The British Monarch as Governor of the Church: A Rookie Anglican Guide


For the seventy years of her reign, Queen Elizabeth II served as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Now that Charles III has ascended to the throne, he takes the same role, and like Elizabeth promises to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England.”

This does not mean that the British Monarch acts as a religious minister.  Neither the late Queen nor the new King is ordained. In the 39 Articles of Religion, the 37th Article explains, “we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments.” Rather, the Monarch is to “rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.”


But what does this mean in practice? On the one hand, it means that the Monarch has a unique responsibility to rule as a Christian. This is dramatically expressed in the coronation service, in which the Monarch is anointed in the manner of the Biblical kings, accompanied by a choral anthem taken from the anointing of Solomon in 1 Kings 1: “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced and said: God save the King! Long live the King! God save the King! May the King live for ever. Amen. Hallelujah.” Here is the video of the anointing anthem at Elizabeth’s coronation:

On the other hand, the Monarch has the unique authority to appoint English Bishops and senior clergy, upon the advice of other political and ecclesial leaders. This arrangement of church-state relations is sometimes called “Erastianism,” after the 16th century theologian, Thomas Erastus. The arrangement has a long history, dating back to Henry VIII in the 16th century. And it continues today, as reflected in the photo at the top of this article, where the Bishops pay homage to the newly crowned Queen. But Anglican history is longer than Erastianism, and there is reason to believe Erastianism will not mark the Anglicanism of the future.

Church & State in the Anglo-Saxon Church

The evangelization of England proceeded in part through the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon kings, who subsequently became generous patrons of the church. But such kings were rarely involved in the selection of Bishops in the church.

One of the most notable such conversions was King Aethelbert of Kent, who in 597 received the monk Augustine on his missionary journey from Rome.  Aethelburt did not believe when Augustine first shared with him the gospel, but he did welcome the monks and give them a place to live in Canterbury. Bede, the historian of the early Anglican Church, explains that king Aethelbert eventually believed and was baptized, because he was “attracted to the pure life of the saints and by their most precious promises, whose truth they confirmed by performing many miracles” (I.26). Thereafter Aethelbert “bestowed many gifts on the bishops” and “added both lands and possessions’ for the maintenance of the bishops’ retinues” (II.3).

But Augustine himself selected and consecrated his successor, Laurence, to be the second Archbishop of Canterbury after his death. Moreover, Pope Gregory, who had sent Augustine on his mission, authorized Augustine to “ordain twelve bishops in various places who are to be subject to your jurisdiction” (I.29). Thus the early Anglo-Saxon church, with the support of the Bishop of Rome, selected and consecrated Bishops, often by the determination of the Bishops themselves.

Lay Investiture and Royal Supremacy

During the 10th century, monarchs on the European continent became more assertive in the selection of Bishops. English monarchs soon adopted the practice, called lay investiture, or the selection and installation of Bishops by Monarchs. Edward the Confessor, for example, one of the last Anglo-Saxon Kings before the Norman Invasion, overruled the selection of the church leadership in Canterbury, and instead advanced his friend and advisor Robert of Jumieges, who received the support of the Pope to become the first Norman Archbishop of Canterbury. This practice advanced after the conquest of England by William the Conqueror, and his successors, who replaced the Anglo-Saxon Bishops with Bishops from the European Continent.

In the 12th century, the Popes reasserted the authority of the church to invest Bishops, leading to a conflict called the Investiture Crisis. Ultimately the Kings of Europe accepted the claims of the Pope, but still retained significant authority to nominate Bishops that would be affirmed by the Pope but also pay homage to their secular authority. The net effect of the Investiture Crisis was to centralize authority in both the Kings and Pope in the government of the church, expressed especially through the selection of Bishops. This set the stage for the conflicts of the 16th century.

In 1534 King Henry VIII promulgated the Act of Supremacy, which declared the English Monarch to be “Supreme” in the Church of England, and to have authority over the appointment of Bishops. The immediate cause was Henry’s desire for an annulment of his marriage, which for political reasons the Pope had refused to grant. Viewed in broader context, the Act of Supremacy can be seen as another salvo in the medieval conflict between Kings and Popes.  Though Henry did not himself seek to reform the Church of England, the English Reformers took advantage of their new independence from Rome to advance their vision of reformation in the church. But the cost of their independence from the Pope, was their ongoing subservience to the Monarch.  This tension led to the rise of republicanism in England, and ultimately contributed to the American Revolution.

Monarchs & Bishops, Present & Future

The Church of England remains an established church. Technically, the Monarch continues to appoint all Bishops, though in practice the nominations come from the within the church. But the Church of England now constitutes only a small minority of Anglicans around the world, as we have discussed in our guide on the Lambeth Conference. The large majority of Anglicans, in other words, owe no allegiance to the crown. And almost all Anglican Bishops are appointed internally by church authorities. In fact, England is the only country in which Anglican Bishops are still appointed by a political authority.

The future of Anglicanism, in other words, is almost certain to look more like the early Anglo-Saxon church, than the recent centuries of Erastian governance in England.  And given the growing secularism of political authorities, this is probably a good thing. The Church of England itself is facing the challenge of how to stay true to the faith once delivered, when it is also the established church of a secularizing nation.

Yet we should not forget the many ways in which the British Monarchy has served the church, particularly during the reign of good monarchs such as Elizabeth II. What the Monarchy brought was a high vision of unity, of a people gathered together by the Lord Christ, and the harmonization of their differences under the greater worship of God. Though never perfectly realized, the Monarchy at its best has governed the Church with an eye toward John 17, and Jesus’ prayer that we all “may be one.”

Published on

September 19, 2022


Peter Johnston

The Ven. Dr. Peter Johnston is the Ministry President of Anglican Compass. He is a priest and archdeacon in the Anglican Diocese of All Nations and the rector of Trinity Lafayette. He lives with his wife, Carla, and their eight children near Lafayette, Louisiana.

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