some weird objections

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.

Observation 1.

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.

Observation 2.

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.

Observation 3.

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.

resolution on independence

Cath is of the view that Synod could work harder to make its resolutions less open to misinterpretion and misrepresentation by the Beeb and others.

Cath is nevertheless of the view that, given a bit of contextualisation, the Synod resolution on Scottish independence which has just recently reached the limelight makes a substantive contribution to the debate.

Read it here: Synod resolution on Scottish independence

1. Context

a) The Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland continues to understand the relationship between Church and State in terms of the Establishment Principle.

This principle has been entirely mainstream throughout the history of the Scottish church. It says that although Church and State have independent jurisdictions, they still have responsibilities towards each other. On the one hand, the Church has the responsibility of praying for all those in authority so that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and dignity. On the other hand, the State has the responsibility of ensuring that the conditions are in place in society to allow this lifestyle to flourish.

Contemporary challenges to this principle usually come either in the form that the Church doesn’t need to be recognised or established by the State in order to flourish (which is true, but irrelevant), or that a mutually supportive relationship between Church and State is not after all a scriptural principle (a position increasingly popular in wider British evangelicalism and some quarters of American presbyterianism, but not necessarily true).

To the extent that the 1707 Treaty of Union is consistent with the Establishment Principle, it’s hardly surprising that the Synod’s commitment to the Establishment Principle leads it to be concerned about undoing the Treaty of Union, especially when the pro-independence campaign has so far been strangely silent on the details of how the State’s commitment to the national recognition of the Christian religion would be reasserted in a brave new independent Scotland.

b) Although the Synod resolution comes out strongly against independence, this is not the same thing as telling people how to vote.

The resolution expresses the Synod’s understanding of the current legal and constitutional situation, and their associated concerns about what they see as all the disastrous implications and consequences of Scotland becoming independent now, under present conditions and in present circumstances. But a Christian voter would be perfectly within their rights to believe that an independent Scotland would be good for Christianity in Scotland (if they credit, for example, the SNP’s protestations of how respectful they are towards the role of religion in society). They could then vote yes in an independence referendum in all good conscience, Synod resolutions notwithstanding.

I don’t really know how the FP vote gets distributed across political parties – as in, if there’s any particular party that would reliably be favoured by the majority of Free Presbyterians. FPs vote for candidates across the spectrum, from the Lib Dems to UKIP, and although I wouldn’t be surprised if FP voters mirror the Scottish electorate at large in being predominantly unconvinced of the case for independence, that certainly does not mean either that FP voters take their political advice from a synod committee (the idea is laughable) or that Synod would even think to offer such advice.

2. Contribution

The contribution of the Synod resolution to the independence debate is not economic or political or (even) legal/constitutional, but religious. That’s after all what you’d expect, from a religious body.

The religious concern is: in an independent Scotland, what place would there be for Christianity? All you can go by, to answer a question about a hypothetical future scenario, is the trends you currently perceive, and these are not reassuring. The vision offered to us of a modern, vibrant, exciting new Scotland is rigorously secular, contemptuous towards the socially conservative, and hostile by default towards Scotland’s own traditional forms of Christianity. This is a problem for Scotland, and keenly felt by Scotland’s Christians regardless of denomination, right here and now. The worry that many of Scotland’s Christians have for Scotland would be that these attitudes would become more firmly entrenched in an independent Scotland, and that the social, cultural, moral, ethical, and religious changes driven by these attitudes would only become more far-reaching at a faster rate. Of course Christians in Scotland may take the opposite view – that somehow, independence would allow Christianity to flourish in Scotland as never before – that secularism and secularisation would become a thing of the past in an independent Scotland – but the Synod is far from alone among Christian commentators in Scotland in thinking we have little of hope this as far as the eye can see.

Two other contributions of the Synod resolution could be as follows. One would be to remind people that history matters, that we need to take treaties and covenants seriously, even if they were made a long time ago, and that we have to act accountably when we act collectively to make or break agreements.

The other would be to keep the doctrines of grace central to the witness of the Christian church in general, in such a way that everything becomes subordinate to the question how the gospel of Christ can be most clearly articulated in our particular context in this time and place. In the Synod resolution, this point is disguised under terminology that other people don’t tend to use any more – fighting talk about Protestantism and Presbyterianism and the dangers of false religion. But, translated, Protestantism and Presbyterianism mean a gospel of mercy – salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and a community devoted to loving God and our neighbour. Scottish Christians are free to discuss what the best constitutional context for this would be, but surely there can be unanimity that proclaiming the gospel is the main thing.

