Have the German Bishops Become Too ‘Anglican’?

COMMENTARY: What I know about the Catholic Church in Germany makes me wonder if the parallels aren’t uncomfortably close to the Church of England.

I’ll admit straight up that I am not an expert on the Catholic Church in Germany. I know Cardinal Walter Kasper and a good number of the German bishops are in favor of a more permissive approach to marriage discipline. I realize they have voted to change labor laws to approve of married same-sex couples.

I also know Germany has a famous “church tax” through which the Church is funded directly by the state. I realize many German Catholics are progressive in their attitudes toward Church discipline, family issues, liturgical questions and the Church’s relationship to the surrounding culture. I understand many are worried about the increasing submission of the German Catholic Church to the forces of secularization.

What I know about the Catholic Church in Germany makes me wonder: The parallels to the Church of England seem uncomfortably close.

The Church of England is an institution I do know something about. I was a member of the Church of England for 15 years, 10 of which I was an ordained minister. I served as an assistant priest, a chaplain at Cambridge and a country parson on the Isle of Wight. I experienced all of the strengths and weaknesses of the Church of England firsthand.

The Church of England is one of the wealthiest landowners in England. The land it owns was confiscated from the Catholic Church by King Henry VIII in the 16th century. Along with the land, the Church of England retains all of the pre-Reformation Catholic churches, colleges, cathedrals and chapels.

With the monarch as the formal head of the Church of England, there is no other Protestant church that enjoys such a complete integration with the engines of state. Anglican bishops are chosen by the prime minister acting on behalf of the monarch. Senior bishops are automatically members of the House of Lords — the unelected house of Parliament. While the Church of England is not directly funded by tax revenue, she receives substantial grants through government-funded heritage foundations for repairs and maintenance of her historic buildings. 

The English do not have separation of church and state. Every school is required by law to have religious assemblies, and every student must take religious education in school. Private schools are most often Church of England foundations, while church-run parish schools are part of the state system and are funded by the state.

Church of England chaplains serve in the military, prison service, hospitals, schools, hospices and industry. Colleges and universities maintain chaplaincy ministries, chapels and church student groups.

Such an integrated system makes it sound like England is a truly Christian country. However, as much as members of the Church of England would like to imagine that they have a strong, integrated influence on English culture, the truth is the reverse: The state and cultural climate influence the church far more than the church influences the state.

As English culture has drifted increasingly into atheism and agnosticism, and as English culture has moved towards multiculturalism and moral decay, so the Church of England — rather than challenging the culture — most often conforms to the culture.

When abortion became legal in 1967, the hierarchy of the Church of England did not raise much objection. In the years since, only the faintest of British voices have been raised in the pro-life cause.

For the majority of Church of England bishops, it is a non-issue. Abortion rights are the law of the land, and that’s that. Similarly, when divorce was made easy and cheap, few voices in the Church of England objected.

For many, women’s ordination was seen as no more than a human-rights issue; and when the Church of England dragged her feet, members of parliament threatened to force the change on the church. Same-sex “marriage” objectors in the Church of England will be silenced in a similar way by the establishment powers of church and state in collusion.

It is safe to conclude that the Church of England is driven by every wind of cultural fashion and secular trend, and it is impossible not to conclude that part of the pressure on the hierarchy of the Church of England to conform is the fact that the wealth of the Church of England was created by the state and continues to be interwoven with the established status of the church. Should they protest too much, they will be expelled from their palaces, parish churches, cathedrals and college chapels.

Are there parallels to the Catholic Church in Germany? Are Cardinal Kasper and his brother bishops too Anglican for comfort?

Certainly, the links with the state are close. As in England, religion is taught in the state schools. More than 30% of the population is Catholic, and the church tax, therefore, makes the Church in Germany the wealthiest church in Europe. 

While the Catholic Church in Germany claims independence from governmental control, the Church’s dependence on the church tax must cause concern. The fact that Catholics who elect not to pay the church tax are excommunicated is a scandal and must raise questions about the motivation for the German bishops’ desire for a more relaxed marriage discipline, a soft line on same-sex “marriages” and a frequently laissez-faire approach to liturgy, evangelism and ecumenism. 

Are the German Catholic bishops unwilling to stand up against the tide of secularism in their country because to do so would endanger the precious church tax? Does the church tax make the German Church too close to the secular culture and secular government for comfort?

While the integration of the German Catholic Church is not on the level of being a state church like the Church of England, nevertheless, her financial dependency on the state and her willingness to go with the secular flow causes one to wonder just where and when the German Catholic bishops will decide to take their stand for Catholicism in the face of an increasingly anti-Catholic zeitgeist.

Father Dwight Longenecker is a priest of the Diocese of Charlestown, South Carolina.

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