The Establishment Principle Today

Historically, the Establishment Principle has meant (1) official state recognition of Christianity as the national religion (2) endowment of the church by the state and (3) civil government having a clearly defined responsibility with regard to religious matters.  This responsibility extended to promoting the peace and unity of the church, ensuring the due observance of gospel ordinances and even the suppression of blasphemy and heresy (Westminster Confession, 23.3)

All this was possible in a world such as 17th century Scotland, where Christianity was the only religion, there was only one Christian denomination, and politicians and churchmen shared the same faith.  But what can the Establishment Principle mean in a society where Christians are a minority, the church has broken up into literally thousands of denominations and political power lies in the hands of a determined secularism?

1. First, we have to expose the fallacy that secular humanism represents religious neutrality.  To banish religious expressions and observances from public life is to create an atheistic state, and that is itself a militantly religious position, making atheism the established and endowed religion.  Prayer is dismissed as superstition, and such ‘heresies’ and ‘blasphemies’ as the doctrine of Creation and condemnation of homosexual practices must be suppressed.

2. Secondly, we must bear witness to the universal lordship of Jesus Christ.  This lordship is based on the resurrection: a factual, historical event, not some ‘value’ which we can choose to adopt or reject at our pleasure.  Every day Parliament meets, and as surely as the sun has risen, Christ has risen, and government must conduct all its business in the light of this fact.  And not only has he risen, but he reigns supreme as the Preserver, the Lord, and, finally, the Judge, of all.  This is why political power can never be absolute, and why every politician needs to be reminded that one day he will be summoned to the Great Assize.  Every government, every local council, every boardroom and every trade union meets under the eye of the risen Christ, who claims as his own every inch of human life.  We contradict his principles, despise his values and obstruct his Kingdom at our peril.

3. Thirdly, we have to remind the state of its constitutional obligations to Christianity.  At the heart of the Union of 1707 there lay a religious settlement, agreed by the parliaments of both Scotland and England.  In accordance with that settlement, Her Majesty the Queen, like all her predecessors since George I, has sworn at her Accession (in Scotland) and at her Coronation (in England) to maintain the ‘True Protestant Religion’.  Since then, of course, the monarchy itself has altered dramatically.   It has laid aside (or, more accurately, been stripped of) its absolutist pretensions and accepted its role as a limited or constitutional monarchy.  On the face of things, real power now lies with Parliament.  Strictly speaking, however, the governing authority is the Queen-in-Parliament: no Bill passed by Parliament can become an Act until stamped with the Great Seal of the Realm, to indicate Royal approval.  But the transition to constitutional monarchy cannot invalidate the religious settlement agreed as a condition of the Union of 1707.  The Sovereign may not ratify any Bill which violates her Accession Oath to uphold the Protestant religion; and Parliament should never put the Sovereign in a position where he or she has, in effect, to commit perjury. The Accession Oath binds not only the Queen, but the Queen-in-Parliament.

4. Our adherence to the Establishment Principle does not mean, however, that we condone intolerance.  Some of the language of the Westminster Confession (especially in Chapter Twenty-three ) seemed to point in this direction: hardly surprising, since the idea of toleration had scarcely occurred to the 17th century.  In 1846, however, the Free Church General Assembly explicitly disowned this interpretation of the Confession and distanced itself from any principles ‘inconsistent with liberty of conscience and the right of private judgement’ (Act XII, 1846).  Before God, of course, men do not have the right to worship whatever they please and however they please.  But this 1846 decision of the Assembly  referred to civil rights, and the official position of the Church is that no one should suffer discrimination or persecution on the basis of religious affiliation.  Every citizen must be free to worship God as she pleases.  This religious freedom includes the right to evangelise and proselytise.  Crucially, it also includes the right of every individual to convert from one religion to another: a right denied in many countries which claim to recognise freedom of religion.  However, at the same time as we expect government to protect the religious freedom of, for example, British Muslims, we also expect it to make representations to Islamic countries such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, where Christians are scarcely allowed even to exist.

5. Grateful though we are for the liberties we still enjoy, we cannot take them for granted.  The default position is that ‘the world’ hates Christianity.  Persecution, therefore, is the norm for the church, and it is not at all unlikely that in the foreseeable future church services will be disrupted by radical Muslims, gay-rights demonstrators and militant secularists protesting against ‘superstition’.  In the meantime, we must exercise constant vigilance, particularly with regard to freedom of worship.  But what does this mean?

