How is civil life to be run – Summarizing Articles 37-39

For the most part, the final three Articles dealing with the relationship between Church and State contain a political theology that is familiar to the American reader today.  Promises and solemn oaths are permitted, the ownership of property is upheld (thus rendering biblical charity a giving up from one’s own lot), the relationship of control between the Church and the State is spelled out in reasonably understandable terms.  The Church’s ministers are not exempt from the prosecution of the civil law, the Church’s doctrines and practices are not subject to civil law.  To a large extent, the Anglican approach to relating Church and State is what the American tradition inherited.

But there is one major difference, of course: the crown has an explicit charge or care over the Church.  Initially, the language used was that the King was the “supreme head” of the Church, but in the mid-1500’s this was changed to “supreme governor” – partly because a woman was on the throne and biblical headship is a male image, not female, and partly because headship over the Church is better left to describe Christ himself.  Nevertheless, the idea of the national monarch governing the Church is utterly alien to our American context.  We have neither a monarch nor a federally-recognized state church.  How then do we receive these parts of our historic formularies outside of England?

Precedent shows us the way.  In the aftermath of the Reformation, Scotland’s official state church ended up being Presbyterian.  Their episcopal church (that is, having bishops) remained in communion with the Church of England, and thus was the first “Anglican Province” outside of England (though the term Anglican was not used for some time).  The Scottish Episcopal Church, and then in 1789 also the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, formed a larger communion outside the confines of England which would eventually grow much larger through missionary efforts throughout the British Empire in the following two centuries.  In both of these cases, the Anglican churches that weren’t official state churches retained the practice of praying for the national leaders and society.  In some ways, they acted as if they were the state church: taking on the commitment to pray for all aspects of government and society.

Obviously the concept of the state church (be it official or not) can have its downsides.  As the government of England secularized through the 19th century, the Church found itself wed to an increasingly indifferent and eventually hostile state.  The political and societal pressures upon the Church of England to conform to modernist and post-modern values became more and more difficult to resist.  Similarly in America, with a thoroughly secular state from the start, the temptation to reflect the state and society in the Church slowly tugged the Episcopal Church away from its theological moorings.  These downsides have led many Christians to believe that state churches are inherently bad, dangerous, or unbiblical.  This is not necessarily the case, but recent history has made it clear that the Church has to stand firm according to her historic teachings regardless of the pressures put upon her.  Kings, Presidents, Assemblies, and even entire countries come and go, but the Church is God’s covenant community forever.  However much or little we receive the patronage and care of the government, we have a charge to keep.  We “give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments,” nor do we give the same over to public opinion.

About Fr. Brench

I'm an Anglican Priest and a sci-fi geek. Therefore, I write about liturgy & spiritual formation, theology & biblical studies, and Doctor Who. But I keep those blogs separate so I don't confuse too many people!
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