As a Christian, I admit that I think separation of church & state would probably be a good thing

By Sam Tomlin

Bishops2The state church, the Church of England, shot itself in the foot the other week and almost everyone agrees. It should be clear to even those outside the church that a simple ‘moving with the times’ mentality is not the operational goal of an organisation concerned more with immutable spiritual and moral values. However, when the majority of the vote goes one way, strong and generally accepted theological arguments in favour of women bishops in toe, many, including myself, were surprised and disappointed with the result.

Aside from internal church politics and theology, though, many fear that the reputation of the church has been irreparably damaged externally. Of course this does not mean that it is wrong: as many conservatives have gleefully pointed out, Jesus said persecution and people disagreeing with you will be a kind of sign that you’re my follower. A whole PhD could be written on this topic, but briefly I feel that Christians have often brandished this as a means to justify what we’re thinking at a particular time and while it has an element of truth its use here is misplaced.

Very seriously for the Church of England, though, voices questioning its position in society have grown louder (as many MPs have shown recently). If any other organisation voted against women in leadership but was allowed to keep hold of its unelected representatives in the House of Lords and its free pedestal upon which to speak into society, serious questions would be asked and rightly so. At what point will the UK say enough is enough?

I actually don’t think this will happen (mainly because it will only be a matter of time until women bishops are voted in), but I want to propose that for Christians this would not be the worst turn of events. In my opinion, one of the greatest catastrophes in church history was the alignment of what had been a radical sect’s beliefs into the religion of the Roman Empire at the beginning of the fourth century. What was a decision for Christians to follow ‘The Way’ as it was called and risk death, became a run of the mill activity, ordained in grand, ornate churches and state buildings, far from the life of simplicity and non-violent radicalism Jesus lived and seemed to call his disciples to follow.

An activist I much admire in the United States once said, “Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalised, suffering, and at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal and powerful.” Indeed, if the church did lose its favoured status in society I believe it would be a welcome opportunity to reassess the values it truly stands for.

This does not mean I do not value the seemingly limitless wisdom on matters ecclesial, moral and political of Archbishop Rowan Williams or I am sure Justin Welby when he succeeds; nor, importantly, does it mean a ‘privatisation’ of religion where those with faith are discouraged from sharing a faith perspective in the public sphere. Far from it, everyone comes to the public sphere with beliefs and things that have shaped them, but they come (in theory, although with social mobility levels so low, I am not sure it’s true in practice!) into the public sphere because they have something worth saying and people want to listen because of what they have done. Martin Luther King is a good example, or in contemporary society the many charities tackling gang culture, homelessness and human-trafficking set up by Christians with an ethos inspired their faith.

Losing some of the image of ‘Christianity’ in this country through separating church and state would be good for liberal democracy, but also particularly good for the church, which can seek to be heard because of the transformation it brings to society and people’s hearts as opposed to primarily because of its traditional position. Without a megaphone handed to it by the state it would have to continue to work hard, returning more to its radical genesis to be heard, and in my opinion this would be no bad thing.

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3 comments
  1. senex72 said:

    People still close it no doubt feel women bishops etc. matters; but looking at the way the C of E has crashed from being a pervasive national institution in the 1940’s and 50’s to at best a fringe institution shutting up shop its debates and formulations are for the most part self-important pomposity. Now that religion is more informal its loss of domination is to be welcomed, and considering how the Lords is formed a few bishops more or less will not make that institution any less bizarre.

    If disestablishment is taken seriously or not it will make no difference. If you want to revive the faith, you have a working model in the Franciscan Friars: penniless, preaching, put to death by Muslims, they won the poor for the Church again. Forget the trendy nonsense about comfortable sinecures for women bishops and go out and set up preaching-crosses in public places, mend buildings, preach, convert, wash the feet of the poor,establish hermits and miracle workers – play your one winning card: hope, hope of Eternity. Perhaps if the C of E actually took itself seriously it would already be doing that? Rather than yet just another exercise in string-pulling?

    • Sam T said:

      Thanks for your comments. I would suggest the CoE has slightly more influence and interest in the public eye than you suggest. The fact that a new Archbishop was announced and the whole women Bishops debate has been largely covered by mainstream media meaning what the church says and does is still important in British society. Otherwise we wouldn’t have had politicians and Guardian commentators having their say. I would clearly agree that its influence in daily life is much less than it used to be.

      I also agree with the main sentiments in your second paragraph – I do believe a radical (peaceful and loving) faith is the best hope of the church, focused on the poorest and most marginalised.

      • senex72 said:

        Well thanks for that as long as it is not just the professional other cheek.

        I worry about the “secular” tone of your focussing on the poorest etc. because that seems to me one explanation as to why the church is in decline (my prayer is to be saved from such “charity”): the poorest are as much the richest in worldly goods (Matthew?) and have the greatest need of salvation from those who seek holy poverty. As to “peaceful and loving” proselytization Christ is an example of what happens to unarmed prophets; proclaim from the rooftops and you will find the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church, and will conquer through Hope. It has nothing at all to do with removing “glass ceilings” from ambitious female clerics: it is about conversion.through the saving power of holy blood, isn’t it? Or at least supposed to be.

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