Friday, February 15, 2008

Should the Church of England be disestablished?

The controversy over Rowan Williams' remarks on sharia law has focused renewed attention on the position of the Church of England as the established Church in the UK. When the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks, his position is not the same as that of a pastor of an independent evangelical Church. He was appointed to office by the Prime Minister of this country, under the authority of Her Majesty the Queen, who is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. A number of Anglican Bishops sit in the House of Lords where they have the authority to scrutinise and amend Government legislation. In effect the Church of England is the religious arm of the State. This is a throwback to the Reformation under Henry VIII. The king divided from the Rome because the Pope would not sanction his divorce from Catherine of Aragorn. He quickly installed himself as Supreme Governor of the English Church, which remained largely Catholic in its structure and teaching under his reign. Archbishop Cranmer slowly nudged the Church of England in the direction of Protestantism, with huge strides being made under Edward VI. Then came the backlash Catholic under Queen Mary, followed by the the stabilising reign of Elizabeth I. And so the Church has remained unchanged, the established Protestant Church of England (apart from the experiment with Presbyterianism during the Commonwealth period). In some ways, Anglicanism is a strange beast, with its Roman Catholic-style Episcopal government and Protestant 39 Articles. The Church finds itself stuck in an historic compromise between Rome and Geneva, with its leaders appointed by a democratically elected Prime Minister.

We could go back even further and discuss the alliance of Church and State under Constantine and the development of Christendom, but let's not go there. The question is, 'Should the Church of England remain Established?' I would argue that it should not, because the idea of an established Church is alien to the New Testament. Under the old covenant there was no distinction between the religious and civil aspects of Israel's life. The nation was a theocracy - God's chosen nation, living under the terms of his covenant. But all that changed under the new covenant. Now the people of God are gathered from all nations. The Church may be a theocracy under the lordship of Christ, but she is distinct from the State. Church and State are two very different institutions. The State has been ordained by God to restrain evil and preserve peace and order in society (Romans 13:1-7). But the Church has been called to carry out her Great Commission to preach the gospel and make disciples for Christ from all peoples. The State may use force to subdue law breakers and protect its citizens. The Church's only weapon is the sword of the Spirit, the word of God. State establishment obscures the Church's unique gospel-centred mission. That is why there is no sense in the New Testament that the Church should aspire to establishment by the State. Obviously, that kind of thing would have been impossible anyway under Nero. But the apostles don't so much as hint that establishment would be in any way desirable. All they asked was that the State tolerated the existence and activities of the Church (see Paul in Acts). The apostles would certainly have been outraged at the thought that the State should appoint Church leaders. However the Church/State distinction found so clearly in the New Testament was gradually eroded away from Constantine onwards.

Even the Reformers were willing to use the powers of the State to further their cause. They are called Magisterial Reformers because they expected the Magistrate to help reform both church and society. In 16th century England, some Protestant got so fed up with the slow pace of Reform in the Church of England, that they took the radical step of separating from the established Church. In the words of a title of one of their books, they believed in Reformation without Tarrying for Any. These Separatists, men like Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and John Penry argued that the Church should not have to wait for permission from the State to implement reform. This was seen as so subversive of the unity of the country that some Separatists were actually put to death. But it slowly began to dawn on more and more Protestants that Church and State should be separated. The Independent Puritans tended to this view, while Presbyterians held that the godly Magistrate had a duty to assist with Church reformation. The 1689 Baptist Confession amends the Westminster Confession's section on the Civil Magistrate(here), to limit the State's role in Church affairs (here).

Some would like to see the Church of England disestablished for secular reasons. They resent the intrusion of Christianity into public life. But that is certainly not my motivation. Christ's lordship is not limited to the Church. He is Lord of all. Christians should act as salt and light to influence the direction of their country. We can do that by scrutinising legislation, writing to M.P's, lobbying Government ministers and so on. It would be a good thing if more genuine believers entered politics to bring Christian values to bear upon the public square. The fact that the Constitution of the USA forbids the establishment of a Church, does not mean that Christianity has no voice in public life over there. In fact it is a strange paradox that in England, with its officially established Church, Christianity is often banished to the sidelines. In 1914, the Church of England was disestablished in Wales, largely due to pressure from the Nonconformist Churches. Isn't it about time that England got up to speed?


Jonathan Hunt said...


Ere .. How do you make your blog full page width guv?

Exiled Preacher said...

Page width is determined by template. Some templates have a narrow page width. Mine, "Stretch Denim" is nice n' wide. Just pick a new template. Yours is so "old blogger"!

thebluefish said...

If CofE disestablish do you think it would then stay as one church? I just wonder whether if it was free from that contraint it might divide into parts cos holding it all together might not be such a big deal.... and that might be quite beneficial.

Exiled Preacher said...

I don't know. The CofE seems to have the knack of muddling through in the good old English way. Evangelicals did not leave the Church in large numbers after Lloyd-Jones' call in 1966. They stayed around in the 1980's when the Church was dominated by Liberals like Runcie and Jenkins. There wasn't a mass exodus of evangelicals ofter the ordination of women priests either. I'm not sure that many would leave on the issue of disestablishment. Proc Trust types don't seem that interested in Church politics. They just want to continue preaching the Word in the Anglican set up.

But it seems to me that global Anglicanism is in danger of fragmenting, with the more conservative Africans and Aussies squaring up against the USA liberals. Poor old Rowan is stuck in the middle trying to hold the whole thing together.

I would like to see evangelicals seceding from the CofE in large numbers, both in the UK on a global level. But who knows if that will ever happen?

Jon said...

Maybe you should direct your questioning towards the church in Wales...

Better hurry up too before it disestablishes itself... Not long to go now

Exiled Preacher said...


The "Church in Wales" is already disestablished.

Ben Stevenson said...

I don't see any benefit in the Church of England being established.
I can't think of much evidence that the state is really helping the Church of England, or that the Church of England is an effective Christian voice in the country.

Looney said...

It would perhaps be helpful if the disestablishment concept were clarified a bit more in order to avoid the kind of conflict we have on this side of the pond. My understanding was that separation of church & state originally was an issue regarding bureaucratic control structures only, which is clearly needed in England. The scope of this has broadened wildly, so that it is now impossible to teach public school children about the historical development of Christmas without also having an equal amount of class time devoted to traditional Maori winter solstice festivals and any other celebration that might have occurred at a similar date. The net result is not only a disestablishment of a specific church bureaucracy, but the disestablishment of an entire culture.

On the other hand, it seems that England has already accomplished the later forms of disestablishment without having done the former!

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for the view from across the pond, Looney.

It often seems from here that Christianity has a greater role in public life in the US than in the UK. In the US, politicians openly "do God" in a way they would not over here. But as you point out, that is only half the story.

I certainly wouldn't want disestablishment to lead to hard line secularisation, so that it became illegal to pray in State schools.

Anonymous said...

If the Church of England is disestablished, we'll fall victim to Popish plots! A supreme leader and his minions will seek to take us from our religious traditions and the faith of our fathers!
(Oh wait, Henry VIII already did that. Never mind.)