A post by Gordon Matheson here rightly identifies the Establishment Principle as central to the concerns that many Scottish Christians have about changing to a secular constitution if Scotland became independent.
But rather than concurring with this, the post goes on to make three observations on the relationship between Church and State which sit rather uncomfortably with a conventional understanding of the Establishment Principle – a principle so crucial to the witness of the heirs of 1843.
Firstly, God doesn’t need the Establishment Principle to guarantee the place of the church at the heart of the nation. The suggestion that the church needs the trappings of Establishment is bogus. We need to remember, the Church started life as a few dozen people gathered in a room in Jerusalem. It flourished in the face of fierce persecution in its Jewish cradle, in the culture of the Roman Empire, and across the whole Gentile world. Even today, the Church thrives in counties where it is suppressed. The Establishment Principle, if anything, should urge us on to win and hold onto hard-won religious liberty. The American constitution, for example, guarantees that liberty, but wisely does not establish any religion or denomination – yet the Church does okay in America. Meanwhile, in the UK, where we have an Established Church, we’re peripheral – hardly at the heart of anything. Establishment provides no guarantee of a place – let alone a place at the heart.
The oddity of this observation is that establishment isn’t so much about the needs of the Church as the needs of society. Nor is it about what God “needs” so much as what God ordains – what God has revealed is his preferred way for how Church and State should relate. The Establishment Principle doesn’t force us to choose between religious liberty and the church at the heart of the nation – it’s about both. And legal provisions that the Church should be established are not so much fancy trappings that we can easily dispense with as simply the State’s way of expressing its acceptance of its obligation under God to give national recognition to the Christian religion. If it happens that, in spite of legislation like the Treaty of Union, neither the state nor the established body are taking their current legal responsibilities seriously, that’s not a problem with the legislation but with the flaws and frailties of the state and the body it currently establishes. It certainly doesn’t undermine the Establishment Principle, which is just our terminology for the relationship which should hold between Church and State when both are living up to their divinely ordained responsibilities.
Secondly, the Establishment Principle has never guaranteed orthodoxy. In fact, Established Churches tend towards a sickness in doctrine. History is replete with examples – from the Church of England’s half-way reformation, to the Three Self Patriotic Church on modern day China. The Establishment Principle is supposed to lead to a healthy balance between church and state. But because we live in a broken, sinful world that rarely happens. Even when it does it rarely lasts long. Either the state exercises undue control over the church’s doctrine and affairs; or the church becomes grotesque in her demands of the state; or the church makes compromises to appease the state. This has already happened in Scotland. We need to ask, what’s worse for the nation – a sick established church, or a healthier non-established church? It’s strange that a Free Presbyterian minister has forgotten this has happened before. In the run up to 1843 the relationship between state and established church became unbearable for men like Thomas Chalmers, and he walked out. The “Free” in the Free Church, and her various offspring, is a recognition that Establishment is a great Biblical principle, (and we still call the state to her highest calling in this); but we realise we live in the real world, where great principles rarely work as desired.
In the Scottish context, it simply is not the case that historically the Established Church has tended towards a sickness in doctrine. Strange for a Free Church minister to forget, but in the run up to the Disruption, the “sickness” was on the side of the State, not the side of the Church. The Disruption was actually a manifestation of very robust health on the part of the then established Church, when they would prefer to forego the benefits of establishment than violate the principle of Christ’s authority in his Church. For that whole length of time between the Reformation and the Disruption, Scotland had in actuality enjoyed that same healthy balance between Church and State which Gordon claims is so rare and short-lived – the 1842 Claim, Declaration and Protest is a standing testimony to this (and it’s part of the reason why the state’s encroachments in the early 1800s were so outrageous and intolerable).
The scenarios on offer – a sick established church or a healthier non-established church – are a false dichotomy. The ideal, encapsulated in the Establishment Principle, is a healthy established Church – and it’s not some remote, fanciful ideal so noble as to be unattainable. It’s as concrete and attainable as the principle that souls are converted under the preaching of the Word, or that people shouldn’t go around breaking the sixth commandment – both grand Biblical principles and things we should be able to consciously work towards without a second thought.
So my third observation is that things break. Scotland’s history is full of broken covenants – but times of refreshing have come. Yet today, you would have to wear rose-tinted spectacles to think the church (sick or healthy) has a place to lose at the heart of the nation. The Church in Scotland is largely irrelevant, sick with errors in doctrine, and frequent misplaced emphasis in word and action. God has already been provoked – and has given Scotland the church she wanted. I don’t think we need the FPs to tell us that might happen – we need to open our eyes to what already is!
Despite that, God has continued to be faithful to us. There are still a lot of healthy parts of the Church. He does that because of his grace. While we can never assume grace, we cannot live without it. The assumption that Scotland will be cut off from God’s blessing if we revoke a man-made treaty smacks of a graceless, legalistic view of God. We have to rely on a God who is not like that.
Thankfully, the Synod resolution neither assumes that we will be cut off from God’s blessing for revoking a man-made treaty, nor entertains a graceless, legalistic view of God.
People who read the resolution itself rather than the version filtered through BBC reportage would see that the main concern is not with independence per se, nor with changing treaties per se, but with corporately adopting a secular(ist) constitution to replace the one where Christianity is given its (rightful) place at the heart of the nation. To the extent that secularisation is a rejection of God, God’s authority, and God’s kindness to us collectively in providence, there’s not much room for doubt that to that extent it’s not quite the loving respect we really owe him.
Legally and constitutionally, the Christian religion does have a huge place to lose at the heart of the nation. Our challenge today is not to pretend that the constitution is irrelevant to the church’s role in society, but to work together to ‘strengthen the things that remain and are ready to die,’ and see how we can best cooperate to shape a society where the gospel can be preached freely and lived openly, for the good of Scotland.