Church and State — Symbiosis


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    It took God longer to write the Bible
    than it has taken him to build the British Empire.
    William C. MacDonald , Modern Evangelism


    For over 1,700 years Churches have promoted symbiotic relationships with civil powers. Churches have validated the State's right to rule, and in return States have given rights and privileges to Churches.

    From the fourth century onwards Christian leaders gained in power and influence by providing support to the ailing Roman Empire. The Church provided stability, divine endorsement, civil compliance and an intelligence service. In exchange the Emperor provided senior churchmen with power, grants of money, religious favouritism (for example a religious monopoly, enforced by the right to extirpate their rivals) and exemptions from public duties*. Christian bishops sat in court as secular judges. The relationship grew ever closer, culminating in western Europe in the intricate web of power that we call the feudal system.

    Complications arose from time to time, for example if King and Pope disagreed over the appointment of a senior clerical vassal. When King John refused to accept Stephen Langton as Archbishop of Canterbury in the early thirteenth century, the Pope, Innocent III, excommunicated him, declared him deposed, and invited the King of France, Philip Augustus, to invade England. John backed down, ceded his kingdom, and received it back as a papal fief.

    The concept of the divine right of kings was a logical consequence of feudal ideas. Since temporal rulers were part of a divinely ordained hierarchy, it was not for mere men to question their authority. The cruelty, stupidity and capriciousness of monarchs were all divinely sanctioned. St Paul confirmed it, and for centuries the Church used his words as absolute proof of it:

    Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God. Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
    Romans 13:1-2

    This injunction was clear to Roman Catholics and Protestants alike, although their interpretations were different. Traditionally kings had derived their divine rights through the Pope, but for Luther the German princes ruled directly by divine right, without papal permission. It is from the idea that kings are divinely appointed that English law developed the doctrine that The King can do no wrong. This principle is still echoed in Britain by the concept of Crown immunity from prosecution.

    The Catholic Church always lauded monarchy as the best possible form of government. When monarchies and their associated feudal systems were replaced by republics, the Church fulminated about these inferior and blasphemous travesties. Many philosophers were persecuted in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries for suggesting alternative forms of government. Papal hostility to republican government accounted for much anti-Catholicism in the USA for a couple of centuries - something that both sides have now found it convenient to forget.

    De Romano Pontifice

    Pourquoi Notre Voix, 17 July 1793

    "If monarchy is the best and most excellent government, as above we have shown, and it is certain that the Church of God, instituted by the most sapient prince Christ, ought to be best governed, who can deny that the government of it ought to be a monarchy?" "In fact, after having abolished the monarchy, the best of all governments, it [the French Revolution] had transferred all the public power to the people - the people... ever easy to deceive and to lead into every excess…


    For Protestants, as for Catholics, God created inequaliy and kingdoms to enforce it. Inequality was everywhere: clerics v laymen, lords v freemen v serfs, masters v slaves, men v women. Everyone had a place in a divinely ordained hierarchy. As Luther put it:

    An earthly kingdom cannot exist without inequality of persons. Some must be free, some serfs, some rulers, some subjects.

    And of course the masses needed to be strictly controlled:

    As to the common people, ... one has to be hard with them and see that they do their work and that under the threat of the sword and the law they comply with the observance of piety, just as you chain up wild beasts.

    God frequently spoke directly to his senior feudal vassals here on Earth. Henry VIII, for example, was party to information directly from God, as the Book of Common Prayer confirms. All agreed that the hierarchy was divinely ordered. In the frontispiece of his Great Bible of 1538, Henry is shown distributing books entitled verbum dei, "The word of God" to his senior clerics, while God looks down benignly, and the populace exclaim Vivat Rex. Church and State were inseparable and mutually dependent. James I understood how closely his crown was tied to the Church. When Puritans were pressing for the abolition of the bishops he observed "No bishops: no King". God took a personal interest in the English crown, as he did all royal crowns in Christendom. According to English Protestants, God personally ensured that Protestant monarchs occupied the throne. So it was that he ditched King James II in favour of another royal line. The Declaration of Right of William and Mary refers to William as "His Highness the Prince of Orange (whom it hath pleased God to make the glorious Instrument of delivering this Kingdom from Popery and arbitrary power)".

