This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 37 states:
XXXVII. Of the Civil Magistrates
The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.
The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.
The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.
It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.
The history of the relationship between the Church and politics is long and complicated. At different times and places, Christianity has favored a variety of approaches to handling the earthly authority of princes or kings. For centuries, in Europe, there was constant tension between ecclesiastical and secular authorities. The 11th and 12th centuries saw perhaps the apex of this conflict in what has become known as the Investiture Controversy. At the root of it, the question came down to this: who gets to invest whom with authority? Do the Pope and his Bishops, who crown Emperors and Kings, also get a say in who they’re going to crown? Do the Kings and nobles get a say in who their Bishops are going to be?
Our very modern notions of the separation of Church and State are hardly two centuries old; for most of history before it was taken for granted that the State relied upon a common religion to keep its populace united. The resultant question was to what degree the state controlled the religion, or the religion controlled the state.
During the Reformation, there were many theologies and philosophies concerning the manner in which the Church and the State should run themselves and relate to one another. In England the chosen solution was that the State (symbolized and personified by the reigning monarch) had governance over all things in the realm, including the Church. Article 37 summarizes this position.
It begins with a double statement: the King (or Queen) is in charge of the realm, and no foreign influences are to govern anything within the realm. This is expounded further in the third statement of this Article: the Bishop of Rome (that is, the Pope) has “no jurisdiction in this Realm”.
Naming the King or Queen as the governor of the Church, naturally, raised a lot of questions among dissenters and critics, so the second statement of this Article explains it further: “we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments… but that only prerogative… that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.” Much like the Church in the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the Church of England would recognize the English crown as its temporal ruler, caller of assemblies, and protector and enforcer of policy, but not to dictate teaching or practice. This is commonly called a State Church, though it is better understood as “the Church which the State recognizes” rather than “the Church which the State controls.”
Understanding the relevancy of this Article in our North American context is rather tricky. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America adopted in 1801 (shortly after its founding) this adaptation of Article 37: “The Power of the Civil Magistrate extendeth to all men, as well Clergy as Laity, in all things temporal; but hath no authority in things purely spiritual. And we hold it to be the duty of all men who are professors of the Gospel, to pay respectful obedience to the Civil Authority, regularly and legitimately constituted.” This is perhaps the most direct practical and theological use of this Article outside of England. The Church and her clergy are subject to civil authority (be it a State Church or otherwise), but the State has no authority to dictate doctrine or practice.
One of the policies Article 37 was rejecting was a medieval understanding of the clergy and lay people as different “estates” of life subject to different “courts.” If a clergyman or member of a religious order got in trouble with the law, he could only be tried by a Church court. This gave the Church and her clergy potential to meddle in civil affairs across Europe without fear of reprisal. The extent to which this was actually a problem may be debatable, but, as strong kingdoms like England grew, there was increasing distrust of foreign influence. A modern example of this potential for malpractice could be the Roman Catholic clergy sex scandals of recent decades – the Roman Church took it upon herself to discipline (or fail to discipline) her wayward priests without bringing secular authorities into the picture. Had they been subject to something akin to Article 37, such in-house justice would have been unlawful to begin with.
The last two lines of this Article provide two important results of the political-theological position set forth here. First, the State is allowed to wield the death penalty, and second, Christians are allowed to serve and fight in combat. On both these counts the primary ideological opponents were the Anabaptists, who were becoming known for their radical views of the separation of Church and State and the Christian call to nonviolence (excepting only self-defense, though some went to the full extreme). In both cases, appeal to the Old Testament Law provided a great deal of support for the state’s legitimate use of war and death even though the Church (as taught in the Gospel) is called to minister grace and pardon. Martin Luther’s political views were similar on this count: the Church and the State were to him the “two hands of God”, ministering grace and justice, respectively.
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, Article 37 rejects the supremacy of the Pope over the Catholic Church. Again reaching back to the Early Church, the idea of the Church governing her own affairs within the confines of each secular nation is brought to the fore in Anglican political theology. As in the Early Church, the Anglican Reformers were happy to acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as a Patriarch – a first among equals – but not as a ruling monarch of the whole Church. Therefore, as the Anglican tradition expanded into Scotland, and America, and other colonies across the globe, the ramifications of Article 37 was that each sovereign nation (or occasionally, group of nations) would have a distinct Anglican “Province”. And, just as the Bishop of Rome has no authority over the Bishops in England, neither does the Archbishop of Canterbury have authority over the Anglican Bishops in other countries.
It is the generally Anglican conviction that the Church is to work in a conciliar fashion across the world, united by godly consensus, not by manual control.