by the Reverend Andrew Sempell, President, Anglicans Together
Ora et labora
Church and State—Should there be limits to their relationship?
The relationship between 'church' and 'state' in Western-liberal democracies has often been ambiguous and sometimes hostile.
When church leaders make comments that are critical of government some will say that 'the church should stay out of politics'. Yet, if they support the government they are accused of 'being too close and cosy' in their relationship with it; and if they say nothing, then they are considered to be 'out of touch' and not contributing to the good of society.
Likewise, people with religious convictions who are elected to parliament often come under greater analysis and criticism as to whether their faith might have an undue influence on government policy. Interestingly, no one applies the same level of scrutiny to economists who hold to a particular economic model or scientists who employ particular ethical principles in pursuit of their research. It is a truism that everyone approaches life with a 'point of view' that shapes his or her understanding and behaviour; it is called an ethic. It is no more or less the case for the Christian politician and the church.
Defining 'what is church' can sometimes be tricky. In theological terms, the church is simply the body of believers who gather to worship God. However, most people understand 'The Church' to be the institutional construct that is the visible manifestation of the invisible mass of believers. In this instance, we should perhaps talk more of 'churches' rather than of 'church' as there is no one institution that is 'The Church'—despite the few institutions that might be arrogant enough to think so!
The state, on the other hand, is clearly an institutional construct that includes land and people governed corporately with a high level of sovereignty. In theory, all people must belong to a state to which they owe some form of allegiance. In our age, not all must belong to a church.
An initial tension arises over the matter of loyalty. Most religious institutions will argue that loyalty to God must take precedence over loyalty to the state. This view has sometimes led church people into civil disobedience and even open conflict both with the state and other religious groupings with which there is disagreement. The ability of the state to cope with these tensions varies.
One may ask, does the church shape the society or society the church? Historically, religious institutions have had a significant role in both legitimising the state and shaping it. Religion played a profound part in the development of that great democracy, the United States of America. What was perhaps different in this case, however, was that one party did not dominate the other but rather influence came through dialogue in the context of a religious culture—reflecting the principle of the separation of church and state.
Be Subject to the Governing Authorities!
It is impossible to identify a single 'biblical' approach to the relationship between institutional religion and the state. The Old Testament narrative records a movement from localised tribal religion and government, through political warlords, to a monarchical nation-state, and finally a vassal state in a much larger empire. In this context, religious leadership shifted from tribal leaders and local religious 'high places', to priests and prophets, then a form of established religion based on the temple, and finally a teaching ministry in synagogues. The New Testament likewise presents an acceptance of a variety of political and religious constructs.
Much of the church/state relationship in the Old Testament may be understood in terms of theocracy, which means 'rule by God or the religious leaders'. Here both the religious and state authorities are one—there is no concept of 'separation'. Perhaps the only surviving examples of this today are the Vatican and Iran, yet there are times in European history when something akin to theocracy has operated.
St Paul sets out an agenda for church-state relations in his Letter to the Romans.
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgement. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. (Romans 13:1–3a)
Many politicians have quoted this text in an effort to silence church leaders. Nevertheless, it has provided the main legitimising force for the authority of the state up until the modern era.
Jesus, on the other hand, seems to express a different perspective from St Paul. On the one hand when confronted by the Pharisees over allegiance to the Emperor, he says, 'Give therefore to the emperor the things that are the emperor's, and to God the things that are God's.' (Matthew 22:21) This seems to uphold a conservative view of duty to the state while also promoting one's duty to God. Yet, Jesus also challenged power-politics and the status quo in the Beatitudes from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1–12). He also made the matter of allegiance clearer a little later, saying,
No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. (Matthew 6:24)
The Scriptures therefore do not support anarchy, but instead uphold the importance of the order that comes from the state and ruling authorities. People are therefore instructed be obedient to the law and good citizens toward one another.
Drawing on St Paul, the medieval society perceived two perspectives on the world, being the 'sacred' and the 'secular'. This was reflected in the 'two kingdoms theory' espoused by Augustine of Hippo in the early fifth century and developed later by Martin Luther. It argues that there is the kingdom 'of this world' ruled over by kings and princes, and the 'heavenly kingdom' ruled over by Christ. All authority, it is argued, has been given by God, both to the church and the state. The state is therefore called to manage the world through the exercise of law and the sword, while the church is to reflect God's kingdom.
The Religious Slippery-dip
In the early fourth century, the Roman Emperor Constantine established an alliance between the institutions of church and state. At this point, Christianity became the official religion of the Empire. From then on up to the Reformation, it was mostly accepted that while the church and state were institutionally separate, they also provided a unity through a common purpose under God that came to be known as 'Christendom'.
Both church and state had their own hierarchies, the church under the Pope and bishops and the state under the emperor and nobles. The church blessed the state, and the state protected the church. Even after the great schism between the Eastern and Western traditions of Christianity in 1054, there continued to be two commonwealths.
Nevertheless, not all were convinced of this compact and several Christian groups sought to dissent from the arrangement. But for the most part it prevailed through the Middle Ages. The Reformation brought an end to the unity of the Western church which also led to the end of Christendom.
The Renaissance, (and its subsequent religious manifestation in the Reformation), brought about several changes to the understanding of state and church. This era saw the rise of the nation state, a political construct based upon a people of a common culture and economy under the rule of a single leader. Nation states sought to have greater control over their destinies and therefore over the legitimising and socially cohesive powers of the church. National leaders wanted a say concerning the appointment of church leaders and, for the most part, obtained such from the Pope.
