here we go again

Every couple of hundred years or so, depending on how you count, the state invents a different way to try and muscle in on the territory of the church.

In the 1600s, the question was whether the king had the right to call himself the head of the church on earth. Penalty for saying he didn’t: fines, imprisonment, execution. Google Covenanters. But eventually it was established that the king is not the earthly head of the church. The state had overreached itself.

In the 1800s, the question was whether the civil courts had the right to force church courts to ordain ministers against the will of the church courts. Eventual outcome for those who said they didn’t: vilification, loss of income, homelessness. Google Disruption. But eventually it was established that civil courts have no right to interfere with the church’s decisions about who to ordain or induct. The state had overreached itself.

In the 2000s, the question is whether the government has the right to to force ministers to give blessings on relationships defined by the government. Penalties for those who say it doesn’t: are likely to include vilification, demotion, arrest, fines, imprisonment. The state is again overreaching itself.

It wasn’t especially exciting for the Covenanters when they were being hunted on the moors and shot dead in the doorways of their own homes. There wasn’t all that much glamour attached to secretly attending illegal conventicles and the population at large didn’t noticeably applaud their stubborn consciences or rise up as one to thank them for their robust stance on safeguarding civil and religious liberties for their own and future generations.

Ditto for the early Free Church, when snobby landowners were refusing them permission to meet for worship amid the sneering of the tabloid presses of the day.

Fact is, it’s always a bit tricky for people who want to affirm the rights of the church when these clash with the government’s latest fashionable ideology. That is, the right of the church to say who can/can’t be recognised as having authority in the church, to say who can/can’t be ordained, to say who can/can’t be the recipient of church privileges (the sacraments, and church ‘blessings’). These are rights which belong to The Church, and fall nowhere near the remit of the State. Yet again, Christians in Scotland need to brace themselves against a State succumbing to an intolerant, illiberal, aggressive secular ideology, and it’s not a bonny sight.

19 thoughts on “here we go again

  1. However, as in those past times, God will bless and support those who stand against government overreaches. The Church can and should defend itself from the Scriptures, as it has done in the past. God will bless.


  2. I’m sure that’s true.

    There’s a sentiment that “persecution” of one kind or another is good for the church, but I don’t think that can be true. The ideal is always a context where you can live a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.


  3. Actually, Jesus told His followers to expect persecution. “If they hated Me, they will hate you, also.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that each and every individual believer throughout history will, without fail, experience some form of persecution. But it does mean that we are not to be surprised if we do experience it in some form. It’s part of following the Master.


  4. The times / circumstances may change but it’s the same old story. The anti-Christian powers that be, will given half a chance, always legislate against the Church by framing ‘mischief by a law,’ i.e. statute – as per Psalm 94.20.

    By way of encouragement amidst the gloom, ‘In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.’ John 16.33. Earth’s history can be summed up in two words, ‘Christ Wins.’


  5. Agreed, Seceder – they’re all variations on a theme of undermining Christ’s kingly office even within the church itself.

    To Richard – Expecting persecution doesn’t mean looking forward to it though. Like promising “in sickness and health” – you remain committed in spite of the difficulty but it doesn’t make the difficulty something to relish or enjoy.

    What makes it to *be* persecution is that it’s unpleasant and unwelcome.

    People shouldn’t glibly assume that grace to withstand will automatically be granted along with the difficulty, or that good sideeffects will automatically ensue from what is inherently an evil.


  6. Cath; following your point about peaceable and quiet conditions being best suited for the spiritual good and upbuilding of the Church, ……

    Peter Masters (Metropolitan Tabernacle) in his mid-week Bible Study – he’s doing a run through of 1 Kings – speaking on the construction of Solomon’s temple and giving it an application to the Church, said (in line with your thoughts) that the Church prospers best in conditions of peace – which was what prevailed during Solomon’s reign to facilitate its construction.

