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franciscan - January 2000

© The Society of Saint Francis, 1999

Church and State

by Brother Tristam SSF

In 1884, John Murray wrote that, ‘So long as the middle classes remain the governing body and main power in the nation, so long will the Church of England remain as the representative of their religious peculiarities and convictions . . . It is only when political power shall have been transferred to new hands, and new classes shall have supplanted the old, that the Church of England will cease to be their exclusive representative . . . only then will it be called upon to modify its teaching and enlarge its sympathies.’ What Murray didn’t realise was that newly-emerging, governing classes become the new middle classes and, after reforming the peripherals of life to maintain some semblance of honour, proceed to maintain the new status quo in a manner that would shame even the proverbial Medes and Persians.

What has changed since Victorian times is that this particular State has become effectively secularised and now, under the fiction of neutrality, weakens the basic tenets of the Christian faith.

Whilst it is the current morality of English society which alone determines the legislation of the State, unfortunately the confusing of current, western morality with the Christian ethic is, in some minds, complete. So how should the Church go about regaining its God-given capacity to say what it thinks without it being accused of treachery by its confrere the State? It seems clear to me that the only way is to sever the ‘established’ relationship between Church and State.

It would be too easy to talk about Church and State in terms of the political appointment of bishops, the position of the Monarch, the controlling of the Church’s liturgy and orders by a Parliament not merely of non-Anglicans but largely of non-Christians, and so on. The real difficulty then would be for Establishmentarians to avoid blushing. No, the real issue is the religious one, the quasi-heresy of Erastianism (that doctrine that asserts the ascendancy of the State over the Church in matters ecclesiastical) versus free will.
It is interesting that one of the basic principles of the teaching of Erastus was that the said State had to profess but one religion. Some religious leaders have attempted to constitute such a national identity, and some are still trying, but putting on one side the sheer impossibility of such a task, what does such a position say in the context of Christianity?

That question might well be answered by the posing of a few rhetorical questions. First, we know that “the truth shall set us free”: if ‘free’ is freedom not to think freely, what happens to ‘truth’? Second, it might be said that the basic problem is one of fear: fear of losing ‘authority’, of losing ‘the ear of those with real control’, of not being close enough to power to influence it.
However, is it possible to match any of these assertions against any known teaching of Christ? Does the ethical stance of the Church really affect political thinking or effect political change? Can the Church imagine that its spiritual freedom is enhanced by such subjugation? Third, does the enjoyment of ceremonial require attachment to that which can in some odd way defend and sustain it, some would say kid it into some belief in its own importance?

And what of the situation in reverse: what does the State get from its relationship with the Church? Those who support the relationship would probably say that the Church’s influence can only be for good, and that is difficult to refute. But the particular kudos the State in fact gains has to be respectability. Politics is largely a dirty business, not improved by the mud-slinging in which it so regularly indulges. It needs something to give it the appearance of being whiter than white. What better than the cloak of the Church’s morality and tolerance.

So what of Disestablishment? It would be foolish to think that the Church could gain spiritual freedom without making a sacrifice of its material interests, and how great that sacrifice might be would be decided by the State.

But the State, and I imagine particularly the Crown, would not want to give the appearance of being ungenerous. So why should not the leaders of Church and State agree to elevate the question of Disestablishment above the level of a petty quarrel and to answer it in the spirit of a wider patriotism which would cause little injury and leave to the future no irksome memories?
As a Christian born into the Church of England, I have an ungrudging love and regard for it. And for that love to be sustained, we each have to retain our integrity. With God’s grace, we all will. However, I can only concur with Hensley Henson, who said a century ago, “Whatever fortunes may be reserved for the Church of England, may God in his mercy preserve it from the ignominious security of a tame Church in a secularised State!”

And as someone even Greater said two millennia ago, “You are the salt of the earth. But if salt has lost its savour, what use is it? It is good for nothing but to be thrown away and trodden under foot.” §


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