THE TONY CROSS COLUMN
Article No. 11
Church and State
There has been recent discussion about whether the Church of England should be disestablished. Archbishop Carey has made a strong case against disestablishment. Someone has said – was it the Archbishop? - that the church provides the glue which holds society together.
This graphic phrase has been running through my mind ever since I heard it. Immediately, one wants to ask: what holds societies together when there is no national church? And what exactly does ‘together’ mean?
There are many aspects to consider. For example there is the whole subject of whether the secular authorities would allow or wish the Church of England to be disestablished. After all, it provides them with a pleasant veneer of Christianity – the trappings without the substance. Official occasions have some church official, from the Archbishop down, participate with prayers or a homily, and they can go away feeling that God is in his heaven and all is well with the establishment and the country. Unchristian men might wish to hold onto that semblance of faith.
However, today I want to glance at our history and how church and state support each other. And also to think about the effect this has on the morality of the church and the will to evangelize in the church.
Looking at history one can show how both components – church and state – were essential from earliest times. The king needed all the validation and trappings of office he could muster. He had to convince an unruly population that he was the rightful king. To be crowned in the national abbey or cathedral must surely be the ultimate that he could achieve. What higher validation can you achieve than by God? The population would cheer the king who is seen as God’s anointed on earth.
Likewise, such a crowning in an abbey or cathedral would surely often point to a settled social state, a nation at peace with itself, with its king crowned and blessed by the church. All’s well, or will be soon, under such an established order; ordinary people can get on with their lives.
From the point of view of the Church of England, of course, such an event establishes beyond doubt their place in society. No less a person than a king comes seeking their blessing – what greater endorsement of their place in society can there be? To be the means whereby God’s blessing is given and recognition made of the position of the chief person in the country – what an honour!
So this state/church alliance could be described as a kind of glue – holding together the settled order of things – king and populace united under a beneficent God and his church. And so it was for centuries.
In times of revolution, of course, a national church may suffer alongside the king and establishment. The church may be seen by the people as being part of the apparatus of state. There may be a downturn in the fortunes of the church in parallel with the king!
So the role of the church, functioning in this way as a kind of glue to prevent discord, discontent, revolution, can be clearly recognized.
But the key point about all of this is pinpointed by asking the simple question : is the whole edifice worth glueing?
So we must ask the question : is our edifice here in Britain worth glueing? There are good reasons for preserving the present position, but there are also good reasons for disestablishment. Perhaps we should now look at the downside of the edifice and ask the question :
In what ways might having the status of being a state church be a negative instead of a positive factor?
I can think of a number of relevant questions to pursue this theme. There is only time to touch on three :
1 Is it worth having a state church if, thereby, the church loses its cutting edge in presenting the gospel of Christ?
2 Is it worth having a state church if it, thereby, supports and preserves existing outdated moral attitudes and concepts?
3 Is a state church worth having if the church thereby becomes corrupted in any way by its position of power?
I would like to offer a few thoughts on each of these in turn.
Firstly, is it worth having a state church if the church, thereby, loses its cutting edge?
The essence of its worth to king and establishment is that the church is settled – a calming and stable influence in the country. Not a church causing waves. Not proposing radical or revolutionary policies. Instead, not interfering at all in politics but keeping to its preaching, teaching and pastoral roles.
Does this ring any bells? Have we not heard politicians quite recently telling the church to mind its own business? Telling the bishops not to meddle in politics? Do you remember the storm that arose after Archbishop Carey went up to the North East after the riots there and dared to suggest that the causes of deprivation needed tackling too?
The establishment – which may be nominally Christian, or not – wants a docile church, teaching morality in time-honoured form and calming any ripples of discontent and possible revolution. Condemning violence and advocating a return to Sunday worship – and peacefulness. Preservation of the status quo; evolution not revolution – these are the aims of the establishment.
So has the Church of England lost its cutting edge in this respect? In my mind there is no doubt at all that, despite some excellent bishops and clergy, and much good work done by clergy and laity, the church has lost its cutting edge as regards presenting the gospel of Christ. I sense that the general populace sees the church as part of the scenery but not part of the answer to the pressing problems of society. And this despite some excellent work done by all sorts of church workers all over the country.
And we have not yet started on the question of evangelism – the outreach to those who have no idea what the gospel is really all about. Lots of good pastoral work done, for example, but surely no one would say that the Church of England is a church with a burning message of the gospel? The idea is laughable. Either they do not have the desire to be outgoing, or they are very inefficient at it. Of course there are some very lively and ‘successful’ churches (such as HTB) – but come and see my local church!