    He made his point by reference to 1 Kings 6.7, ‘there was neither hammer nor axe nor any tool of iron heard in the house, while it was in building.’

    The message can be listened to on the Met-Tab website under ‘Online Preaching’ – Christ and His Temple – 26/10/2011.


  7. “In the 2000s, the question is whether the government has the right to to force ministers to give blessings on relationships defined by the government.”

    Cath, I know we’ve been over this before. Can you point me to any evidence that the government is at all inclined to do this? It is true that several churches have lobbied for the right to give blessings according to their values (including blessing same-sex marriages), and the government is considering granting this request. I haven’t heard anything about forcing churches or ministers to bless relationships they don’t want to.

    I understand that some people, such as you, fear this. And I agree that, if such coercion was on the cards, it would merit the strongest denunciation. On the other hand, it is conservative churches that have been at the fore in lobbying against the rights of those churches that want to officially bless these relationships.

    So the scene as I understand it is that liberal churches’ freedom is in fact being limited, while conservative churches’ freedom is not being limited, and is not threatened. Conservative churches fear a future law threatening their freedom, and so they lobby to prevent liberal churches from gaining the freedom that is currently denied them.

    If you could point to any place where official recognition of church-blessed same-sex marriages has led to, or is in imminent danger of leading to, the sort of coercion you fear for your church, then we might reasonably look for a different solution. But as it stands, I see no good reason to deny liberal churches the right to bless same-sex marriages.

    (Of course, if you think the government was wrong in the first place to recognize same-sex marriages, that’s a whole other debate. But then we run into the problem of the church interfering in government, which is but a tiny step away from the sort of church-state entanglement that you find so objectionable.)


  8. Oh boy. The lawsuits…. Christian churches don’t “HAVE” to bless “gay” “unions” in Canada, and yet there are lawsuits galore against John or Jane Q. Christian for not renting a hall for a “gay” “union”, or not wishing to be the one to register one, or not printing material supporting them, or saying on Twitter that they are wrong, or writing letters to the newspaper to say they are wrong.

    Christians in Scotland will be less free from harrassment by a tiny cultural elite and their pals if marriage is redefined. Guaranteed. GUARANTEED.


  9. You and some of your commenters seem to live in a paranoid bubble.

    I think your beliefs are silly. I think your beliefs are hurtful. But MOST importantly I think you have a RIGHT to your beliefs no matter what I think of them. As an extension of that, I think your church has a right to their collective beliefs and practices no matter what I think of them. If your church doesn’t want to perform same-sex marriages or civil partnerships, that’s fine – I really don’t care. If your church doesn’t want to perform marriages between couples with different hair colours, that’s fine – I really don’t care. If your church doesn’t want to perform mixed race marriages, that’s fine – I really don’t care. If your church doesn’t want to perform marriages between people whose names begin with consecutive letters from the alphabet, that’s fine – I really don’t care. Do whatever floats your boat as long as it doesn’t actively hurt other people or trample others’ rights.

    I belong to a church that welcomes diversity, including members of the LGBT community. If I wanted to get married to someone of the opposite sex in my church, I could do so with no problems (well, actually, I couldn’t because I’m already married, but I’m sure you catch my drift). There is a lovely couple in my church that have been in a committed relationship for many years. They are long time church members and are active and valued members of our community. The government says that they cannot get married in our church!!! The government says that they can have a civil partnership, but they cannot have a ceremony to create that civil partnership in our church!!!! But why not?!?!?! It’s OUR CHURCH!!!

    If you were truly in favour of religious freedom and if you truly were against the government butting in and telling your church who can/cannot get married in it, you would also wholeheartedly support this latest campaign for marriage equality.

    See question 5.

    Cath, if the government suddenly demanded that your church had to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples or any one else for that matter, I would be right there with you fighting it all the way. I would sign every petition I could get my hands on – I would be enraged, I would protest the injustice of it. I would shake my fist and demand that the government butt out. Why won’t you do the same for my church?


