles 6-8 give the rule of that ideology

The Bible is God’s Word and man’s ultimate authority, and contains everything needed for salvation.

Articles 9-18 give the personal implications of that ideology

I am a sinner, deserving of God’s anger. Jesus faced that anger for me on the cross. So when I start trusting in him I am forgiven, and as I keep trusting in him I am transformed.

Articles 19-39 give the corporate life of that ideology

The church, the ministry, the sacraments, the state are all there to point me to Christ and faith in him; not to replace him or usurp him.

That is an ideology, a fixed set of ideas, and wherever you go in the world “Evangelical, Protestant, and Anglican” means that fixed set of ideas (or at least it should do, which is why Cranmer wrote them down). In contrast, conservativism is not an ideology. Conservativism is the attitude that wishes to conserve something that already exists. And so, Koyzis argues, whether you’re a conservative or a liberal depends on the status quo where and when you are.

In the UK I am a conservative because: I value freedom of speech and thought, I value individual privacy and freedom, and I value a free market. (2) In the UK, those are pre-existing values developed from our Christian heritage which I wish to conserve. But in Iran, or Saudi Arabia I might be labelled a liberal for holding those same views because their inherited tradition is different.

So conservativism is not itself an ideology, because unlike “Evangelical, Protestant and Anglican,” it’s not in and of itself connected to a fixed set of ideas, which means that, in a world of change, the conservative attitude doesn't make any sense unless it is coupled with a consistent, underlying, ideology. When deciding what it is you wish to conserve, when deciding what the core and the husk of tradition is, you have to ask yourself: What is it that I really believe?

The Church of England in its Formularies as a Consistently Conservative Institution


Now, archbishop Cranmer recognised the crucial importance of this question. So much so, that the English Prayer Book itself begins by discussing it. Cranmer writes:

It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it.

In other words, at the English Reformation, Cranmer acknowledges right at the beginning of his project that you must maintain tradition but at the same time allow for ongoing change. He describes this as keeping the mean between two extremes, and Cranmer goes on to explain the conservative rationale for being suspicious of change:

For, as on the one side common experience sheweth, that where a change hath been made of things advisedly established (no evident necessity so requiring) sundry inconveniences have thereupon ensued; and those many times more and greater than the evils, that were intended to be remedied by such change...

In other words, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If there's no good reason to change something, then don't! Because most of the time you generate worse problems by doing so. I believe a form of this argument shall be made by most of the speakers here today.

At the same time, Cranmer allows for the judicious and wise application of change:

So on the other side, the particular Forms of Divine worship, and the Rites and Ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent, and alterable, and so acknowledged; it is but reasonable, that upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigency of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as to those that are in place of Authority should from time to time seem either necessary or expedient.

So Cranmer does allow for change, but notice the language he uses to describe such change. He wishes it to be "reasonable," which means that the reasons to consider change must be "weighty and important." He recognises that such "weighty and important" reasons arise in a changing world on account of the "various exigency of times and occasions." Change should not be an individual's prerogative but should be a corporate decision made by those in "Authority." And the bar for accepting change is set very high: is a suggested change "necessary" or "expedient"?

So, it seems to me on my reading of the Prayer Book that Cranmer adopts a philosophy of tradition and change and a methodological approach that is in the best sense conservative. But of course, since conservativism is not itself an ideology that leaves us with the question: how does Cranmer separate the core from the husk? As a conservative, how does he decide what to conserve?

Well, Cranmer goes on in the Preface to give his apology for the Book of Common Prayer:

Alterations as were tendered to by us (by what persons, under what pretences, or to what purpose soever so tendered) as seemed to us in any degree requisite or expedient, we have willingly and of our own accord assented unto: not enforced so to do by any strength of Argument, convincing us of the necessity of making the said Alternations: For we are fully persuaded in our judgements (and we here profess it to the world) that the Book, as it stood before established by Law, doth not contain in it any thing contrary to the Word of God, or to sound Doctrine, or which a godly man may not with a good Conscience use and submit unto, or which is not fairly defensible against any that shall oppose the same; if it shall be allowed such just and favourable construction as in common Equity ought to be allowed to all human Writings, especially such as are set forth by Authority, and even to the very best translations of the holy Scripture itself.

