People are not hogs

People are not Hogs

The Prime Minister’s Church Times article ‘My Faith in the Church of England’ has sparked off a debate about the place of Christianity in the life of this country and about the establishment of the Church of England in particular. What has been notable about this debate is a lack of a proper theological explanation and defence of the establishment of the Church. This blog is an attempt to remedy this omission.

A good place to start thinking about the establishment of the Church is some words from the 16th century Church of England theologian Richard Hooker written in response to those in his day who thought that the Church of England should not be established:

‘A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men’s temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety: as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs, and to see that they have their mast. Indeed, to lead men unto salvation by the hand of secret, invisible and ghostly regiment, or by the external administration of things belonging unto priestly order, (such as the word and sacraments are,) this is denied unto Christian kings: no cause in the world to think them uncapable of supreme authority in the outward government which disposeth the affairs of religion so far as the same are disposable by human authority, and to think them uncapable thereof, only for that the said religion is everlastingly beneficial to them that faithfully continue in it.’

What Hooker is saying here is that while rulers may not preach the word or administer the sacraments it is part of their role to ensure that people’s souls are cared for as well as their bodies. This makes absolutely no sense if you are a secularist and believe that this life is all that there is. However, if, in the words of the Creed, you believe in ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’, if you believe that the final destiny intended by God for human beings is not the grave or the crematorium but ‘the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God’ (Revelation 21:2) and if you believe, as the New Testament tells us, that participation in the life of the new Jerusalem is not automatic, but depends on our belief and behaviour in this life, then you will think that it is the proper business of rulers to care for the spiritual well-being of their subjects.

To unpack this point further we need to consider the traditional Christian view of the role of governments. This view starts from the conviction that the ultimate governmental power belongs to Jesus Christ. In Matthew 28:18 the risen Jesus tells his disciples ‘All authority on heaven and on earth has been given to me’ and we are told in Revelation 1:5 that Jesus is ‘the ruler of kings on earth’ In Revelation as a whole the implications of this truth are set out in narrative form as we are told how the power of the seemingly invincible Roman Empire is subjected to the authority of Jesus crucified and risen and so gives way to the coming of God’s final kingdom.

As the New Testament scholar Charles Cranfield notes, the Church is that part of Jesus’ dominion ‘in which his authority is already in some measure known and acknowledged.’ In the Church Jesus rules through his word and his Spirit and through the ministry of those leaders that he has raised up to be the shepherds of his people. However, Jesus’ authority is not only exercised in the Church. To quote Cranfield again, because Jesus is the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’ it follows that ‘whether consciously or unconsciously, willingly or unwillingly, directly or indirectly, the governments of the nations serve his purposes.’

From this perspective, and on the basis of New Testament passages such as Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, the Christian Church has consistently held that although governments can become oppressive, the existence of government as such is something that is positive and indeed God given. The role of government is not to do everything in society, since individuals, families and other social organizations (including the Church) each have their own proper role to play in enabling the well-being of society. Rather, as both the passages just mentioned emphasize, the role of government is to promote the well-being of human societies under God by performing acts of judgment in response to wrongdoing. The final coming of God’s kingdom will bring about a state of perfect justice through an act of judgment in which all wrongs are put right and the role of government is provisionally to anticipate that final state of justice by acts of judgment in the here and now.

These acts of judgment can be either reactive or proactive. They are reactive when they are a response to acts of wrongdoing that have already been committed: as when someone commits a crime and is punished by the state. They are proactive when they are intended to prevent forms of wrongdoing that are foreseen.

If we apply this view of governmental authority to the issue of religion we can say that there are three forms of wrong to which governments need to respond.

a) It would be wrong for a nation not to corporately acknowledge Christ and his Lordship.
b) It would be wrong for a nation not to frame its laws so as to reflect the values of God’s coming kingdom
c) It would be wrong for individuals not to have the opportunity to relate rightly to God now so that
they can subsequently enjoy life with him forever.

Bearing in mind the limited role of government noted earlier, we can further say the role of the government, guided by the Church speaking on the basis of the Scriptures (the ‘oracles of God’ referred to in the coronation service), is, while avoiding religious coercion, to seek as far as it can to ensure (a) and (b) and to support the Church, to call it to account and reform it where necessary, in order to ensure that (c) comes about through the Church’s mission to the nation in which it proclaims the gospel through word and sacrament.

For its part the Church needs to be willing to give guidance to the state about (a) and (b) and be willing to be accountable to the state in terms of (c), acknowledging that the government has a legitimate interest in the Church’s performance of its God given mission.

My former colleague Paul Avis sums up this way of thinking when he writes that:

‘As twin divinely ordained institutions – two channels through which God works for the well-being of God’s human creatures – church and state must necessarily relate to each other. They cannot ignore each other’s existence. This can be put more positively by saying that they have mutual obligations and must, therefore, reach an arrangement that respects the calling and integrity of the other. The Church should not attempt to usurp the role of the State, legislating for the temporal aspects of society. The State should not attempt to dominate or control the Church or to usurp its spiritual authority. But that cannot mean that there is no interaction between them. In cognisance of its moral and spiritual obligations, the state may give formal recognition, in law and in the constitution, to the Christian religion and to one or more particular churches. This acknowledgement provides the Church with pastoral and prophetic opportunities that it cannot renounce without betraying its mission. It is helped to bring its ministry to bear on the life of the nation in every level: in local communities; in the numerous institutions that make up civil society; and nationally, in terms of public doctrine. It will not always be heeded, but to speak and sometimes to be ignored is better than to be structurally marginalized and socially invisible.’

It is this framework of thinking that has traditionally shaped the relationship between the Church and the state since Saxon times and which continues to be reflected in the coronation service and the establishment of the Church of England.

In a better world the Church would not be divided and so it would not be the Church of England as one denomination among others, but simply the Church that was established. However, we are where we are, and as the Church of England is currently the only church that is either (i) willing to undertake the role of being the established Church and (ii) has the capacity to do so, it makes sense for it to continue in that role on the understanding that it is representing the Christian church as a whole.

Establishment is thus not predicated on the basis that the Church is ‘owned and directed by a modern secular state,’ as some have suggested. It is predicated on the basis that the state and the Church both acknowledge their complementary responsibilities before God for the welfare of the nation. The establishment of the Church of England thus has a theological basis in a distinctive vision of the proper roles and relationship of government and the Church and it is this theology that must be borne in mind when any discussion of establishment takes place.

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