mutually helpful

The time has come (the Walrus said) to talk of many things – of shoes and ships and sealing wax, and cabbages, and kings.

Waiving the first several, consider the point that Andrew Melville made to King James in 1590: “There are two jurisdictions exercised in this realm: the one spiritual, the other civil; the one respects the conscience, the other external things; the one directly procuring the obedience of God’s Word and commandments, the other obedience unto civil laws; the one persuading by the spiritual word, the other compelling by the temporal sword …”

Consider too how deeply this must have sunk into the national consciousness by the nineteenth century when there is more than an element of plausibility in the anecdote recounted by Neil MacLeod in Hold Fast your Confession:

“[a story] about a serious mother asking her child as it supped its porridge, ‘What is the true relation between Church and State?’ The innocent promptly replied: ‘co-ordinate jurisdiction with mutual subordination’.”

Church/State relations were thrashed out in the thinking of Scottish theologians and preachers in the most practical of ways. The Covenanters in the 17th century were hounded and harrassed and summarily executed on the moors and in their own homes for maintaining that Christ, not James or Charles, was the sole Head of the Church on the earth. The Disruption Fathers struggled for years, in the mid-nineteenth century, in church courts and civil courts, to maintain that the State had no jurisdiction in ecclesiastical matters such as the appointment of ministers – and when they could finally make no more headway, they walked away from all the financial, and social, benefits of an establishment whose terms they could no longer conscientiously concur with.

The Scottish churchmen utterly repudiated the idea that the Church was a creature of the State, or that it exercised its authority and functions by the permission of the State. Their views of the nature and worth and authority of the Church were rather more elevated than ours may be today – the Church was an honourable institution, divinely ordained, with divine authority – the power of the keys was real, the pronouncements of church courts were binding, church discipline was a serious matter, and so on.

They also, of course, respected and venerated civil authority, as an institution just as surely divinely ordained. The powers that be are ordained of God. They would obey any obscure or silly – or even oppressive – dictates of the civil magistrate, just as long as they weren’t expected to disobey divine dictates. They would rather, in all seriousness, risk their livelihoods and their lives, than obey Caesar instead of Christ. In the same way as they firmly believed that the Church had no business wielding the civil magistrate’s sword, they would never concede that the State had any right to administer the keys.

So far, so noble and enlightened: but they also believed that there were areas of life where the Church’s rightful sphere and the State’s rightful sphere overlapped. In these areas, as opportunity would arise, civil and ecclesiastical authorities were to be helpful and supportive to each other. These areas can sometimes seem to be firmly believed in in theory and not always clearly spelled out in practical terms, but they did include things like the State contributing to the temporal support of the Church (stipends, buildings, etc), the Church loyally and supportively praying for the civil authorities (a real spiritual benefit!); Church and State cooperating in the provision of education, and so on. As Neil Macleod put it,

“In civil matters the church is subordinate to the state, and in spiritual matters the state is subordinate to the church. The authority which constitutes and limits the power in each province, civil and ecclesiastical, is the will of Christ expressed in his own Word. The whole matter may be summed up in the time-honoured Latin tags; the state has no power in sacris but only circa sacra; the church has no jurisdiction in civilibus but only circa civilia.”

Contemporary controversies over the role of Church and State, such as are waged in the blogs of the Reformed online, tend, from what I can gather, to be fixated on extremes which take not much notice of these time-honoured advances made in the Scottish context. Either the Church is argued to have powers in civil matters and allowed to wield the sword (or, ahem, the stone), or else the area of overlap and opportunities for mutual helpfulness are eliminated from the scene. Both camps claim to stand in the Genevan tradition, but I’m not so sure but that if Hugh Miller or Thomas Chalmers or one of their colleagues was to survey the Reformed blogosphere, they would have little trouble identifying the former as some odd hybrid of Ultramontanism and Westminster, and the latter as the ever-objectionable Voluntaryism.

Though we quit the Establishment, we go out on the Establishment principle; we quit a vitiated Establishment but would rejoice in returning to a pure one. We are advocates for a national recognition of religion — and we are not Voluntaries.

[See also Neil Macleod’s bibliography on the Church/State problem.]

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2 thoughts on “mutually helpful

  1. Pingback: equality and the church « ninetysix and ten

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