This week’s comments by David Cameron and Nick Clegg on whether Britain can be considered a ‘Christian country’, and Clegg’s call for the ‘eventual’ separation of church and state, are a reminder of a fundamental ideological difference between the Conservative Party and the Liberal Democrats that has not been effaced by the coalition deal. David Cameron was not, admittedly, explicitly defending the establishment of the Church of England, but Nick Clegg was certainly attacking it. He also made the point that there are now as many Catholics in England as Anglicans. It seems unlikely that disestablishment will become an issue of political controversy in the near future, but Nick Clegg’s comment in particular have given me reason to reflect on the significance of the establishment of the Church of England for Jacobites. There are two legitimate Jacobite viewpoints on the issue: on the one hand, Jacobitism is the lineal continuation of the High Tory ideology of the 1680s, which was itself a continuation of Civil War Royalism, and therefore fundamentally wedded to the idea of the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. On the other hand, the Non-Juroring Anglicans became the enemies of the established church after 1688 and were forced, like the Catholics, to go their own way. On that reading of establishment, it is part of the apparatus that discriminates against Catholics within the heart of the British constitution.
I incline to the former view, that a belief in the establishment of the Church of England is fundamental to what it means to be a Jacobite. This creates the apparent paradox that many Jacobites are Catholics supporting the establishment of the Church of England, but I would argue that the co-existence of Catholics and Anglicans (and indeed dissenting denominations) in a shared spiritual economy is a fundamental part of the Jacobite vision of religious toleration. Jacobite religious toleration is not the same as a secular state in which all religions enjoy equal rights. The Catholic Church is privileged because it is the religion of the monarch, and the Church of England is privileged because the monarch is its Supreme Governor. The extent to which English Catholics were involved in the established church should not be underestimated. Catholic landowners held the right to present incumbents to churches under their influence, and used the opportunity to appoint Catholic-friendly clergy. Many served as churchwardens of their parish church and were heavily involved with their local vestry committees (the predecessor of today’s Parochial Church Councils). Catholics cared deeply about the fabric of their local parish churches, paying for bells and repairs, as well as erecting funeral monuments since the parish church was the only place where they could be buried. During James II’s reign, the King appointed Catholics to a number of positions within the Church of England. This was possible because Canon Law distinguishes between ecclesiastical offices (such as bishop, incumbent and so on) and ecclesiastical honours (dean, canon, prebend etc.). Offices such as bishop and incumbent carry with them, ipso facto, spiritual responsibilities and a cure of souls. Honours do not. Thus, James created the Catholic John Massey Dean of Christchurch Cathedral, Oxford in 1688. James was rumoured to be contemplating making his Jesuit chaplain Edward Petre Archbishop of York but this was unfounded; legally, Petre could never have been an Archbishop.
Protestant commentators at the time were convinced that James was trying to undermine the Church of England by these Catholic appointments. In reality, he was simply using his royal patronage. The church was one area in which he had the power to distribute patronage, to Catholics as well as Protestants, and so he used it within the scope of the law as it stood at the time. The Jacobite model of religious toleration does not seek to determine a ‘lowest common denominator’ of beliefs, like the models of toleration that emerged from the Enlightenment; it recognises the essential role of the Church of England to the stability and welfare of the nation, as well as its uniquely privileged status in law. James II allowed himself to be crowned in an Anglican ceremony (albeit the ceremony was organised by the Catholic Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk) by the Archbishop of Canterbury because he knew that he had to continue as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, in spite of his Catholic faith. For James II, the two titles ‘Defender of the Faith’ and ‘Supreme Governor’ referred to the two faiths he was pledged to defend; the Catholic faith and the faith of the majority of the population, Anglicanism. Unfortunately the Jacobite experiment in England was so brief that we have no way of knowing how it might have developed, but I believe that a state of peaceful co-existence of Christian denominations might have been maintained indefinitely.
James II’s approach was a truly English solution to religious toleration. In arguing for the separation of church and state, the Liberal Democrats reveal their true colours as the children of the guillotine.