A recently produced report, LIVING WITH DIFFERENCE community, diversity and the common good
argued, "The pluralist character of
modern society should be reflected in national forums such as the House of Lords,so that they include a wider
range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England". The thrust of the report is that Britain is no longer a 'Christian country' and that should be reflected in the worlds of politics, society and education. I would venture to suggest that the report does not go far enough when it comes to Church of England Bishops taking ex-officio
seats in the House of Lords. The fact that they do is a reminder that the Church of England is the Established Church of this part of the United Kingdom. That is why the position of the Archbishop of Canterbury is not quite the same as pastor of an independent evangelical Church. He is 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. The integral link between Church and State in our constitution explains why 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 tolerate 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 no doubt like to see the Church of England disestablished for reasons of secular pluralism. The report cited at the top of this post does not call for full-blown disestablishment, but for a limit to be placed on the number of Church of England Bishops in the Lords, while room is made for representatives of other faiths. Pluralism is the order of the day where an attempt is made to reduce all faiths to an irreducible minimum that amounts to little more than, 'Let's all be nice to each other'. While I'm all in favour of peaceful co-existence between people of all faiths and none, that cannot be at the expense of the doctrinal disctinctives of the Christian faith.
The report also veers towards a secularising agenda that would push faith-based values and views to the margins of public life. While I would welcome the separation of Church and State, that does not mean the public square should be seen as a God-free zone. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. He is head of the church and King of the world. All created reality is subject to his rule, including human society and culture. Christians should act as salt and light to influence the direction of their country. Having Church of England Bishops sit in the Lords is not the way to do it. But individual believers can exercise influence by serving as politicians, writing to their MPs on matters of concern, getting involved in their local communities and so on. By all those means and more we can 'seek the peace of the city' and ensure that Christian values are brought to bear upon the public square.
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?
*This is an update of a post that was published a while back.