Thanks to Mark Movsesian for inviting me to guest blog here. I’ll mainly be posting in October, but here’s a down payment inspired by Mark’s entry about the decision to re-inter the recently-discovered remains of King Richard III in Leicester’s Anglican Cathedral rather than give him a Catholic burial. The Catholic bishop of Nottingham has approved the plan, and Mark’s post was appropriately relaxed, even tongue-in-cheek, about the whole thing. But some Catholic commentators are genuinely upset. They argue that Richard was Catholic, not Anglican, and deserves a Catholic ceremony. They insist that, for that matter, the Anglican Church didn’t even exist when Richard died.
Fights over long-dead bodies, famous or not, are often both religiously fraught and emotional. Consider the efforts of American Indian tribes, bolstered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, to reclaim remains that have ended up in museum collections. But they can also implicate deeper issues about religious identity and continuity — questions that end up involving theology, history, and law. For example, are prehistoric remains, such as those of Kenwick Man, genuinely the patrimony of modern native tribes? The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit famously said no.
Back to Richard III, though. Many Anglicans would deny that Richard III was “Catholic” in the limited contemporary sense of the word that would exclude his membership in the “Church of England.” The simple reason is that Anglicans claim a direct line back from their Church to the Church to which Richard belonged. As the COE’s website puts it, “The roots of the Church of England go back to the time of the Roman Empire when Christianity entered the Roman province of Britain. Through the influences of St Alban, St Illtud, St Ninian, St Patrick and, later, St Augustine, St Aidan and St Cuthbert, the Church of England developed, acknowledging the authority of the Pope until the Reformation in the 16th century.” Thus, Henry VIII might have split the English Church from Rome, but he did not create it anew. To be sure, Catholics have a different view. But neither position is self-evident by sheer definition.