Church and State; who's boss?

Throughout the centuries there has been a continuing power struggle between Emperors and Popes, Kings and churches. In 1843 the issue produced the Disruption and Watchman suggests it could surface again.

Church and State'This Church, as part of the Universal Church wherein the Lord Jesus Christ has appointed a government in the hands of Church office-bearers, receives from Him, its Divine King and Head, and from Him alone, the right and power subject to no civil authority to legislate, and to adjudicate finally, in all matters of doctrine, worship, government, and discipline in the Church...'

Extract from Section V of the
'Articles Declaratory' relating to the Church of Scotland and adopted in legal form by the Church of Scotland Act 1921

IN the turmoil surrounding the Church of Scotland and a gay minister, a clutch of MSPs from three major parties have weighed into the debate.

And this intervention by politicians into the affairs of the church reflects a centuries-old battle between the Christian church and the state.

Ever since the Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in 312 AD, the power struggle between emperors and popes, kings and prelates has never really gone away.

CharlemagneIn 800AD Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne Imperator Romanorum (Emperor of the Romans) and in the eyes of the people of that day, the bestowal of the crown was seen as a clear sign of God’s representative holding sway over the kingdoms of the earth. It was a tangible expression of religion holding the superior position over the state.

King Henry VIII
But at the time of the Reformation, King Henry VIII had his own ideas about who was boss. And history tells us that in 1534 the English sovereign cast off Pope Clement VII’s jurisdiction and declared himself the Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.

King James VI
King James VIIn Scotland it was a different matter, and the Scottish sovereign didn’t have it his way. In 1596, Andrew Melville, a Reformation leader, bluntly admonished King James VI:

“Sir, you are God's silly vassal; there are two kings and two kingdoms in Scotland: there is King James, the head of the commonwealth; and there is Christ Jesus, the King of the Church, whose subject James the Sixth is, and of whose kingdom he is not a king, nor a head, nor a lord, but a member."
The Emperor Napoleon
NapoleonMeanwhile in France in 1801 the balance swung or, more correctly, was hijacked towards the state. In what was a defiant and revolutionary act 1000 years after Charlemagne was crowned by the Pope, Napoleon turned the tables on the Roman pontiff of his day. As Pope Pius VII waited with his cardinals at the high altar of Notre Dame Cathedral, Napoleon approached.
All those gathered expected him to kneel before the Pontiff and, like Charlemagne before him, accept a blessing from the superior party. But to the amazement of the congregation, Napoleon seized the crown from the Pope’s hands and, turning his back on God’s man, crowned himself as Emperor.

Back in Scotland it was this continuing struggle for autonomy in church government with freedom from interference at national and local level regarding the affairs of the church. This struggle was seldom far from the surface and provoked the Disruption in 1843. In an act of high drama a third of the ministers and members of the Church of Scotland walked out of the national church over the issue of state interference with church affairs. The delicate balance and relationship between the secular political world and the religious sphere was re-addressed as recently as 1926 when the Declaratory Articles re-stated the principles which were adopted into Scottish law via the Church of Scotland Act 1921.

The above provide the national church with immunity from civil jurisdiction in ‘matters spiritual’. In this, the Church of Scotland enjoys a unique legal status in that the Kirk is ostensibly free to govern itself on issues within the spiritual realm. After the passing of the Act, a church historian proclaimed:

"No Church in Christendom can so fully claim to be at once national and free as the Church of Scotland today."

However more recently – in a case involving a woman Church of Scotland minister who was required to resign her position because of an affair with a church elder – the Church was over-ruled. In 2005, the House of Lords finally decided the case (Percy v. Church of Scotland Board of National Mission), ruling that, despite the 1921 Act, a ministerial appointment created a contract subject to the jurisdiction of the civil courts and employment tribunals. The Church subsequently agreed an out-of-court settlement with the lady concerned.

If, in the current case involving Rev. Scott Rennie, the Church refuses to ratify the appointment it is not beyond the bounds of possibility for the minister to file against the Church for sexual discrimination or violation of his human rights. So coupled with the recent intervention by Labour, Conservative and Lib-Dem MSPs it will be interesting to see, sooner or later, whether there will be yet another attempt by the state to control the affairs of the Kirk. And if this were to happen it would be a another challenge to the only true sovereignty which Christians ultimately recognise, that of Christ Jesus the head of the church.

Amidst it all there is plenty fuel for another major disruption.

Postscript (added 12 February 2010 in the wake of the debate on the Equality Bill which sought to impose an obligation on churches to employ homosexuals).

An American blog entitled 'Laige's Forum'  carries an article entited: 'UK elites want to muzzle Christians'. In the article a writer suggests: The defeat of the government’s Equality Bill by the House of Lords recently was of huge importance and significance, because it brought to a halt, albeit only temporarily, a long succession of laws restricting Christian liberty and freedoms.'

The article ackownledges that the battle for the soul of the church will continue and continues: 'If the Equality Bill returns for the collective church to grapple with then two courses would provide a sure bulwark against the inroads of further secularism and mis-placed concepts of equality.

The first is the recognition of the principle which the Scottish church expressed so clearly. All it requires is application, faithfully and fearlessly.

The second is not an available option but ought to be if any future government takes seriously a fresh appraisal of the church/State relationship. It should adopt the First Amendment of the great Constitution of the USA which stated so simply and clearly the fundamental principle in 1776:
(Congress) may not establish a religion, restrict free speech or press freedom, or deprive citizens of rights to assemble peacefully or petition the government”'


Watchman, 07/05/2009