But Seriously….

But seriously….

After poking a little fun at the Church of England by likening it to Gollum enthralled by the ‘ring of power’ of state establishment, it seemed only fair to seriously discuss the biblical teaching on the subject; and also in the interests of fairness to make very clear that this isn’t just about the Anglicans – it’s also about any church seeking special power and privilege in the state, from the Orthodox and Roman Catholics down to the various Protestants of Ulster.  So what says the Bible?

Seriously, it doesn’t say much in favour of Christian establishment.  The subject is pretty much absent from the New Testament, and the few ‘proof texts’ quoted in the Anglican 39 Articles of faith or the Puritan Westminster Confession  are somewhat stretched to say the least!  But many Anglicans would probably point to the indisputable fact that Old Testament Israel had – or indeed was – an established religion, and say that surely that was meant to continue in the new age of Jesus the Messiah.  Is that a sound assumption, or does the NT suggest a different role for the church in the world?

For this first exploration I want to look at two passages from John’s Gospel; John 3; 3 and 1; 11-13.

Jesus answered (Nicodemus) “Truly I assure you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God.”

He came to his own, and his own did not receive him.  But to those who did receive him, he granted ability to become God’s children, that is, to those who believe in his name; who owe their birth neither to human blood, nor to physical urge, nor to human design, but to God.

Being a Christian is about being born again; and this spiritual rebirth is ‘from above’ and owed ‘neither to human blood nor to physical urge, nor to human design….’  Or put simply, there is no way people can be made Christian by some government decree.  Nor can they be made Christians by being born to Christian parents in a Christian country.  Nor can this new birth be achieved by some quasi-magical ritual like infant baptism – it’s a matter of ‘believing in his name’ which an infant clearly can’t do.  A new birth related to faith has to happen over real time by a process as the sinner faces his sinfulness and the Holy Spirit works to change him – possibly right at the end of his life, possibly not at all.

And this basically means that the ‘Christian country’ is impossible.  A country dedicated to some more nominal and ritualistic pagan religion may work, but where Christianity is involved, the state must be religiously plural, composed of those who have been born again and those who, as yet, haven’t been.

Except … and here’s the rub.  That human decree for a ‘Christian state’ can’t produce true born again Christians; but it can in various ways produce superficial conformity.  Depending on the total circumstances, an individual may conform out of fear (of the proverbial Spanish Inquisition or its equivalent); or he may conform for advantage – because professing Christianity gets you a better job or something similar – possibly even a job in the church itself; or perhaps worst, he may simply take his Christian status for granted because he is ‘born only once’ in that supposedly ‘Christian’ society – he really believes he is a Christian, but has never truly been born again, never faced and repented of his sin.  There are also more than a few cases where there is evidence of ‘Christian’ rulers and/or their enforcers being personally cynical, exploiting the faith of others.  It’s not a satisfactory situation.  Where Christianity is allied to nationalism, the supposedly Christian state may end up being massively unChristian in conduct.  The superficial conformity may suit a government – but it is inimical to true Christianity and to the salvation of souls.  It can even end up with a cynical or fanatical ‘Christian country’ actually persecuting the true Christians – as, for example, modern Anglicanism admits it did in the case of John Bunyan.

It is possible to envisage a ‘legally Christian’ state in which there isn’t even one actually born-again Christian.  I don’t think England ever quite got that bad, but the indications are that it got uncomfortably close in the decades before Wesley started his mission.

Modern Anglicanism is not the totalitarian body that Henry VIII set up for the religious uniformity of his kingdom; but the legacy of that superficial conformity still affects Christianity in this country and how non-Christians see us.  I recall in my youth evangelical vicars and curates telling us how we needed to be born again and that it was not enough to be born English or to have been ‘christened’ as an infant – and failing to realise that they only needed to say that because of the confusion caused by their own church’s established position!

And – fairness again – it isn’t just the C of E; there are other ‘would-be-established’ groups like the Presbyterians, who still seek the ‘Christian country’ even though they believe in the new birth, and don’t realise the inconsistency.

Having a ‘Christian country’ is a tempting proposition; it is tempting for Christians as well as for governments looking for a binding[i] factor for their state – but it is a temptation to ignore the Bible even at this fundamental level of the nature of Christian conversion.


[i] ‘binding factor’ – the literal meaning of ‘religion’ is just that; it comes from the same root as ‘ligature’.

