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.

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who to hire

Just a reminder of the disaster that was averted on Monday 25th when the House of Lords defeated the government’s attempt to remove the right of churches to employ only people whose lifestyle is consistent with the church’s ethical teachings.

Yet again the government has shown itself oblivious to the significance of such fundamental freedoms as freedom of association, freedom of conscience, and freedom of religion. Yet again the House of Lords has had to spell out things that should be utterly unassailably taken for granted. Thus Dr John Sentamu:

“Noble Lords may believe that Roman Catholics should allow priests to be married; they may think that the Church of England should hurry up and allow women to become bishops; they may feel that many churches and other religious organisations are wrong on matters of sexual ethics. But if religious freedom means anything, it must mean that those are matters for the churches and other religious organisations to determine in accordance with their own convictions. They are not matters for the law to impose.”

And Baroness O’Cathain, clearly the hero of the hour:

“A belief in freedom of association demands that, even if we do not share the beliefs of an organisation, we must stand up for its liberty to choose its own leaders and representatives. That, in essence, is what this debate is all about.”