The Church of England, Past and Present: a Reflection on the Magnificat

This is not really my usual kind of post… it’s more of a personal reflection. So here’s about 2000 words’ worth of my heart on a plate, which I’m painting through a song and a few well-worn narratives.

I used to sing this Magnificat as an Anglican chorister and never really understood what the music of that particular setting was supposed to be expressing. There are more choral pieces than I care to number that have been written on the text of the Magnificat and used liturgically in the Church of England, and they’re all musically different for a reason.

I think this piece really starts to make sense when you pray for the church through it – I speak particularly of the Church of England, but you can pray for your own church if you prefer. Although baptised Anglican, because of circumstances surrounding my conversion I don’t currently attend an Anglican church, but I have done when I’ve lived in other parts of the country, and I’d do so again. I love the Church of England. Not because it is perfect of itself, but because it contains God’s people. This is a church far from perfect, and an institution ravaged from the inside by godless and power-hungry people, but for the sake of the mercy that God has shown to it, and to those within it who have sought out Christ with sincere and fruitful faith, I love it. Where sin has abounded, grace has abounded all the more. Though born politically through the adulterous intentions of a Catholic King who hoped to usurp his spiritual leader the Pope for selfish gain, the Church of England was the one vehicle and cause that the protestant Reformers could use, thanks to their favour with the King on few meaningful grounds except their opposition to Rome, to bring about change for conscientious and faith-inspired reasons. Much compromise, conflict and bloodiness followed as conscientious Catholics found the Reformation teachings to be aberrant to their own traditions, and non-conscientious Catholics objected for less noble reasons. It is my suspicion that the King hadn’t cared much for the doctrine of his people, as long as he could do as he willed. But God looked in pity on England, and whether the reigning institution be Catholic or Protestant, with blood shed by either side, he upheld the true church – the number of those with sincere and fruitful faith in Jesus Christ – down the ages.

My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit rejoiceth in God my Saviour, for he hath regarded the lowliness of his handmaiden. For behold, from henceforth, all generations shall call me blessed. For he that is mighty hath magnified me and holy is his name. And his mercy is on them that fear him throughout all generations.

The stoic colossus thunders; power and force and might shot through with sorrow, anxiety and vulnerability, and the shimmering irony of a mercy that deigns not to show its face to its enemies.

The institution of the Church of England has enjoyed centuries of power and privilege, and to its shame, loveless and faithless men within it have abused this power and privilege in disgraceful ways. The Church of England, made one cause with the state and its selfish desire to maintain power and supremacy over the hearts and minds of the people, oppressed Catholics and even nonconformist Protestants under the authority of its political leaders, who exploited the banner of Christ to their ends. The Church of England mixed church and state, combining the seat of spiritual authority with the seat of political authority, using the concerns of temporal affairs to dictate the concerns of the eternal, and causing political utilitarianism to become mixed with a worship that was supposed to be motivated by the glory of Christ. This mixing was the concern of Dante Alighieri for the Catholic Church in the 13th and 14th centuries, and centuries later, the Church of England found itself in the same position, and suffered immensely for it.

On the ideological front today, many of our politicians, still hungry to embody and appear to stand for all that captures the heart of the people, now take their ideological lead from scientific and political discourses and have largely left the church like a used carcass, only useful for scraping off bits of meat that their forbears left behind. Because of this the genuine Christians who remain within it and rely on it for their spiritual pasture are in a precarious position. The beliefs of the state are no longer the beliefs of the Bible, but the state still has authority over the church: the church’s supreme leader is unconditionally the reigning monarch of the times, and insomuch as its activities are partially funded by the taxes of non-believers, it is by right also answerable to non-believers for its practices and doctrines. If the church institution has authority over the state in the form of the Bishops occupying the House of Lords, it is of little avail: the thought of the state has captured the minds and heart of the many, both inside the church and out, and especially those with an interest in holding power in the state. “For we have loved foreign gods, and after them we will go.” It takes more than an assent to the gospel to uphold the gospel in politics: in my view, it takes a certain kind of suicide not to deny Christ before the multitudes who hate the stench of him. While this is the case, the church, under the state, has authority over the Christians with in it. As established, the head of the church is the reigning monarch – whom we thank God is a woman of a genuine-seeming faith today. But we know that this may not always be so with subsequent monarchs. Prince Charles’ declaration, that as King he would refashion himself as “Defender of faith” rather than “Defender of the faith”, inspires little confidence as it exudes appeal to the pluralism and liberalism that is popular with this age, and a lack of solidarity with God’s extended Old Testament laments over the spiritual adultery of the people of Israel who accept his gifts whilst praising and worshipping false gods. If the beliefs of the state and the Bible are divided and the state has authority over the church, what becomes of those within the church who wish to follow the beliefs of the Bible as followers of God and not of men? 