Gollum and the Ring of Power

[This post has now been followed up by a loose series labelled ‘But Seriously’ in which I explore the biblical texts on the relation of Church and state.  For now just check other posts under the ‘But Seriously’ heading; I’ll try and get some better indexing or whatever as my blogging skills improve]

I frequently look at the website ‘Ship of Fools’, which is Christianity with a sense of humour.  As well as forums and news it has the ‘Secret Worshipper’ feature where people in effect review church services and comment on them, and some pure fun bits like ‘Signs and Blunders’ – an assortment of usually unintentional ‘gaffes’ from posters, noticeboards, church newsletters etc. (One intentional one I liked was the American church noticeboard saying “Will whoever is praying for snow please stop”!)  One of these features is ‘Born Again’ which amusingly suggests, on the basis of a resemblance, that some well-known figure is a reincarnation of someone (or occasionally something!) else; Ian Paisley of Christopher (Dracula/Saruman) Lee, for instance.  Recently this feature suggested that the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Wellby, might be a reincarnation of Gollum, the Andy Serkis CGI-generated character from the Lord of the Rings.  I sort of saw what they were getting at; but at first I did feel that for once the suggestion was a bit cruel, that ‘Born Again’ had gone too far….

But later I realised that while it might be rather cruel as a personal comment on the Archbishop’s appearance, it might actually be quite relevant as a comment on the reality of the Anglican Church.  Gollum of course starts life as ‘Smeagol’,  an imperfect but not particularly evil hobbit-like person who comes into contact with the One Ring and is led to murder his brother Deagol and ends up as the Gollum we meet in The Hobbit and then in the LOTR saga.  Not a bad person underneath, but corrupted by his addiction to his ‘Precious’, the evil, deceptive and destructive Ring of Power which in the end he simply will not let go of even when this means he casts himself into the fiery Crack of Doom in Mordor.  For the Church of England, the corrupting Ring of Power is the Church’s ‘Precious’ established status….

OK, historically the Church of England didn’t start relatively innocent like Smeagol; it grew out of a Catholic Church already corrupted by being tangled with the state since the days of Constantine, so it started already addicted to its ‘Precious’ in the hands of Henry VIII who wanted religious uniformity and control of his subjects.  Indeed despite a pretty good attempt under Edward and Elizabeth at restoring the Biblical gospel, one could argue that the narrowly national establishment of Anglicanism was a slightly worse form of establishment than the Roman version.  (I should mention here for the record that though currently Anabaptistic much of my early education in Christianity came from Anglicans and I still really appreciate many Anglican scholars like Stott and Packer and other clergy and laity I’ve known myself.)

Right from square one under Henry, the Anglicans persecuted dissenters; not only the Roman Catholics, but also at the other end a party of Dutch Anabaptists were executed by them.  Persecution (such as the imprisonment of John Bunyan) continued till the Act of Toleration under William III, and all manner of petty discrimination carried on even beyond that – exclusion of dissenters from the universities for many years, for example.  However, as will be a major theme of this blog in many of its posts, the big issue is not the obvious problems like wars and persecutions but the simple fact that being an established church is disobeying the Word of God and confusing the gospel teaching in all kinds of ways.  It is particularly frustrating to us serious non-conformists that when one reads books by the like of Richard Dawkins; generally more than half of his criticism of our faith is not dealing with real biblical issues (which he’s usually misunderstood anyway!), but with the completely unnecessary faults and problems of the various established churches, and of others like Ian Paisley who want unbiblical favour and privilege in the state.  We find ourselves having to fight through all that unnecessary stuff – where, let’s be blunt, we agree with Dawkins that it’s wrong – before we can get a hearing for the real biblical teaching.

As things currently stand, the Anglican establishment no longer means the totalitarian uniformity it started as under Henry and Elizabeth; it no longer even means that Anglicans (albeit often nominal) are the majority of the population – partly of course because much of Anglicanism has put people off religion generally.  But still the Church clings resolutely to its destructive ‘Precious’, still the good it does is undermined by the contradictions and practical problems of establishment; still establishment is probably the biggest bar to Christian unity simply because it is impossible to be united with Anglicanism without accepting their entanglement with the state, their position as precisely the kind of ‘kingdom of this world’ that Jesus rejected when he defended himself before Pilate.

So, on the one hand, yes, it’s cruel and wrong to compare Archbishop Justin’s appearance to Gollum – Ship of Fools please repent in sackcloth and ashes; but on the other hand, yes, Gollum with his split personality and his destructive addiction to his ‘Precious’ is a pretty good symbol of the Archbishop’s church and its contradictory personality with its unbiblical clinging to the rags that remain of the tempting power and influence of establishment.