Sunday, January 20, 2008

The state in its relations with the church

In my youth I wrote a book entitled The State in its Relations with the Church. It was in general well received although sometimes, I feared, with rather more politeness than enthusiasm.

I do not dissent from the arguments I made in the book although within a little time, having gained some more experience of the world, I came to repent of the conclusions I drew. At the time I believed, with the fervency of youth, that the church could provide the State with firm moral guidance and that as a consequence it was necessary for the national church to be provided with support by the state to ensure its health and strength. This indeed led me to take some political stances which would now cause me considerable embarrassment but which at the time seemed perfectly logical to my youthful self.

Following the defection of my friends Newman, Manning and Hope to the cause of Rome, I came to see that the church, whilst a provider of profound spiritual guidance, was an imperfect institution, not to be trusted with questions of power and this came to inform my later willingness to side with my party in seeking to place limits on the intermingling of church and state.

I am reminded of this discussion by the debate now in session at Theos where Mr Tomkins has, in a short article, delivered a broad outline of the history of Christianity. Mr Tomkins seeks, in a spirit of frankness and fairness, to list some of the benefits and disbenefits associated with this religion, mentioning the tortures inflicted by the inquisitors and centuries of malign treatment of the Jewish race.

It was my good friend John Acton who summed up the problem of the Church, far better than I ever could, in stating that power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Although his words have been quoted repeatedly and rightly ever since, John referred in particular to the history of the Roman church. The conclusion to which we were both drawn, even though coming from different traditions, is that the Church should stay away from power and, indeed, that power is best vested in the people at large. Mr Tomkins cites considerable evidence demonstrating the power of Christianity to effect beneficial change when it has changed the lives of the people at large and, indeed, it is difficult to imagine those cruelties in which the Roman Empire indulged and which were cancelled by the rise of the Christian church. In our own time the English revolution and the end of despotism in this nation was driven by men of religion and it was only when those same virtuous individuals sought to govern the nation without recourse to Parliament that they proved deficient in policy.

For indeed the gospel of Christ was the gospel of powerlessness; and if the Lord of All could choose not to summon an army of angels to his rescue it is hard to see why those who have claimed to be his servants through the millennia should have been so greedy to assume not just the trappings of power but the instruments of power. Indeed it always warmed my heart when our dear Christian Queen professed with such frequency that it was her task to serve her people, not just to rule them.

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