Secondly, is it worth having a state church if it, thereby, supports the existing status quo in the moral field?
The most glaring example I can find here is the way the Church of England has dealt with the subject of homosexuality. This is not the place to discuss the matter in fine detail – but overall it is patently obvious that there has been a failure of the church to find the gospel message for gay people.
Not only does the church fail to see that love of brothers and sisters in Christ is the key to discussing this matter, but the church has gone all out to preserve unity between the worldwide communion of Anglican churches, at the expense of individual gay Christians.
In order to avoid the break-up of the Anglican communion they bow down to the fundamentalist attitudes and concepts of young Anglican churches which have a one-dimensional approach to the bible, as taught them by their missionaries over the last hundred or so years. If the Church of England here cannot grow in stature enough to lead, then these newer fundamentalist churches will rule the roost for years to come and cause a retreat from reality that will be disastrous. If the Mother Church cannot show the way forward what hope is there for the future?
The Church of England supports existing moral attitudes and concepts, but I think it is being weak and cowardly as regards issues where courage and leadership are required – for example on how the church treats gay people. There are other issues which illustrate the same situation. One thinks of the scandal of the state of our prison system – who was it who said that the degree of civilization of a country could be gauged by looking at their penal system. Well, don’t let anyone look at ours! It may be better than some in other countries, but it is still woefully behind where it should be in the treatment of human beings for whom Christ died.
Then there is the issue of drugs. This is the prime challenge facing our society in this decade. And we get pronouncements from the top of the church – but it is too little too late. And could you call such pronouncements leadership? The time for amendment of society was ten years ago before the problem reached epidemic proportions. Where is the vibrant challenging leadership from the Church of England on this subject?
Thirdly, is a state church worth having if it thereby becomes corrupted in any way by its position of power?
I am not suggesting that the clergy are corrupt. God forbid! Many are hardworking and sincere people. They may not be corrupt individually, but they are operating in a corrupted system. By that I mean that the current values of the church are weak, woolly and without direction. To that extent I would call them corrupted, by which I mean that the church has become diverted from the primary purpose for its existence.
In general it seems to me that the Church has lost its direction. In part this may be because of its past strength. It has been over the centuries such a vast, disparate collection of churches, each in its own little world, the church as a whole could only change very slowly. It was hard to alter the Church of England because of its nature. It was (is?) so cumbersome that change in the society around it made little difference to its ways of working until many years had passed. This protected it over the centuries from change.
That no longer applies as a benefit because unless the church changes radically and quickly it won’t be around in any recognizable form for very long. The major issues it faces (of which I would place lack of leadership and direction, finance, homosexuality and women priests/bishops among the foremost) call for clear decisive leadership. A new attitude to the purpose of the church and the inclusiveness of the church is essential.
Whether the Church of England, in its higher reaches (and possibly lower ones too!), has grown too fond of power in the worldly sense – of being the ‘premier’ church, of being foremost in public occasions, of its history etc – I leave aside. Abler and more courageous men than I must take this one up.
So – do I think that the Church of England should be disestablished?
Disestablishment of itself would do nothing to improve matters. It would result in much anxiety, many problems and massive disturbance. It would only be of any significance if it were accompanied by a radical new leadership with decisive management. Above all, what is needed is vision. Where is its vision now? The Christians in the Church of England do not seem to have any united idea of what God wants them to do in the coming decade. Except, of course, maintain the status quo, and provide preaching, teaching and pastoral services. Plenty of pronouncements – but no vision. No sense of being sent.
Pulling out a rotten tooth is only the start to good health – after that the patient recovers and can start to live again. Maybe it has to get darker before the dawn for the Church of England. That is a depressing and sombre conclusion. But maybe we are not meant to be glue. Maybe we are meant to be the cutting edge. And I doubt whether you can be both glue and a cutting edge at the same time.
So perhaps it would be best if disestablishment did take place, despite the enormous upheaval it would cause. Then a lot of issues would become clearer and then perhaps we would all have to seek to apply the gospels more, and ask what Christ would have done about this and that problem. That is – consulting the gospels, free of conformity to the prevailing moral outlook of our establishment. Then we might catch a vision. Then we might see some radical changes and some surprising action. And, who knows, gays might even get included in the church.