It took God longer to write the Bible
than it has taken him to build the British Empire.
William C. MacDonald , Modern
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
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
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.
St ROBERT BELLARMINE ON MONARCHY
De Romano Pontifice
POPE PIUS VI ON MONARCHY
Pourquoi Notre Voix, 17 July 1793
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?"
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
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.
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)".
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
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.
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
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
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.