        5.1 First, we must strive to protect what is left of the Lord’s Day.  Ever since Constantine (280-337 a.d.) the first day of the week has been ring-fenced in order to guarantee Christians time to gather together for worship.  The fence is now largely dismantled (sadly, with the connivance of the church itself) and the effect on church-attendance has been dramatic.  But government should also be reminded that the loss of the Lord’s Day has serious social consequences.  A society where the market never closes leaves men no time to hear the Law of God, and there are already clear signs that a generation is arising which has no moral compass.  The great principles of the Ten Commandments no longer provide people with unmistakeable boundaries; even less do the specifically Christian principles of humility, self-denial, frugality and love of neighbour resonate with a generation schooled in competitiveness and insatiable consumerism.  Government will find it difficult in the extreme to regulate a society which fears neither God, nor gods.

        5.2 Also linked to the question of freedom of worship is the church’s right to choose those who will conduct its services: its ministers and its priests.  This is, of course, the core Free Church principle, but it may easily fall foul of equality legislation.  The most obvious threat comes from the demands of the gay community.  It is not at all unlikely that they will challenge the right of churches to refuse to ordain homosexuals, and without firm legislative protection we may well find ourselves facing a grim alternative: either sacrifice our principles or face criminal prosecution.  It must be made unmistakeably clear to the state (as it was in 1843) that the election and ordination of its ministers is the exclusive prerogative of the church, and one in which the state has no right to meddle.  To meddle would be an intolerable intrusion on the spiritual independence of the church: one which we would be bound to resist.

        5.3 By the same token, freedom to worship means the freedom (so far as the state is concerned) to preach what we like.  From this point of view, we should not be too quick to condemn those branded as ‘radical Islamic clerics’.  There may, indeed, be situations (for example, in times of war) when preaching might threaten national security; or situations when preaching either encourages, or serves as a cloak for, criminal activity.  This is why we cannot demand a blanket-guarantee from the state that it will never exercise surveillance over preaching.  But the Christian pulpit seldom, if ever, poses such threats.  The real danger in modern Britain is that there are issues on which only one point of view may be heard.  The most notable example, again, is homosexuality.  We are already on the threshold of a situation where any criticism of a gay life-style is seen as a criminal act.  Yet any preaching which sees its role as being to explain Scripture is bound to speak of homosexuality as a sin (though no more serious than others; and offering no pretext whatsoever for homophobia).  The pulpit must jealously guard the freedom to tell it as God sees it.

        5.4 But the church’s activity is not limited to preaching and the conduct of public worship.  She also provides a wide range of social services such as, for example, care-homes, and it is grossly unfair that such homes currently face a choice between receiving government funding and advertising for Christian staff.  How can they provide Christian care if they have to recruit staff who have no sympathy with the Christian ethos?  And why should the Christian elderly have to end their days in establishments which have no respect for their feelings, where communal worship is forbidden, and where it is assumed that every old person’s dream is of pop and bingo?  This is another instance where the pretended religious neutrality serves only as a cloak for state-endowed atheism.

        5.5 The church would be equally justified in asking for some state-recognition of the value of its youth-work.  Government probably sees Christian youth clubs as merely proselytising agencies.  In reality, the community benefits are considerable.  While some of the young folk may indeed be converted, many more are simply taken off the streets and helped to become better citizens, and in many an inner-city area this represents a huge contribution to social stability.  Yet the government, smelling only religion, gives little support.

6. We must be aware, however, not only of what government owes the church, but also of what the church owes to government.  Two points must suffice.

        6.1 First, the church must educate government as to those Christian values which should form the basis of its administration.  The most fundamental and relevant of these is stated in Isaiah 61.8, ‘I, the LORD, love justice’.  We must be careful not to join the current chorus of protest against the concept of human rights.  God is concerned for the rights of all his creatures, and hates to see them violated.  This is why he is always on the side of the victims of injustice, and it follows from this that the rights of widows, orphans, aliens, immigrants, the sick, the unemployed, the disabled, the homeless and the marginalised must lie at the heart of any political witness borne by the church.  Our voice cannot be limited to narrow issues of law-and-order, far less to questions of sexual morality.  We must speak in support of the powerless and the speechless.

        6.2 Finally, we must speak in support of the institution of government itself.  It is right that its work be open to criticism and review, to satire and even to demonstrations of public protest.  But we must never forget that government is appointed by God, that its members are his servants and that it is our only protection against anarchy (or tyranny:  there is little difference between them.  All tyranny is anarchical).  From this point of view the church should give legitimacy to government from the word of God, bearing witness that we live under a lawful authority and that we are to bound to comply with every lawful exercise of that authority.  At the same time we should inculcate gratitude for the specific system of government under which we live: gratitude for democratic elections which call governments to account; gratitude for the overall quality of our Members of Parliament; and gratitude for the public services, internal security, personal freedoms and individual prosperity we enjoy.

But the church must also be mindful of the stresses and frustrations, the relentless physical demands, the disruption to family life, and the systemic denigration, that are the life of every politician.  More than ever, we should be praying ‘for kings and all those in authority, that we may live quiet and peaceable lives in all godliness and holiness.’ (1 Timothy 2.2)