The Church of England, the Nation and National Identity

By Dr Joe Hardwick

On the 17 March 1838 the St. Patrick’s Society of Toronto joined with its ‘sister societies’, the Societies of St. George and St. Andrew, to march through the town to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day.[1] On one level the procession was an attempt by a group of mostly middle-class colonial loyalists to express their common Britishness and allegiance to the Crown at a moment of imperial crisis: Upper Canada, as it was known then, had just experienced a dramatic rebellion that had united disaffected French Canadians in Lower Canada with radicals in Toronto in a common cause against the ruling anti-democratic oligarchy. Some 300 died in Lower Canada alone.

But the significance of the procession runs deeper than this. What is revealing is that a procession celebrating an Irish saint terminated at Toronto’s Anglican (or ‘English’ as it was known) Church, and that the procession – which was more British than Irish given the presence of the sister societies – then gathered to hear a sermon by an Anglican clergyman. That it was the Church of England that was chosen as the site for an Irish ethnic celebration seems strange:  not only was this an institution associated with the oppressive Protestant ascendancy back in Ireland, but it was also a church that was customarily seen as a representative of the English people, Englishness and such apparent English national traits as toleration and quiet authority. But what was happening in Toronto in 1838 was part of a wider attempt by the established Church of England in the nineteenth century to reassert its claims to be a national institution with a special relationship to particular ethnic or national groups. This programme of Anglican re-engagement with the nation and national identity occurred in both the colonies and back home, and it is one that has continued right up to the present day, with the revival of interest in ‘Englishness’ and the Church’s high-profile – but somewhat uncomfortable – involvement in the recent ‘Occupy London’ movement at St. Paul’s Cathedral, shining a spotlight on the Church’s place in national culture.

The Church of England, like the monarchy, has had to work hard at maintaining its status as a ‘national’ institution.[2] The Church’s traditional links with the state and the nation were coming unstuck in the period when the procession in Toronto was taking place, and they continued to unravel as the nineteenth century progressed, with nonconformists and others not content until all the Church’s constitutional privileges had been abolished. They failed – bishops still sit in the House of Lords – but the Church in 1900 could not say it had the same political authority than it did one hundred years previously.

But weakening ties with the state did not mean the Church renounced its status as a national institution, indeed after the constitutional reforms of the late 1820s – which meant non-Anglicans could now stand as members of parliament – the Church redoubled its efforts to engage with the nation: not only did this mean making sure the Church could reach out to communities in the industrial districts, it also meant the Church would maintain a central position in national culture, for example through the state prayers, fasts and thanksgiving services that the government ordered to be observed. The Church’s place as a national institution and as the self-appointed leader of the nation’s religious life also came through in the Church’s role in national observances of royal occasions (such as jubilees) and events such as the interring of the Unknown Soldier, which was done in an Anglican space, Westminster Abbey, and by an Anglican priest.[3]

These enduring links between church and nation might explain why writers as diverse as John Betjeman and Jeremy Paxman found a place for the Church of England when they tried, perhaps short-sightedly, to define the characteristics of Englishness;[4] it also suggests why many people who would not think of themselves as particularly religious are imbued with a ‘cultural Anglicanism’ which might push them towards the default position of getting married in an Anglican Church.

The question that confronts here is what was the nation and the people the Church was claiming to represent: was it England and the English, or Britain and the British more generally? The answer differed depending on whether you were in the colonies or in Britain. In Toronto and the other colonies the Church maintained an ambition to be the Church of more than just the English, but also the Irish and British more generally. This might seem surprising given that the Church in the colonies was never established in the way it was (and still is) back home. But this claim to be a British institution was born out of the Anglican belief that as the Church had special links to the British monarchy, it could legitimately claim to be the established Church of an Empire that was called ‘British’, but was really the property of England. Such ideas endured into the early twentieth century, with Anglican churchmen casting themselves as the representatives of a national religion that would hold together the diverse people of what became known as a ‘Greater Britain’ formed out of settler colonies.[5] Back in Britain the presence of an established Church of Scotland has meant the Church has never had the same opportunity to cast itself as a ‘British’ institution, but this has not meant the Church has surrendered its traditional claims to be the ‘Church of the English’: Anglican clerics such as the archbishop of York have contributed to the Englishness debate,[6] and in opposing the Conservative government’s NHS reforms – which became law on March 20th – the Anglican bishops in the Lords cast themselves in the role as the nation’s conscience.

Given that its senior representatives continue to see the Church as an important national institution, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the events surrounding the Occupy London encampment outside St. Paul’s – which came to unsightly end with riot police clearing protestors from the steps of the cathedral on 28 February 2012 – was a missed opportunity for the Church, particularly given that the Church’s claims to be the representative of a national faith or culture have been buffeted by the controversies over female bishops and child abuse by Anglican clerics. Rev Giles Fraser, the canon who resigned in support of the protestors, touched on how the Church could engage with national issues when he said in February that Occupy had made us ‘re-examine important issues about social and economic justice and the role the cathedral can play’.[7] But rather than position itself as a national forum in which the issues raised by the Occupy movement could be discussed, the Church has, for many, been guilty of not only failing to realise its pastoral duties, but also of siding with vested interest groups: this is something that it has tried to avoid doing (or at least giving the impression of doing) for two hundred years, as it has struggled to maintain an image as the symbol of national religious culture.[8]


[1] The Patriot (Toronto), 16 March 1838.