Now, let me unpack that for you! Cranmer stresses in the strongest possible terms that the ultimate source of ideology, the ultimate arbiter of what to conserve and what to change, is the Word of God. Listen to the emphasis that he puts on that point: all changes, “by what persons, under what pretences, to what purpose soever so tendered…”

It doesn't matter who made the change or when they made the change or why they made the change. The decision for keeping it or not was made on the basis of God's Word. Yes, Cranmer acknowledges that the Prayer Book is just a human piece of writing, but it has been given to the country by people in Authority and put together in light of the very best translations of the holy Scripture itself, and Cranmer's understanding of what that holy scripture says is laid out in the 39 articles which I summarised for you earlier.

Cranmer is a conservative, he draws his ideology from the Bible and the ideology he finds there is the Evangelical, Protestant, Anglican faith as described in the 39 articles. That is the core of the English Church. Friends: can I please commend Cranmer's reasoning to you?

The Vital Need to Re-establish the Centrality of the Bible in Church and State


The Church of England has become a liberalising institution precisely because the church has forgotten its moorings in scripture and the Protestant faith that it teaches. The state is increasingly liberal, and our inherited tradition is decaying, precisely because the country has forgotten its moorings in scripture and the Protestant faith that it teaches. However, if you seek to solve this problem by disestablishing the Church of England you'll only serve to accelerate this decline not to remedy it.

The solution is for the church, the country, and the conservative party to put the Bible and the Protestant faith back at the centre of what they do. Only then will we rightly identify the core and the husk, and only then will we protect the substance of our inherited tradition.

Now, let me try and unpack some of this argument for you from a real world example. Take Boris Johnson’s argument in the Independent last week, when he described marriage as being a relic of the stone age. (3)

Johnson is well known for being a keen monarchist: well monarchy was the earliest form of government, and neolithic tribes were either ruled by a tribal chief or had some system of collective decision making, so democracy and monarchy are also stone age relics! Yes they've undergone some changes over time—as has marriage. The point is, my question to Johnson would be: Why do you want to conserve one stone age relic but change another?

Conservativism is not an ideology, so what is Johnson's ideology? Why do I think that marriage is worth keeping? Very simple: it's in our Keep Marriage Special campaign—because the Bible tells me so. Conservativism is not itself an ideology, it is a methodology that needs ideological underpinning. Both the church and the state need to reclaim their biblical, Protestant ideology. Currently that ideology is at least enshrined in our constitutional make-up, in the establishment of the English church, and her Protestant formularies.

But let me ask you: if you are calling for the disestablishment of the Church of England, what ideology do you expect to replace it? Islam? New Atheism? Buddhism? Hinduism?

Now I’m not going to go into a detailed apologia for Christianity above those other worldviews here, but I would argue this: the Christian ideology has one thing over and above them, and that is that it has proven itself in the history of our country. It has proven itself to be valuable and worthy. I’ve argued that conservativism is a philosophy of tradition and change, not an ideology in and of itself. I’ve argued that the CofE in its formularies has such a conservative philosophy of change. But conservativism needs that ideological underpinning, and the best thing for it is the Christian heritage bequeathed to us by our ancestors. The underlying ideology of the English church and the English state, has been the Protestant religion as taught in the Christian Scriptures, and so I’d encourage you to keep reading your Bibles, and to go your local Anglican Church and get involved.


1. David T. Koyzis, Political Visions & Illusions: A Survey & Christian Critique of Contemporary Ideologies (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP, 2003), 72-96.

2. There was some discussion at conference regarding whether the valuing of a free market is a truly conservative value. Please note the use of the indefinite article here. I value a free market, not necessarily the free market.

3. Boris Johnson, “Boris Johnson: I'm in favour of gay marriage and I can't see what all the fuss is about,” n.p. [cited 1 Nov 2012]. Online: Notice that the subtitle of the piece read: “In so far as marriage is a legal and secular recognition, by the state, of a union between two people, then that institution needs to move with the times.” Johnson’s claim presupposes the assertion that marriage is essentially a secular institution, which illustrates the point made in this address that a consistently conservative protection of British tradition must be underpinned by Christian doctrine and ideology. See

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