Church and State

Most Britons think the Church should be separated from the state, according to a 2013 survey for Prospect Magazine — and for once, I’m sure the majority is right.

A brief history of Europe

The ties between Church and State in Britain don’t come from Biblical principles or apostolic practice. For the first three centuries of its existence, Church and Empire remained separate. Sometimes relations were friendly, often the State was hostile. That changed in 311AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine claimed he saw a vision of a cross with the words “By this sign conquer”. The next day he won an against-the-odds battle, and marched into Rome as the undisputed ruler of the West.

Christians were delighted with the emperor’s faith, not least because persecution reduced dramatically. But there’s a fine line tolerating Christianity and favouring it, and that line was repeatedly crossed (for example, by giving bishops some civil jurisdiction).

Of course, if the Empire was going to favour Christianity, then it needed to ensure Christianity is defined and ordered. Constantine therefore arbitrated in theological disputes with the Donatists in North Africa, and the Arians at Nicea, and could enforce harsh punishments on those who wouldn’t cooperate. By the end of his rule, Christianity and Empire were almost inseparable.

The privilege given to Christianity meant that the Church grew rapidly — in numbers, if not in depth of conviction or holiness. Their power came from the State, but when the Roman Empire began to crumble, those roles reversed, and during the Middle Ages there were frequent power struggles. From the ninth century, Popes claimed the right to install Emperors, until in the late thirteenth century the church overreached itself. Pope Boniface VIII declared that as governments were subject to papal authority, clergy were free from taxes. Unsurprisingly, the Kings of both France and England didn’t agree. Boniface tried to excommunicate the King of France (which from the Pope’s perspective meant condemning him to eternal damnation). In turn, the King accused him of murder, adultery, and heresy and sent men to Italy to arrest him. In the end Boniface had to climb down, and he died a month later.

Over the next centuries, the Church and various nation states slowly separated, probably speeded up by the Reformation (both Luther and Calvin spoke of Church and State as two governments). Sometimes, monarchs like Henry VIII would reverse the separation, to give himself greater power. At other times separation happened rapidly, for much the same reason, as during the French Revolution. Generally States controlled the process of separation, and usually did so at a conservative pace. After all, a thousand years of mingling of church and state could not be undone overnight. Who would collect local taxes, perform marriages, give poor relief and educate the populace, if not the Church?

What separation means

Separating Church and State doesn’t mean the Church should be silent on political issues. If the Church is independent of government, it has a greater right and responsibility to hold government to account, particularly in policy areas where the Bible clearly lays out the Christian position.

Equally, it doesn’t mean that Christians shouldn’t get involved in politics, any more than it means Muslims or Hindus or atheists shouldn’t be involved in politics now. In modern Britain, we need politicians who represent various religious (and non-religious) viewpoints.

Some Christians, particularly in the Anglican Church, argue that separation would leave the Church worse off. That may be true for the Anglican Church, but not for the Church more generally. And in reality, there’s not much left to lose. Our blasphemy laws have already been repealed. (That’s a good thing. It means judging blasphemy and heresy is now the sole responsibility of the Church, which is how it should be.) In legal terms, the main change might be losing the 26 bishops sitting in the House of Lords. Would that be such a great loss?

Another argument against disestablishment is that it would speed up secularisation. When that’s already reaching breakneck speed, wouldn’t it be better to stay as we are?

I disagree. When the Westminster divines drew up the Confession of Faith in 1647, they strongly linked Church and State. They said it is the duty of the civil magistrate, “to take order that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire, that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed, all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed”. Would you want the government to tell your church how it should worship? This wrong-headed notion meant the spiritual successors of the Westminster divines were persecuted by the State in the 17th and 18th centuries and beyond.

How did this happen? The Confession was published in the year King Charles was imprisoned and Cromwell took over Parliament. The Church was in the ascendancy, and politically everything was up for grabs. If the Church is strong, the view expressed in the Confession compels the State to serve and protect the Church, rather like a strong king or president wants a strong army to serve and protect him. Yet if that king weakens, his strong army becomes a liability, as countless military coups testify. Similarly, if the Church weakens, this view becomes a liability, giving the State enormous control over the Church. That shows why mingling Church and State is dangerous in an increasingly secular world. In that power struggle, there is only likely be one winner.

Why this matters

This matters, because secularists want disestablishment, and are using its presence to push for other secularist concessions. Given the current pace of change, disestablishment might happen in our lifetime.

We should be prepared for a secularist campaign for disestablishment, and if it happens, we shouldn’t view it negatively. Indeed, Christians should join such a campaign, just as the Christian Institute joined with the National Secular Society to reform Section 5 of the Public Order Act. If the secularists campaign without us, we’ll be allowing them to set the terms of the State’s relationship with religion. If we resist it, we’ll probably be delaying the inevitable, and end up negotiating the terms of separation at a time in the future when the Church is even weaker.

I’m not suggesting that Christians should begin a campaign, mostly because there are more important things to do (like getting on with preaching the gospel to a lost world!). But I am suggesting that we be ready to support disestablishment while calling for genuine toleration of religion.

To prepare for such a day (and because it’s the right thing to do), we need to acknowledge now that there should be no presumption that Christianity ought to have a favoured status in the United Kingdom. It’s right to insist there must be a place in the public square for Christians to express unpopular views that reflect our Christianity. It’s wrong to assume that this right shouldn’t be extended to Islam, Hinduism and atheism. We’ve no divine right to such favouritism. The apostles and the earliest church managed without it, and the gospel seems to have spread more effectively then than it does now.

So let’s not be afraid of change. Instead, let’s make sure we’re prepared for change and ready to take advantage of it, for the gospel’s sake.