The situation has yet to become dire or to threaten large parts of the Word of God in direct ways, but public attitudes implicate a denial of the Word of God, and the overspill of these attitudes into the church is bad news. Attendance figures are dropping, people within the church are disillusioned with its worldliness, but simultaneously with its lack of engagement with the world and are leaving for other denominations or dropping out completely; Biblical doctrine is being dropped and liturgies changed in favour of the secular spirit of the age as the naive still believe that we live in a ‘Christian’ culture, and one from which we should therefore take our lead; and the past sins that the church used its power and influence to keep concealed are finally coming out, and are coming back to bite this generation in the form of press exposés, negative media portrayal and public ridicule.

In our services we proclaim the glories of God with a show of boldness and force, and with confidence and exuberant joy – whether we do this with liturgical choral music, hymns or contemporary worship songs and a band setup. But reminders of our vulnerability and dependence are never far at bay. In the face of a decline in doctrine and holiness, and chastisement and a public disownment of a scale that has never before been seen, the faithful cling feebly and sadly to God’s promises to prosper his servant Israel through us, and we trust in them with inner trembling, knowing that whilst heaven and earth, and liberalism and feminism and Marxism and everything else will pass away along with those who stake their souls on them, God’s promises will never pass away.

He hath showed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imaginations of their heart. He hath put down the mighty from their seat and hath exalted the humble and meek. He hath filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he hath sent empty away.

The signs of the fulfilment of these promises around us in Britain today are so few that we can have little confidence in ourselves and our deeds. All we can do is throw ourselves on the mercy of the Lord and trust him to be faithful. Every shibboleth of secular ideology pronounced in our preaching; every touch of worldliness and of fleshly priorities in our prayers of intercession is a goad to me: a reminder of the power to which we enslaved ourselves so many centuries ago in the hope of gain, and after which we still find ourselves, in spite of ourselves, pandering today. In the congregation we praise the Lord with shouts of joy and loud, mighty singing for what he has done for us: but on my own, in my room, I for one feel sorrowful for the sad irony of our feeble church and trust the promises of the Lord in sadness. I do not know how many would say that they do the same: it is not something we talk about. We try not to despair. By the waters of Babylon, yea, we sit and we weep when we remember Zion. We hang our harps on the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive still require of us a song, and they that wasted us require of us mirth, saying “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy. But sing the Lord’s song we must, with grief and joy and all that we know of the perfect and imperishable Kingdom of God ever in our mind’s eye.

He, remembering his mercy, hath holpen his servant Israel, as he promised to our forefathers: Abraham and his seed forever.

The stoic weeps. After conflict, corruption, tension and anxiety, God’s promises remain to Abraham and his seed forever. Plaintive and ironic, God’s words have never seemed so fragile as now. They gleam with sweet, wet-eyed, lyrical hope; a hope thirsted for and longed-after. One day, Lord… one day.

To me, this piece of music is an amalgamation of the exuberant joy, force, feebleness, sadness, plaintiveness, irony and poignancy that contribute to making this age what it is. If you find it helpful, feel free to pray along for the health and restoration of God’s people.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be: world without end. Amen.

The shattered stoic rises, towering and hulk-like, wiping his tears with a broad sweep of his sleeve in a last roar of defiance: “GLORY”. As certain as it it was in the beginning, it is certain now, and it ever shall be certain: God is glorified, no matter what they say, for he is God, and he has declared it, and his Word is eternal. The stoic’s voice cracks and his show of bravado reveals only his naked vulnerability, but his hope is built on a stronger rock than that which he could supply, a rock not hewn by human hands, and onto this rock he clings: God is unchanging, and even through the valley of the shadow of death he worketh all things according to the purpose of his will: and this he must do, for he is God. This is the hope onto which he clings, longingly, when despair has sapped the last of his strength: raw faith that God is God, that He will do it.

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March 19, 2014 · 1:38 pm

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