[2] For a starting point on how the monarchy has done this, see the chapter ‘Majesty’ in Linda Colley’s Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (New Haven, 1992).

[3] Philip Williamson, ‘State prayers, fasts and thanksgivings: public worship in Britain 1830-1897’, Past and Present, 200 (2008), pp.169-222; Arthur Burns, ‘The Authority of the Church’, in Peter Mandler (ed.), Liberty and Authority in Victorian Britain (Oxford, 2006).

[4] Jeremy Paxman, The English: A Portrait of a People (Penguin Books, 1999); Kevin J. Gardner, ‘John Betjeman’, in David Scott Kastan (ed.), The Oxford Encyclopaedia of British Literature (Oxford, 2006), pp. 182-83.

[5] For a discussion of this theme, see Hilary Carey, God’s Empire: Religion and Colonialism in the British World, c. 1800-1908 (Cambridge, 2010).

[6] John Sentamu, Archbishop of York, ‘Englishness: What it means to be English?’ http://www.archbishopofyork.org/pages/englishness-.html (accessed 22 March 2012).

[7] ‘St. Paul’s Protest: Occupy London camp evicted’, BBC Website, 28 February 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17187180 (accessed 22 March 2012).

[8] Rev George Pitcher, ‘The Church has come out very badly from the St. Paul’s eviction’, The Mail Online, 28 February 2012, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-2107617/Occupy-London-eviction-The-Church-comes-badly-St-Pauls-eviction–better-future.html (accessed 22 March 2012).

4 thoughts on “The Church of England, the Nation and National Identity

  1. It doesn’t necessarily surprise me that the church embraced St Patrick as St Patrick is a British Isles Saint rather than just an Irish one. There were I suppose many examples of the church trying to be more wider. The Puritans in the 17th century tried to rid Hallowean and other similar pagan festivals, yet it seems it was the Church of England that tried to embrace different groups more. These festivals were re-instated as important cultural festivals of the nation and any groups that tried to cause division was often hurried abroad. Even so even puritans carried on English traditions in places such as America. I mean I am Anglo-Catholic but wouldn’t even think of the C of E as a enemy, I think it has to do more with the importance and togetherness of the Nation rather than any one religious group. I don’t know if those Irish celebrate St Patrick were Loyalists or not, but if they were, they may of not seen the C of E as an enemy rather than a similar loyalist organisation as many Irish were protestant and even catholic and loyalist. St Patrick is celebrated in Anglican churches too and there is a misconception he is simply a nationalist catholic ethnic irish idea. I think it probably goes back to when the nation was more important than any one faction, in the Middle Ages this is seen in civil wars which were often avoided as the leaders though more of the collectiveness of the nation. Even now english methodists, catholics, anglicans (which is quite a broad church) and others don’t attack each other or are divided as most celebrate the same national festivals and traditions in an english context and so conflict would be pointless. I think many outside observers probably don’t understand this. I wouldn’t see the church of England representing Englishness per se but it is an important part of Englishness but all English parish churches even non C of E would be seen as English as all follow national sentiment and cultural sensitivities. I am not sure but it may have been the church that also tried to lessen religious differences between catholics and protestants and difuse tension. I think people felt threatened by catholics from abroad taking over and threatened England as a nation and some English catholics who supported them rather than necessarily hating their fellow countryman’s religious practices and were more and were suspicious of some catholics in England. I think many speaking of catholics and protestants probably are seeing it through the eyes of other countries like France, Ireland etc rather than in an English context.

    I agree in the occupy movement the church should have stood up more for its principles.

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  2. Its probably because the church of england took over from the old catholic church of england and so took all its traditions and customs with it. But in a sense even the old catholic church of england was kind of a semi independent catholic church

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  3. I suppose in terms of culture people throughout the British Isles share a similar way of life and so differences abroad maybe seen as less

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  4. Thanks very much for all these valuable observations. Certaintly the Church’s engagement with St. Patrick’s day should come as no surprise, though in the colonial context what is interesting is the extent to which the day steadily becomes co-opted by Irish Catholics in the 1860s and beyond (Rosalyn Trigger has written an article called ‘Irish Politics on Parade’ in Histoire Sociale on this). The Anglican involvement in Canada seems, as far as I am aware, to have dwindled in the context of the Fenian anxieties in the 1860s.

    You are right to be sceptical of the extent to which the Church of England is representative of Englishness: this position has been untenable since at least the 17th century! You are also right to point out that all the major denominations have made efforts to cultivate a relationship with national identity, and the way the Methodists, Presbyterians and others did this in the ‘British World’ overseas would make a very interesting research project. Still, the central issue that concerns me is how an institution – the Church of England – which was becoming an increasing multi-cultural and multi-ethnic organisation in the nineteenth century (through worldwide mission) still attempted to maintain an English identity. It seems to be that the bulk of research has been on telling the story of how religions are adapted and take on new identities as they spread overseas; the question of how they maintained links with metropolitan identities has tended, I feel, to be overlooked. Your comments will help me think through these thorny questions!

    The point you make about the Church and the sense of national unity is also valid: the 19th-century Church always saw itself as being a source of imperial unity. It would provide the religion and culture that would knit together diverse expatriate communities. This confident stance was not damaged by the transformation of the Church from a state church to a independent, voluntary organisation during the course of the century.

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