    The Church of England, as the established Church of the State, enjoyed extensive privileges. Powerful clerics wielded temporal power, as other clerics did throughout Christendom. Bishops and abbots sat in parliaments. They controlled civil services, royal treasuries and universities. They also enjoyed executive power. The Prince Bishop of Durham, for example, once ruled half of England, coining his own money and dispensing his own temporal justice

    Behind the armorial bearings are a crossed crosier and sword, this latter denoting the temporal authority he enjoyed until the nineteenthcentury. HIs crest also makes reference to his temporal authority - the shepherds crook, dove and bishop's mitre look Christian enough, but the mitre sits within a temporal ducal coronet, and the coronet and mitre both sit on a helm - the symbol of a fighting knight (something that modern bishops carefully avoid).

    Until 1847 the two archbishops and all bishops sat in the House of Lords. Here they could be relied upon to follow the approved line since the Crown had power of translation (i.e. could move them from one bishopric to another). This was an important factor when a bishop's income depended upon his see — and one see might be worth twenty times as much as another.

    In the past, enemies of the Church were automatically enemies of the State. As we have already seen, many heretics in Elizabethan times were also held to be guilty of treason. Parliament created the crime of seditious libel to deal with those who disagreed with the government, and the crime of blasphemous libel to deal with those who disagreed with the Church. The two were often indistinguishable. A Presbyterian minister, Thomas Rosewell, found himself on trial for treason in 1684, for doubting that monarchs possessed supernatural healing powers.

    When the government took over effective control from the Crown, the bishops followed their new masters, opposing reform of all kinds, from the abolition of slavery to the abolition of capital punishment. The bench of bishops could be counted on to oppose all franchise reform bills, education bills, employment bills, even anti-corruption bills. On the other hand, along with Christian evangelicals in the Commons, they helped steer through oppressive legislation like the Combination laws and the Six Acts. Well into the twentieth century, the Lords Spiritual consistently used their influence to frustrate liberal reform. Towards the end of the twentieth century bishops switched allegiance, becoming fashionably liberal and even adopting many socialist ideas. On the other hand they maintained their traditional modes of argument, announcing for example, as the Prince Bishop of Durham did in 1989, that the government's intention to privatise bus services was blasphemous.


    This is the Jewelled Sword of Offering, made for the Coronation of King George IV.
    This sword is presented to the Sovereign by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the British Coronation ceremony as a tangible reminder to the new monarch that royal power is at the service of the Christian Church.


    Many vestiges of the ancient partnership between Church and State survive. In England the parish is both the territory of a church and the smallest unit of local government. The closeness of the traditional link between Church and State is reflected by the proximity of the centres of authority. Westminster Abbey stands next to the Royal Palace of Westminster. In England, as throughout Europe, city cathedrals stand next to lordly castles. Village churches often stand next to manor houses. Archbishop and king, bishop and earl, priest and squire: the organs of power matched like left and right hands.

    Looking glass images: Bishop and King: (Howden Minster)

    Until recent times Anglican clergymen enjoyed a privilege similar to that of Members of Parliament — they were immune from arrest in any civil suit while about their official business. The monarch is still head of the Church of England. The archbishops still have their seats, but the bishops now have to share 24 between them. By law both monarch and Lord Chancellor must be Protestant, or at least must not be Roman Catholic. Archbishops still conduct coronations, sanctifying monarchs in the name of God. On behalf of the Crown, the British government still appoints archbishops, bishops and deans, and permits the Church to operate its own courts of law. These courts enjoy similar powers to ordinary courts. They exercise power to subpoena, absolute privilege, enforcement of costs and other prerogatives of Crown Courts. They exercise their power to control the press much more strongly than the Crown Courts and have been known to give an unusually liberal interpretation of the provision that allows them to exclude the public from trials where evidence is likely to injure public morals*. The Church even has its own law-making body, the General Synod, whose statutes are usually rubber stamped by Parliament's Ecclesiastical Committee. The ecclesiastical courts are separate from the civil courts, with the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council acting as the supreme court of appeal (in place of the Pope, to whom appeals used to lay before the Reformation). The State protects the Church, and the Church returns the favour by validating the rights of the State. One of the homilies recommended for reading in churches (by the 35th of the 39 Articles) is one against rebellion (Homily 21). The Church also explicitly sanctioned the death penalty and the right to fight in wars.

    Illustration of the poem The Clerical Magistrate, 1819, by William Hone
    The poem lampooned religious hypocrisy and the incompatibility of religious and civil authority.
    In the Church of England, priests could also be magistrates, imposing sentenses of imprisonment in chains, flogging and hanging.

