Anglican Buyer’s Remorse and the Illegitimacy of Jesus

I just finished the two books that are already out in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell and the English Reformation. The sensibility is a bit like Game of Thrones in early modern England, which is to say it is a very un-romanticized telling of a story we are used to hearing in a more lofty register. The heroes doesn’t really come across as all that heroic, but interestingly, the traditional villain (Cromwell) comes off as quite understandable, even likeable (one cringes as he makes various deals with the devil that the reader knows will eventually lead to his own death). But it does make the Church of England (and by extension, its global cousins) look pretty ridiculous. We need a historic episcopate as a symbol of our continuity with the murderous political and religious machinations of the Tudor court? I see why for some people, all this talk about propriety and legitimacy just reeks of male, aristocratic power justifying itself. And it’s no use taking refuge in the Protestant wing of the church, as these books remind me rather painfully of how closely linked early Protestantism was then with both royal power plays and early capitalism. Let me be quick to say that in theory, I do not find Anglicanism’s historical (and contemporary) political entanglements any more troubling than those of the Lutherans, Calvinists, Catholics, or non-denominational evangelicals. Hell, it’s no use running off and becoming an Anabaptist, since even they have a history of violence, though they are often a bit better about actively repudiating it.

I am fairly skeptical about the likelihood or even possibility of any place where one could flee that is untainted. Wheat and tares, together sown, or something like that (or two cities and two loves, since I’m writing on Augustine). But seriously, Anglicanism… No, the Episcopal Church is not the Church of England. We do not have a Supreme Governor, nor are our bishops selected by a Prime Minister who doesn’t even have to be a Christian. But whenever you’ve managed to convince yourself that this isn’t what your own praying of the daily office is about, Psalm 45 or 72 shows up in the lectionary. And even if you don’t have a queen, and you don’t have to pray that she (and by extension, you) may know “whose minister she is,” you’ve probably been around long enough to know why the stereotype of your church as a church of the east coast elite exists, though you hopefully also know that it’s not entirely fair. You are yourself an Episcopalian by choice, even if you’ve visited too many parishes where the voice from the pulpit has been that of benevolent privilege (if not insipid works righteousness, minus the works).

But anyway, I actually meant for this post to be a reflection on the first chapter of Matthew. You see, Jesus is presented as the heir of a royal genealogy. It’s a very tidy genealogy, with 14 generations separating significant events, and only a few hints that it is not actually as seamless as it looks. It is a patrilineal genealogy, mentioning only four women. Like much of the Hebrew Bible, it reads like royalist propaganda, but it would be very odd propaganda that paints its kings in such an unflattering light. Actually, most of the monarchs in the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles come off looking about as bad as the Tudors in Mantel’s novels, complete with murder, rape, incest, and the opportunistic fusion of political and religious power. And Matthew knows this perfectly well. Jesus was born into and was fully part of a history as screwed up as English history, and as screwed up as your own family history probably is if you scratch the surface a bit. He had to be part of history to redeem it.

But for all of the evangelist’s concern to show that Jesus is part of the patriarchal and royal history of Israel (and whether or not his goal is to endorse that history), he’s also quite clear that Jesus isn’t patrilineally related to any of these people! It was important to him to spend 15 verses setting up this picture of patriarchal succession and legitimacy from Abraham to Joseph with all the care of an English cleric trying to legitimate his preferred branch of the Plantagenet family, only to announce quite loudly that the messiah for whom he’s claiming this history is illegitimate within it! This is Joseph’s genealogy, and Jesus is only Joseph’s son by grace, not by nature (it should also be noted that he is Mary’s son by grace. He is only God’s son by nature, and became Joseph and Mary’s son so that we, by grace, can become what he always was by nature).

And I think that’s my hope for the Anglican tradition. We have a history that is weighed down with oppression, and more than a little embarrassment. It is tied up with English social hierarchy and British imperialism, and still uses symbols that have been used for the purposes of male, European supremacy and female, non-European subjugation (and we won’t even get started on interrogating those dichotomies in this post). But my hope (and to a certain extent, my experience) is that like the genealogy in Matthew, it can be the sign or even the sacrament of something else, something that is in it but not of it. Jesus redeems history from inside of it, though it has no claim on him, if we will but welcome him.

May the grace be given to us that was given to Mary and Joseph.

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