A national church? No!

Over the last week I’ve been involved in two conversations about the relationship between the Church and the State in England. The reading for the first session of my course on “Church, State and Civil Society” was an article by Luke Bretherton suggesting that a “new establishment” was being created in England embracing a range of denominations and faiths and tending towards a subordination of all religious groups to the state and its purposes.

I also took part in a discussion on Philip Baiden’s blog on the legacy of the “Great Ejection” of 1662 in which Church of England clergy who refused to conform to the Book of Common Prayer were thrown out of their parishes and livings. The majority of those who were caught up in this were “English Presbyterians” and thus committed (unlike the Independents and Separatists who are the historical forerunners of English Congregationalism) to the idea of a national and established church.

Between them these two have reminded me how suspicious I’ve become of the Reformation idea of a “national church” and how glad I am to belong to the tradition of non-conformity or dissent.

Of course the nationalisation of the Church wasn’t an entirely new one at the Reformation. Kings had long striven to assert control of the Church within the boundaries of their jurisdiction; one thinks of the suppression of the Knights Templar at the instigation of the French King or of the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett at the hands of Henry II. But this royal ambition was always constrained by the idea that the Church was universal and under the sovereignty of Christ.

The “magisterial Reformation” changed this by drawing the boundaries of the “church” along the same lines as those of political power. The “national church” was born in close relationship to national political power.

I can understand the historical reasons for this and I’m no advocate of Papal supremacy but I can’t see it as an unmixed blessing for Christianity. Whether the Church became an agency of the Crown, as in England, or contended with it for power, as in Scotland, it was deeply marked by the experience.

There is, of course, a deep continuity with the link between Church and Empire in Rome after Constantine, and it has become fashionable to talk about a Constantinian fall of the Church, but this isn’t really my problem with the national church.

Rather I suspect that the Church has been tempted by this formation to see itself as performing a function for the nation rather than as serving the divine kingdom. There are conservative and radical versions of this: either providing a force for cohesion, continuity and law-abidingness or a “prophetic” voice of social criticism. Both of these have their place but I think they sometimes substitute for the central task of the church.

This is the proclamation of Christ’s rule, of the coming of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom without boundaries and recognising no national differences. A kingdom in which sin and death are vanquished rather than ameliorated or accommodated.

This is in flat contradiction to a Church coterminous with a state or a nation. The Kingdom we serve has no end and no limit.

That’s one of the strengths of Congregationalism. By saying the local congregation is a complete instance of the universal church it is able to avoid any hint of the idea so strong in the history of Scottish Presbyterianism of the holy nation. The Scots Confession (and this is one of the few times I think Barth got something completely wrong) is a much worse document than the Westminster Confession (and that itself is far from perfect) because of the greater prominence in it of the idea of Scotland as the new Israel.

The national church is an idea with some good aspects but overall is disastrously bad. I’m constantly bewildered when I come across Church of Scotland people whose idea of their ministry is dominated by service to their parish (especially in the provision of funerals and to a lesser extent weddings). Weddings in particular are first and foremost a state activity (as becomes clearer and clearer, this is a subject for another time) and ministers conduct them as agents of the state. Funerals, too, are increasingly devoid of Christian content and approximate to a ceremony of civil religion.

By focussing too much attention on these activities we run the risk of losing sight of what Jesus set out as his programme, the proclamation of the good news of the kingdom.

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