Wednesday, 2 April 2008

Why, then, the law? Part 2: Christianity and post-Christian government

The people of England regards itself as free; but it is grossly mistaken; it is free only during the election of members of parliament. As soon as they are elected, slavery overtakes it, and it is nothing. The use it makes of the short moments of liberty it enjoys shows indeed that it deserves to lose them. (Rousseau, The Social Contract, ‘Deputies or Representatives’)

Anyone who read my previous post on this topic may notice a slight change of title. I had intended then to continue with the question of how Christians should respond to the changing legal environment, particularly in the United Kingdom.

Since my engagement with Darwin and Dawkins (et al) over the question of dictatorships, however, I have become more interested in the overall question of how, and indeed why, we are governed.

That we should be governed is something I think most people, and certainly most Christians, take for granted. Certainly it is central to the identity of Anglicanism, though not in a way acknowledged by most of the global ‘Anglican Communion’.

The (uniquely) Church of England understanding of the state is that God’s ideal is for all things to be ordered under a governing authority in the case of England, the monarch acting as the godly prince (see Article 37 of the Thirty Nine Articles). The monarch’s authority derived from God, and the legal authority of all other institutions in the state, whether civil or ecclesiastical, derived from the monarch (see, for example, Article 23.)

In its original form, this was not a ‘proto-Erastian’ rule of the state over the Church, since the state, thus envisaged, was a unified whole under one authority. From this, however, derives the much-misunderstood concept that the Queen is the ‘head of the Church of England’ (more accurately, its ‘Supreme Governor’). This is not, as most people think, expressive of some special relationship the Queen has with the CofE (there is a special relationship between the CofE and the state in England, but that is confined to its legal ‘establishment’). Rather, the Queen is ‘head’ of the Church of England in exactly the same way as she is head of, say, the London Assembly, or Birmingham City Council.

When Henry VIII’s Act of Supremacy affirmed that he was precisely Head of the Church in England, the point being made was that this headship included the Church, as well as everything else. Hence, today, the Queen is, in actual fact, also the Supreme Governor of the mosques, synagogues and temples, as well as the Baptists, Methodists, and, indeed, the Roman Catholics who live within her realm.

The Church of England has never revised this position — though it is fair to say that it has been frequently misunderstood, even by its leaders. Thus the prayers for the monarch in our foundational liturgy of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer are not just for ‘whoever happens to be in charge’. They are prayers for the continued right ordering of society:

We beseech thee also to save and defend all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governours; and specially thy Servant ELIZABETH our Queen; that under her we may be godly and quietly governed: And grant unto her whole Council, and to all that are put in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion, and virtue. (Prayer for the Church Militant)

Thus if a Christian, or at least an English Anglican, is asked ‘On what basis we are governed?’ the answer is, ‘On the basis that God gives his authority to the monarch, and the monarch bestows this authority on the ministers of state and church.’

The position of the Church of England comes essentially from pushing Romans 13 to its logical conclusion (some might say further). Yet even a non-Anglican, or an Anglican from other parts of the globe, may still use the theological understanding of Romans 13, or 1 Peter 2:13-17, to justify the fact that we are governed and, moreover, to argue that we should accept the authority of even an ungodly government.

But does our Christian acceptance of government require our acquiescence to the way we are governed? In The Social Contract, Rousseau is scathing about Christians in this regard:

If the State is prosperous, [the Christian] hardly dares to share in the public happiness, for fear he may grow proud of his country’s glory; if the State is languishing, he blesses the hand of God that is hard upon His people. (8.‘Civil Religion’)

The Christian is, however, a citizen, and his fellow citizens are his neighbours whom he is called to serve. And that service may consist of being a ‘magistrate’, just as much as it may consist of being a preacher. Moreover, as a citizen in a democracy, the Christian is given the opportunity to participate in the process of government and, at least in theory, is encouraged to have a voice in decision making.

No, the pressing question is not whether the Christian should participate in the government of society. Rather it is on what basis society is to be governed. That is what Rowan Williams sought to address, in part, via his talk on Sharia law. And it is a question which is looming to the surface of our society.

Part of the problem is the prevailing view in Western society that we think we know the answer as to how we should be governed. The answer is, ‘Democratically.’ Moreover, this is regarded as such a ‘no brainer’ that to be opposed to ‘democracy’ would be tantamount to opposition to ‘kindness’, ‘goodwill’ or ‘common sense’.

One of the things our society finds so alien about Islamism is its vocal opposition to democracy. For most people, such opposition is frightening to the same extent that it is incomprehensible. Surely no right-minded person would want to be ruled by a dictator, or a despot, or a cabal of clergy?

Yet, as the quote from Rousseau at the beginning of this article highlights, it is not self-evidently true that we in the West are living in a democracy or that, if we are, it is necessarily a right and good way to be governed.

Certainly we are not living in what Rousseau would call a democracy. Our present system of government is much closer to what he would call an aristocracy:

... the Sovereign [will] may commit the charge of the government to the whole people or to the majority of the people, so that more citizens are magistrates than are mere private individuals. This form of government is called democracy.