    Elsewhere, the symbiotic relationship between Church and State was even closer. The Patriarch of Constantinople, under the Turks was the head of the Greek nation — the ethnarch or millet-bashi — up to 1923. In Cyprus, Archbishop Makarios III continued as ethnarch (president and archbishop) until his death in 1977. The Papal States were also run as a theocracy, the Pope being the head of state. As Macaulay noted:

    The states of the Pope are, I suppose, the worst governed in the civilised world; and the imbecility of the police, the venality of the public servants, the desolation of the country, force themselves on the observation of the most heedless traveller*.

    Until the French Revolution the Parliament (États Généraux) was similar to that throughout western Christendom, with three Estates. The First Estate was the clergy, with 291 members representing or so 10,000 people, (on average each member representing around 35 people). The Second Estate was the nobility, with 270 members representing around 400,000 people, (on average each member representing around 1482 people). The Third Estate was the commons, with 585 members, representing around 25,000,000 people, (on average each member representing around 42,735 people). Neither clergy nor nobles paid tax on their huge land holdings, the burden falling solely on the commoners. In pre-revolutionary France the influence of the Church and its interdependence with the State led to anticlericalism, which was at least as strong as antimonarchism. The mutual support given to each other by Church and government was recognised as an evil by eighteenth century thinkers, and many concurred with the philosopher Denis Diderot, who held that freedom was impossible while Church and State combined to oppress the people.

    In France, as in dozens of other countries, the Church still exerts a powerful influence and opposes all manner of reform. The State, though supposedly secular, owns and maintains churches and Christian monuments with taxpayers" money. It supports religious schools and more than half of state holidays are Christian festivals. In Ireland until recently most hospitals and schools were funded by the State but run by the Church. Philosophy departments were fiefdoms of the Church hierarchy. Even now the Church owns most schools. Sex education was prohibited despite the consequences. In 1984, a 15-year-old girl and her baby died during childbirth in a field in the middle of winter. She had not told anybody that she was pregnant. Following these deaths, sex education became a matter of public and political debate. The Irish Minister for Education planned a reform of secondary level education to include sex education, but this reform was not implemented because of religious and other pressure-group opposition*.

    Many children leave school in Ireland with no knowledge of contraception or sexually transmitted diseases. Roman Catholic rules are still applied in hospitals. There were until recently no pregnancy scans, no sperm banks, and no sterilisations — even in State hospitals. Some countries, for example Argentina, require that their head of state must be Roman Catholic, just as England requires its head of state to be Protestant. Other Churches also maintain the traditional relationship. In Scandinavian countries, where the Lutheran Church enjoys the principal symbiotic relationship with the civil power, the State still appoints the bishops and pays the clergy.

    The idea that governments are divinely appointed is still held by many, and stated explicitly. All mainstream Churches have asserted in the twentieth century that both Church and State draw their authority from God himself. They are partners in his great plan. The preamble to the Constitution of the Irish Republic asserts that all State power stems from the Most Holy Trinity. The Church of Scotland acknowledges "the Divine appointment and authority of the civil magistrate within his own sphere" (Church of Scotland's Articles Declaratory, IV ). The idea that God is somehow linked to the State is often explicit in national mottoes and songs. The British royal motto is "Dieu et mon droit", a reminder that sovereign power comes directly from God, rather than the Pope; and the national anthem invites God to confound the "knavish tricks" of the enemies of the Crown.

    Occasionally the strength of the links between repressive states and the Church become public. An example is Roman Catholic police chaplains collaborating in murders during Argentina's military rule. One, Christian Von Wernich, was convicted in September 2007 for involvement in seven murders, 42 abductions and 31 cases of torture during the 1976-83 "Dirty War". Between 10,000 and 30,000 people were killed or “disappeared” before Argentina returned to civilian rule with the election of President Raul Alfonsin in October 1983. Survivors revealed that the priest passed confessions he obtained from prisoners to the police*. They said he used his office to win their trust before passing information to police torturers and killers in secret detention centres. He attended torture sessions and gave absolution to the police, telling them they were doing God's work. Father Von Wernich initially avoided prosecution by moving to Chile, where he worked as a priest under a false name — with the complicity of his Church. The priest accused torture victims who gave evidence in court of being influenced by the devil.

