03 January 2007

The Vicar of Bray Syndrome

While it is not the purpose of these observations and musings to peek into the spiritual lives and religious practices of others, there are some things which cause such wonder that a few thoughts expressed might be forgivable. I cannot help but think of those good people who attempt to soldier on in the place where my own ministry began many years ago, but where I could not stay because of very real concern for the spiritual well-being of my family and myself.

As long ago as the mid-1970’s it had become evident to me that with the crisis of authority in Anglicanism, there would be a gradual disintegration of what had been a venerable (although incomplete) expression of the Christian faith. To change discipline has long been a legitimate part of the life of the Church, but the idea of changing doctrine at the whim of a simple majority vote is antithetical to the will of Christ. When a very small majority of a very small part of the Anglican Communion could make a decision about ordination which struck at the very foundation of sacramental life, or were able to cobble together a justification for abortion in certain cases, I realized that the Episcopal Church was not a safe place to be. For me, it was not so much the issue of the ordination of women (as impossible as that is, in a Catholic understanding of Holy Orders), nor was it that some were able to wander off into a moral wasteland; rather, it was that the authority to make such decisions was claimed by those who were able to push forward their desire for this. “What next?” was all I could think. And indeed, we have seen what has come next – a series of decisions which even calls into question the Christian status of the Episcopal Church.

There are still so many good people there, one cannot help but wonder how they are able to continue. It may be unfair, but when I see otherwise faithful people remaining where they are while their religion falls apart around them, I could not help but think that perhaps some of them have what might be called “The Vicar of Bray Syndrome.” There was a clergyman who managed to hold his position as parish priest in the village of Bray from the days of Charles II until the accession of George I of the House of Hanover, quite comfortably becoming Catholic or protestant according to the religion of the reigning monarch. He is described by Isaac D’Israeli (1766-1848) in his Curiosities of Literature, in this way:

“The vicar of Bray, in Berkshire, was a Papist under the reign of Henry the Eighth, and a Protestant under Edward the Sixth; he was a Papist again under Mary, and once more became a Protestant in the reign of Elizabeth. When this scandal to the gown was reproached for his versatility of religious creeds, and taxed for being a turncoat and an unconstant changeling... he replied, ‘Not so neither; for if I changed my religion, I am sure I kept true to my principle; which is, to live and die the vicar of Bray!’”

There is a famous ballad, sung over the years by many an Anglican theological student, with not a little derision for such a dulled conscience:


In good King Charles's golden time
When loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high churchman was I
And so I gained preferment;
To teach my flock I never missed
Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist
Or touch the Lord's annointed.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal James possessed the crown
And popery came in fashion,
The Penal Laws I hooted down
And read the Declaration,
The Church of Rome I found did fit
Full well my constitution;
And I had been a Jesuit
But for the Revolution.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When William was our King declared
To ease the nation's grievance,
With this new wind about I steered
And swore to him allegiance;
Old principles I did revoke,
Set conscience at a distance,
Passive obedience was a joke,
A jest was non-resistance.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When Royal Anne became our Queen,
Then Church of England's Glory
Another face of things was seen,
And I became a Tory;
Occasional conformists base
I blamed their moderation,
And thought the Church in danger was
By such prevarication.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

When George in pudding time came o'er
And moderate men looked big, Sir.
My principles I changed once more
And so became a Whig, Sir.
And thus preferment I procured
From our new faith's defender.
And almost every day abjured
The Pope and the Pretender.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

The illustrious house of Hanover
And Protestant succession,
To these I do allegiance swear
While they can keep possession
For in my faith and loyalty;
I never more will falter
And George my lawful king shall be
Until the times do alter.

And this is law that I'll maintain
Until my dying day, Sir.
That whatsoever king may reign
Still I'll be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!
.
I scarcely want to think it, but is it possible that for some, it is more important to be Anglican than to know the truth, wherever that leads? To attempt to live and pray and worship under an unstable authority, which speaks of "Gospel values" while at the same time giving sanction to every debased behaviour imaginable, is not something I could do.

There are things I knew as an Anglican which I love: the beauty of holiness, things done "decently and in order," a stateliness in worship, a dignified liturgy. These things, and others like them, we have been encouraged to keep as Catholics within the Anglican Use. But for the rest of it -- that which leads to those things abhorrent to God -- I say, "good riddance."