I’ve been reading Oliver O’Donovan’s Desire of the Nations and very challenging I’ve found it. I won’t attempt to summarise or give any account of what he argues, since I don’t feel qualified, on the basis of one quick reading, to do so. I will however share some of the things reading this (excellent) book has made me think.
Accepting any version of the “modern” or “liberal” doctrine that “religion” is a private matter and that the civil authority could or should be neutral in matters of religion is hard to square with some basic aspects of Christian thinking and living. We proclaim Christ as Lord. That means, as I see it, Lord of all the world in all its aspects. We should, therefore, want the rulers of the nations to acknowledge and follow him, shouldn’t we? If not what does his lordship mean? Christianity necessarily (as far as I can see) implies a desire to remake the world, including its politics, by subjecting it to the rule of Christ. The only way this would not be required would be if one were to make Christianity primarily a matter of the salvation of individuals from the world, rather than of humanity in the world (a way of being Christian that is not unknown but which I have never been attracted to).
If one accepts that Christianity is, also, public and political then the rejection of the link between the Church and the state can still be maintained, if one were to conclude that the state as such was corrupt and corrupting such that the Church must exist in opposition to it (something like this may be the position of some modern inheritors of the anabaptist tradition). One could hold that the current political arrangements are such that entangling the Church with them will be so harmful to the Church that it must withdraw from them so as to maintain itself as what it is called to be. Something like this was the position of those who withdrew or were driven from the Church of England in the seventeenth century.
They must (and I’m no expert so I could be wrong) have accepted the possibility of an established church in principle or they would not have been members of the CofE in the first place. When they were unable to conform to the changes made at the restoration they must have regarded these as turning the church from one they could in good conscience belong to into one they no longer could. Their position, to be coherent, must at that point have been such that a properly reformed established Church would have been a preferable alternative.
This is different from the alternative, which I can imagine, of saying that until the coming of Christ in glory the Church must always remain separate from the civil authority which could never be sufficiently in conformity with Christ’s will for Christians to align the Church with it in any kind of partnership.
The problem with this is that it seems to deny that Christ is Lord in fact, being so only in name.
I find it hard to find a way through this problem of the standing of the Church with respect to the political order but see it as an extremely pressing theological problem for all of us, whether we recognise it or not.