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.

four weeks to go

Till the Holyrood election and the referendum on AV.

I’m keeping my polling card pinned to the fridge in full view, otherwise I might forget all about it. Is it just me, or is the goal of each new election campaign to out-do the invisibility of the last one?

Thanks to Google, then, I have learned the following.

The Scottish Parliament election involves:
1) a constituency vote, on lilac paper
2) a regional vote, on peach paper
(according to the Herald).

The AV referendum question is:
“Do you want the United Kingdom to adopt the ‘alternative vote’ system instead of the current ‘first past the post’ system for electing Members of Parliament to the House of Commons?”
(according to the BBC).

For extra fun, each ballot paper requires a different voting system.
1) Holyrood constituency – first past the post
2) Holyrood regional list – Alternative Member
3) AV referendum – Yes/No

If this sounds like all the makings of a fiasco (and that’s not deja-vu, we have been here before), worry not. The ballots are all going to be counted by hand this time. What could possibly go wrong.


Referendum-wise, I’m voting no to AV. I know, controversial, eh. Nothing quite like a technical dispute over voting systems to rouse the masses.

Holyrood-wise, I have no idea. Well, the Catholic Teuchter had a fairly insightful article here some time ago – his conclusions are worth pondering. Apart from that, the only thing I know is that the Scottish Christian Party remains as unattractive as ever. Indeed I couldn’t find their manifesto anywhere on their website, or even a list of their candidates. Thus it is left to the Grauniad to supply the information that they have four regional candidates [edited to add: in my constituency], although what policies they’re offering remains a mystery.

can’t vote for the Christian party

The reasons being:

1. Practical

* Christian political parties send out all the wrong messages.

Setting up a party under the title “Christian” has the unfortunate effect of implying that there are no, or no ‘real’, Christians already in the mainstream parties, and/or that there are no opportunities for a Christian voice to be heard in the mainstream. Also it implies that Christians are a bloc of voters whose political views can all be represented by one single party. It implies then that this “Christian party” is the one which will be able to represent the views of all these Christians in the political system, in a way that other parties can’t. And it also implies that Christians who vote for other parties are somehow acting in a less Christian manner than if they vote for the party which claims to be Christian. Not one of these things is accurate, or helpful.

* Christian political parties are weakest where they need to be strongest

All Christians can agree on some moral and issues, which means it makes perfect sense to have Christian campaign groups and ongoing, informed Christian comment on social and political issues. But Christians are legitimately (even, rightly) divided on all the areas where a political party, in order to be successful as a political party, needs to have clear policies. Clear as in clearly articulated, and clear as in obviously following from a coherent and comprehensive political ideology. There is no such thing as a Christian policy on how often your bins should be collected, or speed limits, or rates of national insurance contributions, or when the troops should come home from Afghanistan. Of course you can and should bring Christian principles to bear on all these issues, but none of them constitutes an issue which it is the main business of the Church, or Christians, as such, to take to do with.

2. Principled

This is, maybe, only possibly principled, because here again, the opinions of Christians vary. But, o Scots and Scottish presbyterians, if you believe in the Establishment Principle, is it actually consistent to vote for a Christian political party? If you believe that the Church and the State have their own separate spheres, and that while they should co-operate in areas of mutual concern, they should not interfere in each other’s jurisdiction, does it make sense to vote for an organisation which intends, in effect, to give the Church an official role doing the State’s business within the State’s sphere? When the Church steps outside its role of (1st) preaching the gospel and administering the sacraments and (2nd) giving information to the State about its responsibilities before God, and starts in addition dabbling in matters civil, how is this any less of an encroachment than when the State presumes to tell the Church who is and isn’t fit to be ordained to ecclesiastical office? Maybe there isn’t really a conflict here, but somehow, the thought niggles.

3. Prosaic

After all, there isn’t actually a candidate standing in my constituency.

The concern of Christians is, of course, entirely understandable. In public life, expressions of Christian belief and manifestations of Christian practice are being more and more marginalised, more and more scandalous (to the secularist), more and more of an oddity. In this climate, the slim chance that power might be gained in the political system by a group which loudly proclaims its Christianity becomes fearfully attractive. But it’s not the Christian way. Christians need not feel in the least bit morally obliged to vote for a party simply because it has “Christian” in its title and casually flings around the name of the Saviour at every opportunity. Even a party which proclaims Christian moral values has to compete, among Christian voters, to win that X on the ballot paper which indicates the least worst option, and in the choice between workable policies derived from sub-optimal ideologies, versus a hodge-podge of populist pledges bolted on to lowest common denominator statements of moral values, Christians still need to exercise a bit of critical judgment.

equality and the church

One of the proposals in the government’s Equality Bill seeks to remove the right of churches to employ only staff whose lifestyle is consistent with the church’s teachings, specifically in relation to the church’s teaching on sexual behaviour.