  10. Thanks Tim, Seraphic, and Deena, for commenting.

    Tim and Deena – thought-provoking points, and I’d hoped to get back to you this evening, but it hasn’t worked out and tomorrow I’m out of town and away from computer (there should be an acronym for that). So – probably Wednesday, for what it’s worth.


  11. Ok, back to T & D, just a few days behind schedule.

    The first thing is that the possibility of government coercion of churches is not some paranoid speculation, but a real option really being considered by Holyrood at the moment. Hence, the consultation: “Which of the options do you favour to ensure that religious bodies and celebrants do not have to register civil partnerships against their will?” (Q8; “solemnise same sex marriage” in Q17). It’s astonishing audacity for the Scottish government to even raise the possibility the Scottish Church might “have to” do anything “against their will” just to suit the government’s agenda.

    The second thing is the near certainty that if the law is changed so that *some* religious bodies can register/”solemnise” CPs/SSMs, other religious bodies *will in practice* come under pressure to do the same. In the civil sphere, when registrars have conscientious objections to registering civil partnerships, there is no scope for them to exercise liberty of conscience in the matter – they just lose their jobs. Google Lilian Ladele. In the religious sphere, it’s simply a truism that when a determined minority gain the concession to do something that others disagree with (let’s say sing hymns in church instead of singing psalms only, to pick an instance where you can have no dog in the fight), the next step is always that people get in trouble for not taking advantage of the concession they never wanted in the first place. Again, why call this paranoia? it’s just the way things work, and only wilful naivety pretends otherwise.

    In fact, I’d go so far as to say that almost every time Christian liberty of conscience has been squeezed in recent years, athiests, humanists, and liberal churches have been running the fastest *away* from supporting them. Petitions, outrage, protest – um, really? You talk as if liberty of conscience is so firmly established that the possibility its being undermined is just some remote and fanciful speculation. But do you really think that Lilian Ladele deserves to be supported when she conscientiously objected to registering civil partnerships? I can’t say I’m conviced that you really would, say, sign a petition to support the owners of a small business who conscientiously object to treating civil partnerships as morally equivalent to marriage. Or that you would really muster that much energy to protest the injustice of a council employee being demoted after he expressed his conscientious belief that civil partnerships shouldn’t take place in churches. In reality, the prevailing assumption is that people who don’t think/speak/act in expected ways on this issue deserve all the abuse they get, whether that comes in the form of society’s vilification or job loss or whatever might be involved in “having to” perform religious ceremonies “against your will”.

    The third thing is that what you and I understand by “the church” is probably very different things. The Church is that collection of believers who confess orthodox Christianity – that God is a Trinity, that the man Christ Jesus is divine, that he was born of the virgin Mary, that he rose again from the dead, and that salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone. As a minimum. Other organisations have the right in a free and democratic society to set themselves up and believe whatever they want, but even if they’re religious, they’re not part of the Church unless they confess what the Church confesses. The right of the Church not to be subjected to State interference is a divine right (as distinct from the right of other organisations not to be oppressed by the State, which is a civil right). But it’s not “the right to do whatever we want without government interference.” It’s “the right to witness to God’s truth and walk in God’s ways without government interference.”

    So the final thing is that the government has its own rights and responsibilities and these include restrictions on what it can and cannot legislate. The government has decided that there will be such a thing as “civil partnership” for people in specific kinds of relationships (not, say, siblings, or business partners) and has decreed that certain benefits belong in legal terms to that relationship. Okay. But the government has no right to redefine marriage – it has no right to act as though the formula “one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life” is something which is within the power of the state to modify. It isn’t. Politicians would be acting ultra vires if they tried to redefine it (i assume that ultra vires is real Latin, not Scottish Latin, but would need to look it up), and it speaks volumes about the mediocrity and general lack of self-awareness of the MSPs currently sitting in Holyrood that they are seriously entertaining the possibility that marriage can indeed be “redefined” by their fiat. So that even apart from having no right to force the Church to conduct religious ceremonies of any kind under any circumstances, the government is making a fool of itself by trying to dismantle the non-negotiable building block of human society and failing to live up to its own obligations (under, for example, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) to protect the family as the natural and fundamental group unit of society.


