Religious Division and Identity – Richard III and the Rest of Us – Part I

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.

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No Catholic Burial for Richard III

I imagine some of our readers already know this, but here’s a follow up on a story we covered earlier this year. In February, archaeologists confirmed that they had discovered the remains of King Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester. Richard died in battle at Bosworth Field in August 1485; the Tudor victors gave him a rather unceremonious burial in what was then a local abbey. Richard will now be re-interred in Leicester’s Anglican cathedral, most likely next May. Back in February, some Catholics objected that Richard, who was Catholic, should by rights be buried in a Catholic ceremony in a Catholic sanctuary. According to the Law and Religion UK blog, however, the Catholic Church in the UK will not insist. The Catholic Bishop of Nottingham states:

The Bishop is pleased that the body of King Richard III has been found under the site of Greyfriars Church in Leicester, in which it was buried following the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, and that it will be reinterred with dignity in the city where he has lain for over five hundred years. Richard III was one of the last Catholic monarchs of England and his death was a decisive moment in British history, but the ultimate decision as to what form the interment takes lies with the Government and the Church of England, since he will be buried in Leicester Cathedral. In accordance with long-established ecumenical practice, Bishop Malcolm will be happy to take part in any form of ceremony which takes place to mark his final burial.

A little hard to follow, but the meaning seems to be, as the government has already decided to bury Richard in the Church of England, the government can also decide on the ceremony. So that’s that. The event will surely be less tense than Richard’s coronation. But will they serve strawberries at the reception?

Good-Bye to All That?

A report in last week’s Telegraph suggests that British Christianity is declining more rapidly than previously understood. Initial reports about the 2011 census showed the number of people in England and Wales who describe themselves as Christians had fallen by 10 percent since 2001. But it turns out those figures included Christian immigrants, such as Polish Catholics and African Pentecostals. When one looks only at the native born, the percentage of people who describe themselves as Christians has fallen by an even greater amount–by 15% in the space of one decade. The decline is particularly pronounced among the young. At this rate, the Telegraph predicts, Christianity could become a minority religion in Britain within the next decade.

These numbers have worrisome implications for the future of the Established Church. In a country where only a minority is willing to describe itself as Christian, what would be the basis for maintaining state Christianity? A spokesman for the Church of England admits the census numbers present a challenge, but notes that recent attendance figures have been stable, and that the committed core “of the faithful remains firm.” Maybe so, but state churches, almost by definition, need to draw support from society as a whole, not only the people who attend every Sunday. Perhaps those respondents who said they weren’t Christians nonetheless think the established church serves a useful social function and want it to endure. But maybe not.

Should Richard III Receive a Catholic Burial?

You thought there couldn’t be a law and religion angle to today’s news–fascinating for us history nerds–that archaeologists have discovered the mortal remains of Richard III beneath a parking lot in Leicester? Think again. Plans are underway to re-inter the bones in the city’s Anglican Cathedral. Not so fast, say some: the hunchback king wasn’t a Protestant, but a Catholic, and he requires a Catholic burial. In fact, as Shakespeare fans know, Richard died at Bosworth Field (“A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”), defending his throne from Henry Tudor. Henry went on to reign as Henry VII;  his son, Henry VIII, broke with Rome. As The Tablet’s blog argued this morning, “Had Richard prevailed at the Battle of Bosworth Field, there would have been no Henry VII, therefore no Henry VIII and no Reformation. England today might still be a Catholic country.” Think of it: no Reformation, no Established Church, no Archbishop Laud, no Puritans, no Great Migration — no Massachusetts! — and no Establishment Clause. Surely there’s a law review article in there somewhere.

Leicester Cathedral seems to know it’s facing a sensitive situation. A Catholic priest is keeping watch over Richard’s remains (as is an Anglican, I believe), and the cathedral is planning a “multifaith” burial ceremony. Personally, I’m not sure why English Catholics are so keen to claim Richard, anyway. They must be forgetting the nephews in the Tower.

Levis on Changes in the Church of England from 1660-1760

The Oxford Journal of Church and State has posted The Pragmatic Pulpit: Politics and Changes in Preaching Styles in the Church of England, 1660–1760 by R. Barry Levis (Rollins College).  An extract of the piece follows.

Victorian evangelicals and Tractarians shared a negative assessment of the eighteenth-century church. E. B. Pusey, for instance, saw the deficiencies of his contemporary church stretching back to the previous century. Pusey, as well as the other Tractarians, maintained that the eighteenth-century church had “suffered deeply, both in lukewarmness of life and degeneracy of faith, until the horrors of the French Revolution awoke us as out of a death-sleep.” In another context, he noted with disdain that “the eighteenth century was comparatively a stagnant period of the Church,—in England, owing to the violent revolution, whereby so many of her best members, the Non-juring Clergy, were ejected, and that, at one time, the State set itself to corrupt and degrade her, and her writers looked for strength in foreign alliances;—abroad, through the development of the principles of the ultra-reformation, and the influence of degraded England and corrupted France.” Instead, Pusey looked with particular nostalgia toward the seventeenth-century divines.

Many in the eighteenth century would have concurred with this judgment that the Church of England suffered from decay in both discipline and doctrine. Fiction writers portrayed its clergy as incompetent buffoons. Henry Fielding famously depicted Parson Trulliber in Joseph Andrews as more at home in the pig sty, “but two steps from his parlour-window,” than the pulpit. Trulliber had a special gift to arouse female members of his congregation with his preaching. One overly stimulated congregant who “to say the truth, the parson had exercised her ways than one; … , resolved to receive the bad things of this world together with the good.” Jane Austen painted an obsequious Mr. Collins in Pride and Prejudice. Likewise, William Hogarth produced several satirical etchings skewering the clergy.

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