My MP got a letter from me on the subject, pointing out that this proposal is extremely damaging for religous liberties in this country, as it will make it possible to force a church to employ people whose practice contradicts the church’s own teachings and beliefs on sexual morality.

I then got a letter back, enclosing a response from the Parliamentary Secretary for Equality. According to this gentleman’s letter, the government’s position is that “churches … can require an employee to be of a particular sexual orientation for ’employment for the purposes of organised religion’. This covers a narrow range of posts such as ministers of religion or others mainly involved in the promotion or reprepresntation of religion. … Ultimately the requirement depends upon the nature of the specific job. So a church could be permitted to require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s job mainly involved explaining Christiainty. But it could not require a youth worker to be heterosexual if that youth worker’s main responsibility was organising sporting activities.”

Obviously, this response entirely avoids providing any justification for the government’s assumption that it has the right to override the Christian conscience, the Church’s orthodox teaching, and the teaching of the Bible, in matters of morality and ethics. There is also plenty scope for challenging how – on what grounds – the government has either the right or the ability to judge what does and doesn’t fall within the said narrow range of posts which “involve the promotion or representation of religion” (or indeed to define things in those terms at all). It seems to involve an implicit admission that freedom of conscience will indeed be damaged by the government’s equality agenda, and that with little compunction.

But I’m interested too in how the current state of affairs in the visible church leaves us, in some respects, wide open to this kind of state intrusion. If you remember this brief and simplistic description of the Establishment Principle from a wee while ago – virtually everything that is distinctive to this historic understanding of the right relationship between church and state assumes a set-up which has by and large been abandoned in today’s situation.

This can be seen primarily, I think it’s only fair to say, in that the Reformers, Covenanters, and Disruption Fathers give no indication anywhere that they knew what a youth worker might be. So while the Church in 1842 unwaveringly stood on its right to decide whether or not to proceed with disciplinary action against a thief and a fraudster in the ministry and a licentiate accused of drunkenness and obscenity, in various cases where the civil courts contradicted (interdicted) its ecclesiastical rulings – can it be said that the Church today has as firm a grasp of the power of the keys when it comes to the manifold ministries which individuals seem to perform while attached to the church but not particularly as functions of either the eldership or the deaconate? Does the church’s right to hire and fire Sunday School teachers (if they’re not voluntary any more), cleaners (if the hoovering and polishing isn’t an automatic unpaid rostered delight of every able bodied member of the congregation these days),  “worship leaders” (if they’re not just run of the mill teaching elders), small group leaders, football organisers, and any other ministry which I may have inadvertently overlooked – does this right really fall under its powers in sacris in any case? Office-bearers in the church – teaching and ruling elders, and deacons – have a calling, a vocation, to their office, and the appointment, admission, ordination, suspension, and/or deposition of individuals to or from these divinely ordained offices is and must be civilly recognised as the ‘power of the keys’, belonging to the church and not in any sense to the civil authorities – but when the church becomes an employer, things seem to become rather more murky.

Not, of course, that this in any way excuses the state taking advantage of the church’s sloppy attitude to its officebearers (and its often unnecessary impluse to provide a sanitised churchy version of every legitimate kind of social activity within its own pale; who really needs a youth worker to organise football anyway). The Disruption fathers might have been tempted to say that when the church starts to fail in its responsibilities, the state has more and more of an obligation to rebuke and remonstrate as best it can from the sidelines, and provoke her to love and good works all over again.

No. The government’s Equality Bill is no remedy for the ailments of the church. Instead it will only contribute to an atmosphere where the message of the scriptures is more and more suppressed, the gospel trumpet increasingly muted, and most objectionable of all, where the powers of the state are misused to restrict freedom of conscience and freedom of religion. This is good neither for the church nor for society, and it’s a retrograde step for the state too. The government may not like the church’s teaching, or her insistence that those who assist her work of preaching the gospel – in more and less direct ways – should live out their lives in accordance with the scriptural pattern. But it is going well beyond its rightful jurisdiction when it attempts to force its secular, politically correct agenda on people and organisations against their scripturally-informed consciences.

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.]