Or it may restrict the government to a small number, so that there are more private citizens than magistrates; and this is named aristocracy. (3.’The Division of Governments’)

What we have is increasingly what was once jokingly said of post-colonial African ‘democracies’: one man, one vote, once — except that in our case it is ‘once every few years’. To all intents and purposes, modern democracy is actually an elected oligarchy, albeit one where the oligarchs are elected by (and can put themselves forward from) the entire citizenry.

Once elected, however, they can, and do, act without regard for the views of the citizenry and even, as we have seen recently, without regard for their own individual conscience.

Of course, it may be argued that this system, nevertheless, works. But a number of comments may be made.

First, there is no evidence it works better than, say, other systems, in providing what it purports to offer. Today, most Western politicians seek to offer the electorate much the same thing, which is to say, personal security and an increasing standard of living. Looking around the world, however, it is clear that China offers more by way of the latter than does, say, the United States, and that consequently it may soon be able to offer more of the former.

Secondly, democracy is too nebulous an idea, and too intangible in its application, to be the basis for a society. We cannot say that the great purpose of government is ‘to extend democracy,’ or rather if we do, as John Gray has pointed out, the result may well be adventures like that in Iraq. Democracy must be there for a purpose, not as an end in itself.

Thirdly, arising from the last point, we seem to have forgotten that the purpose of government is to serve the purposes of society and, ultimately, of each citizen. Rousseau famously observed that ‘Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.’ For him, government could only be regarded as good if it preserved human liberty. The ‘social contract’ of which he wrote was not a surrender of liberty in exchange for protection but the agreement, with others, to provide a context in which maximum individual liberty could be preserved.

Here, it seems to me, is the pressing problem of the present day. Whilst claiming the label of ‘democracy’, Western governments are increasingly forgetful of the purpose for which they exist. More importantly, we are all, collectively, in danger of forgetting that liberty is a primary value.

And at this point we return to the Christian gospel — the gospel about which Rousseau was thoroughly disparaging. For Christians in the West, the inheritance of our relationship with the political state has made us forgetful of the true relationship between gospel and law. As Rousseau rightly recognized, the Christian owes a dual allegiance, and the greater allegiance is not to the political state.

However, neither is it to a parallel ‘state’ ruled by God. The geo-political kingdom of God belongs to the Old Testament. The New Covenant leaves behind the law, and instead brings true liberty. The Christian must thus regard all laws, not just the law of the Old Testament, as referring to a condition below that which God plans for us and requires from us. The law, as Paul says, is for lawbreakers (1 Timothy 1:8-11). The Christian thus lives in tension with the government envisaged by Romans 13, where the role of the magistrate is to control the rebellious with the power of the sword. We accept this as a necessity, but we do not regard it as anything other than an expression of God’s wrath against sinners.

We thus find ourselves in a curious position, as citizens of the state, but in tension with the state. And therefore we must be critics of the state, not just in the particulars of laws and politics, but in the whole notion that this is how we should live. More than that, as ambassadors for Christ, we must call our fellow citizens to the liberty from law brought by the gospel. We are, as Peter said, to live as free men (1 Peter 2:16), honouring the institutions of government not as if they represented the last word on human society but as temporary, fallible, measures against sinfulness.

Above all, and especially today, we must reaffirm that the proper state of humanity is liberty. The freedom for which Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1) is a real, not imaginary, freedom.

This was the point which I regret Archbishop Williams did not address in his speech. What Christians can offer to Muslims, and to all, is not a place within the law, but freedom from the law. And how we should express this as citizens is, perhaps, one of the great challenges facing the Christian community living under a post-Christian government.

Revd John P Richardson

2 April 2008

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  1. Christians are free because they are ruled by the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. To offer this to Muslims would be an attempt at conversion, which would probably be against their laws. It takes an Earth shattering event like the Resurrection to breaks people free from such chains.

  2. (Chelmsford)

    The (uniquely) Church of England understanding of the state is that God’s ideal is for all things to be ordered under the rule of the monarch (see Article 37 of the Thirty Nine Articles).

    Really? Article 37 simply reports as a fact that England is a monarchy, and repudiates the claims to it of foreign rulers. It by no means teaches that this is God's ideal. Nor does the Bible, which in fact has some very negative things to say about monarchy and dictatorship, which can also be applied to our own elective dictatorship. In biblical exegesis we learn to distinguish between the descriptive and the prescriptive; this same principle should be applied to exegesis of the Articles.

    I say this not in defence of democracy, but only to debunk any notion that any one form of government is uniquely Anglican.

  3. Hi Peter. Strictly this would be correct - monarchy, and certainly not necessarily hereditary monarchy, would not be seen as the only possible form of government. A comparison with the Wittenburg Articles (which the 39 Articles are related to) would bear this out.

    At the same time, the assumption of the Henrician Reformers was, I think, that states were ruled by 'Princes' - whether they be Caesar (the ungodly) or Henry (the godly) - and was certainly that the authority to govern possessed by the governors came from God. In their 'ideal world' this would then be delegated down through the temporal and ecclesiastical estates.

    However, for the sake of accuracy I've made an amendment in the text. Thank you.