However, those nations where the Reformation held sway were increasingly outside the Pope's sphere of influence. A new religious polity of 'established religion' emerged as an answer to this dilemma. In this case, the state legitimised the national religious institution by making it the official one for the nation. While this may have seemed to be a solution, not all were convinced of the need to abandon their allegiance to the Pope and adopt the new 'official' religion. The practice often led to bloodshed and persecution. Toleration of dissenters finally proved to be a solution as long as they remained loyal to the state.
In many instances, established religious institutions became an arm of the state and worked to support it. Any feature of a prophetic or reforming agenda was suppressed, while promotion of clergy in the church became more a matter of state patronage supporting those who were considered 'reliable' and likely to maintain the status quo. Unsurprisingly, the established churches became self-satisfied and lazy, as Anthony Trollope's Barchester books revealed. Public dissatisfaction arose regarding these churches, which in turn gave rise to new religious movements and denominations in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
As religious expression became more diverse and the link with the state declined, the ability of the churches to speak with one voice weakened. Christians seemed to spend more time emphasising their differences from each other rather than proclaiming a unified gospel to the world. It is therefore unsurprising that the twentieth century became the era of further church fragmentation and religious marginalisation. Christianity now struggles to be heard in a world that cannot understand the church's way of thinking and behaving; and the churches fail to help themselves because of disunity, self-interest, arrogance and intellectual mediocrity.
Descending and Ascending Theories of Authority
A big issue in the debate about church-state relations is the question of authority. Christians argue that authority comes from God and is given to people and their institutions for the good order of society. If we accept this view, we still have the question of 'how this authority comes from God?' and 'what is the process that allows us to identify such authority?'
There is a divergence of opinion at this point. Some will argue that authority has been given to the institutional church as the 'body of Christ present on earth'—but does this mean the hierarchy or the whole body of believers and if so, how do all contribute? On the other hand, others argue that authority is to be found in the Bible, which should provide all guidance for the shaping of God's kingdom here on earth. Yet who is to have the authority to interpret or apply the Bible and especially when it seems to be contradictory or says nothing about a particular matter? Is this an activity for experts or for the whole people of God? If a collective democratic approach to this authority were to be accepted, is truth to be determined on the power of a simple majority at a synod? As one can see, there are more questions than answers to this dilemma.
The Christendom and medieval view of authority described it as descending from God down through the civil and ecclesiastical hierarchies to the people. Hence, in the feudal system, every person had responsibility and allegiance to some overlord all the way up to God, as that is the way that authority was seen to flow. Happiness and contentment came therefore once one knew one's place in society and accepted it. As the hymn, 'All things bright and beautiful' put it:
The rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate,
He made them, high or lowly, and ordered their estate. (CF Alexander, 1848)
The enlightenment and the development of modern democracy saw a reversal of the descending theory of authority to an 'ascending theory', which means that authority comes from the people and is given to the state and its leaders. Elections are therefore a means by which the people give authority to those who govern them. This change in understanding, (known as political secularisation), had a dramatic effect on the role of the church in society causing it to become marginalised from the seat of power.
From the fifteenth century onwards, a series of social developments in the western world served to reshape society and the role of the church. They included the Renaissance and new learning, the Reformation (and counter-reformation), the development of science and technology, and new economic and political practices—including nationalism, colonialism and globalisation.
In this respect, secularisation has been more a matter of process rather than ideology. It created a shift in the social role of religion from explaining and governing all aspects of life to being more narrowly focused on specific spiritual issues of meaning, purpose and morality. Nevertheless, the secularisation process seems to have taken on a life of its own, especially for those who would wish to distance themselves from the activities of organised religion.
It is now fashionable to be an atheist as a way of signalling that one is neither bound to any backward ways of thinking nor part of an institution that has become corrupt. There is, however, a little irony in this as the early Christians were declared to be 'atheists' by the Roman authorities because they did not respect 'the gods'.
When All is Said and Done
As was the case in the pre-Christendom era, the post-Christendom church cannot expect to be supported by the state; and neither should the state seek to be legitimised by the church. Yet, the church does have a duty to be an advocate and practitioner for justice, compassion, transcendence and hope in the world as it seeks to proclaim and live out the gospel of Christ. Its mission therefore does not diminish but rather expands in this way.
As religion has been pushed more to the margins of life so too has faith become more a matter of 'private' rather than 'public' concern. Society has tended to organise itself more around humanistic rather than theistic concerns, leaving religion to become a cultural artefact seemingly disconnected from the concerns of the 'real world'—an activity consumed by those who are 'into that sort of thing'. Once it is privatised and consumerised, religion then has little to say to the society around it and is easily ignored. The exception to this being those areas where it maintains high levels of capital, such as schools, hospitals, retirement villages and the like.
The church has sought to push back; yet despite the adoption of contemporary management and marketing structures, 'relevant' liturgies, a plethora of evangelism programmes, and the creation of political lobby groups it has continued to decline. The problem is that while it remains reactionary to society, obsessed by matters of internal polity, and self-justifying in matters of thought and belief; the church will ensure that it remains outside the central activities of society. It will therefore remain of little interest to the state and hardly an enhancement to the wider community. But it does not have to end here.
The secular world-view struggles to understand the religious and often seeks to deny it a place in society. Such a denial also carries with it a rejection of the spiritual aspect of human nature; but it is our spiritual nature that helps us to understand the inner workings of our human nature, making life meaningful even in the face of hardship and disaster. Interestingly, spiritual yearning remains even in those who would not consider themselves religious. Here lies the opportunity for mutual engagement.
In a post-modern world the 'separation of church and state' has become a non-issue, for such a duality has become an abstraction built on a past world-view. Instead, a new type of relationship should exist; one based not on the exercise of power and control but rather on dialogue, exploration, justice and the common good. The church therefore needs to change its ways and become more vulnerable, diverse, hospitable, and attentive to the needs of others.
This is the way of incarnation and grace—and where grace is, there is the kingdom of God.