  12. Pingback: Consultation almost over « Friendly Humanist

  13. One has to wonder, in an age where cohabitation is preferred by the general British population without thought to the [‘expensive”] endeavour of a wedding, why this is really such a deep issue.
    Surely, for some it will be because they want to express their love before others, as has been said to me.
    But I suspect there are some that simply want to, as you say of another, “muscle in” and attempt to make everyone ‘accept or else’ — exactly like in the case of the couple denied a bed and taking it to court, or the Miss Ladele case (where she would not sign the register but did, respectfully, get another to do it).
    If someone doesn’t want to marry person A with person B because they are “different races” (as if one is human and another isn’t), they will just go somewhere else and not care to go back to the first. I’ll believe this would happen when I see it — if consciences objectors are given a chance.
    I personally think this goes deeper than law — much deeper.
    Several of my gay friends don’t even care about marriage — another interesting thing.


  14. Whenever proponents of man-to-man and women-to-women “marriage” defend their ideas, it really seems to me that they have a very saccharine, Hollywood, lifestyle idea of what marriage is. It is not about two people who love each other very very much, but of a basic building block of human society, in which one member of one half of the human race forms a bond with a member of the other half of the human race for their mutual benefit and the benefit of society.

    Married couples can become literal mothers and fathers to children or substitute mothers and fathers to the children of others.

    As for rights, ANY willing unmarried man can marry ANY willing unmarried woman, so long as they are not close kin. In earlier ages, married people were a little more circumspect about their same-sex sexual experiences and relationships, but many people now considered “gay icons”, like Oscar Wilde (father of two) and Virginia Woolf, freely chose marriage.

    As it is still legally defined in most places in the world, marriage is a relationship between a MAN and a WOMAN, not between one committed sex partner and another, or between one heterosexual and another. It would be foolish to say that sexual relations and strong feelings of attachment have nothing to do with it, but sexual relations and strong feelings of attachment are not the be-all and end-all of marriage.

    I don’t know for sure if anyone predicted even as short a time ago as 20 years ever predicted that marriage would be so weakened by liberal attitudes towards divorce and contraception (which inexorably divided mainstream sexual relations from reproduction), but it certainly has been. Like so many other pillars of human, the concept of marriage is no longer defined by the intellect but by the will. And I think we all should be a little nervous of the triumph of the will.


  15. There’s definitely a lot of blame to be attached to the idea that marriages are just multiple isolated personal arrangements between pairs of individuals, ie losing sight of the social dimension, that marriage is public and has implications for society (including the next generation). Elspeth’s link is v interesting on this.

    It’s this impoverished view of marriage that leaves scope for people to talk as if marriage just exists by some sort of legal convention, so that if we can just get politicans to change the law, marriage can mean whatever the government says it means. The disastrously low calibre of our incumbents at Holyrood is reflected in the fact that they seem to assume the same thing – as though they truly had the power to change the formula ‘one man, one woman, to the exclusion of all others, for life,’ as if it was on a par with changing constituency boundaries, or changing how much funding they’ll give the NHS this year, or even defining whether bus shelters are included in places you’re allowed to smoke. They have no more power to define marriage than they have to legislate that the wind must never exceed gusts of 40mph in the Central Belt.

    The insanity of it is just compounded by the failure to make any sort of case that society will benefit from the attempt. Instead it’s treated as self-evident that it’s got something to do with addressing some ghastly inequality blighting our land (it doesn’t) and in a thoroughly one-sided debate where merely to call someone an evil backward mediaeval bigot counts as a thoughtful contribution. Triumph of will over intellect: exactly.


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