    This cartoon entitled "The Christian Citizen" is by a prominent American Catholic cartoonist
    "The Christian Citizen" by Urban Sereno Abell (1876-1965)

    The supposedly secular USA is in practice more openly Christian than most countries in Western Europe. It advertises itself as "One Country Under God". The battle hymn of the Republic includes the lines "glory, glory, hallelujah. His truth goes marching on". Many Americans refer quite seriously to their country as "God's own land" or "God's chosen land", and consider their national flag to be somehow holy, so that it is widely thought to be literally sacrilegious to mistreat it. Christian oaths are taken on bibles in all manner of official circumstances, for example by a new president taking office, indeed almost all publicly elected official are expected to ask God to help them on taking office. Similarly for military officers on accepting their commissions. Jurors and witnesses are also expected to swear an oath. Both houses of Congress have their own chaplain, and both start each session with prayers and readings of the Bible. Indeed the state and national governments pay for huge numbers of chaplains: in the armed forces, prisons, places of learning and so on.

    "An alliance or coalition between Government and religion cannot be too carefully guarded against...

    Every new and successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters is of importance.

    James Madison, 1822

    We are determined, as leaders of the nation, to fulfill as a national government the task which has been given to us, swearing fidelity only to God, our conscious, and our people...

    [The national government] will take Christianity as the basis of our collective morality...

    Adolf Hitler, 1933

    The medieval conception of the partnership between Church and State is alive and well in modern America. The only difference is that in medieval Europe the partnership was between one Church and a pontifical monarch; now it is between various Churches and democracy. A century ago in Britain people could display on their walls unlikely paintings such as one showing Jesus holding the hand of a Boy Scout and pointing approvingly at a map of the British Empire. Over the last century Jesus seems to gone off traditional empires and now favours democratic republicanism in the USA. Democracy, once a form of heresy to all right-thinking Christians, has now been sanctified as a gift of God. God approves of democracy and has appointed the USA to be its champion, just as he once approved of feudalism, and appointed the Pope to be its champion.



    The position in the Eastern Churches was similar to that of the Western Church. For simplicity, we consider just the Greek Church, the role of which is similar to that of other national Orthodox Churches.

    In the Byzantine Empire (A.D. 330-1453), the emperor had been God's vice-regent on earth and his empire a model of heavenly order. Given this status, the emperor was a sort of super priest - he could (and did) preach, receive communion in the manner of a priest, and convene Church Councils. Under the Ottoman Empire (1453-1821), the patriarch of Constantinople took over wide-ranging secular powers over Orthodox Christians in Greece and elsewhere in the empire. (and incidentally in the West the popes appropriated the emperor's old claims and titles)

    Today, there is still a close connection between the concepts "being Greek" and "being Orthodox," the former virtually implying the latter. Church attendance was long compulsory - a requirement that was reintroduced under the Greek dictatorship 1967-74 (known as The Greek military junta or as The Regime of the Colonels). The constitution of 1975 describes the Orthodox Church as the "established religion" of Greece. This official status of the church confers legal privileges. In addition, the president of Greece must be affiliated with the church; sworn-in according to the rites of the Church. Most top positions (in the military, the judiciary, and public schools) are in practice restricted to Orthodox candidates. Major Church holidays are also state holidays. The constitution forbids all religious groups other than the Orthodox Church to proselytize (unless they have specific permission).

    The Orthodox Church depends on the state for financial and legal support. The state pays the Orthodox Clergy, and subsidizes the Church heavily - and has continued to do so through Greece's economic crises. Religious education is mandatory for Greek Orthodox children in public schools, both primary and secondary. The Greek state subsidizes religious studies at institutions of higher learning, and as in the west, conflates religion and education as though they were still related. The Church is supervised by the Ministry of Education and Religious Affairs.

    As the official state religion, the Greek Orthodox Church, exercises a powerful voice in political policy which it uses to retard social reform (which it perceives would weaken the established social order and blur the close connection between ethnic Greekness and Orthodoxy). As in Western Churches the Orthodox Church champions "traditional values" on topics like the role of women and perceptions of homosexuality. Until 1983 the church recognized only religious marriages and forbade the marriage of Orthodox believers to nonbelievers. The Church is still a major land owner in Greece.



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    §. Eusebius cites an imperial letter commanding the heads of the churches to be exempted from all public duties. Eusebius, The History of the Church, 10:7.

    §. In an ordinary court this provision is rarely applied, but it has been applied in consistory courts for the most trivial of reasons, for example to evidence concerning an adulterous clergyman.

    §. T. M. Macaulay, Letters, 1838.

    §. ES/ireland.html (section 3),

    §. 10 th October 2007.


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