Archive for September, 2011


The Church of Divorce?

I remember overhearing some Jehovah’s Witnesses (JWs) hassling someone because they were Anglican (Church of England). “Do you know how your church started? Henry VIII wanted to get a divorce, so he made the Church of England so he could get a divorce. The Anglican church is just about divorce.” I’ve heard similar sentiments from others as well. But is it true?

No. It’s a caricature of history. The first point is a bit pedantic, but it gives a quick window into the errors. Henry VIII wanted an annulment, not a divorce. He wanted his first marriage to Catherine annulled so that he could remarry and produce a male heir to his throne. Now that doesn’t excuse Henry in the slightest, but it’s a big nail in the coffin of the ‘divorce church’ theory.

The second point is much more substantial. Henry didn’t change the theology much when he separated from the Roman Catholic Church. The biggest changes were the removal of reference or deference to the Pope, and the abolition of monasteries. In essence the result was more like an English Catholic Church than the Anglican Church you see in Sydney, for example. The reformation of the Church of England did not really happen until the reign of Edward VI, Henry’s son.

So why do people reference the English Reformation to the reign of Henry? Because Henry put in the preconditions that would allow the reformation under the rule of his son, or more precisely under the Regency Council that had power while he was still a minor. Henry remained thoroughly Roman Catholic in most areas of theology. He was not theologically naive. He read and resisted a lot of the reformation theology that was coming out of Europe. Because of the centralized control in England under his reign (a characteristic of Norman rule) protestant theology was not allowed free expression and people found with protestant literature were burned at the stake. But people with protestant leanings moved into positions of power late in his rule and had considerable power during the reign of Edward. The English Reformation, characterized by the Articles, the Prayer Book and Homilies only came into play under Edward.

So, is the English Reformation characterized by divorce? No, it’s characterized by powerful ideas taking hold of those in powerful positions, who then imposed them on their country. By the 1650s (100 years later) those ideas had so taken hold of the populace of England that they would rise in arms to prevent those in power messing with their theology.

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Oliver Cromwell: Church and State

I become more and more convinced of the importance of the separation between church and state as I look into church history. I’m not talking here about the removal of Christian influence from government. That is a thinly veiled attempt by secular humanism to privilege its own worldview over Christianity in the public sphere. No, I’m talking about the state church. The state church is an experiment that dates all the way back to Constantine in the fourth century AD. We see vestiges of it today in institutions like the Roman Catholic Church (Church Italy, Spain, France, etc.), the Anglican Church (Church of England), the Presbyterian Church (Church of Scotland), etc. I would be an idiot to say nothing good has ever come from the state church. I would say that much good has come, but from the fact that it is a church, not that it has wielded some of the power of the state. Much harm has also come from the state church. Wielding the power of the state has not helped the church. Oliver Cromwell shows us why this is the case. Cromwell was Lord Protector of England from 1653-1658. He believed that he had been specifically chosen by God to bring reform to England. He sought to do that through various means:

  1. To legislate religious tolerance. Unfortunately Cromwell was far more tolerant than most of his subjects. His toleration was withdrawn within 12 months of his death and was not reinstituted for another thirty years. The legislation had failed to change people’s hearts.
  2. He established the office of ‘Trier’ – someone who examined the moral character of people who wanted to be ordained clergy. This cleaned up a lot of the clergy in England and had a reasonably positive impact.
  3. The ‘Reformation of Manners’. A raft of legislation aimed at creating within the populace “an internalised self-discipline in a people governed not by the interests of the flesh but those of the spirit”. This was not enthusiastically enforced at the lower levels due to a lack of popular support. It was largely ineffective.

Why did it fail? Because laws don’t change people’s hearts. Neither does education. What changes people is the work of the Holy Spirit through the word of God. This is the ministry that the church should be doing and it is done through the weakness of proclamation, not through the power of the state. How does this help us today? Don’t we have a separation within Australia already? To a certain degree, yes. But we must beware of seeking to bridge that divide. How does this happen? Two ways – one is to seek power over the state to achieve our ends. The other is to submit to the state in order receive its resources. The first way – seeking power over the state – we can see in politics. But shouldn’t we have an influence in government? Certainly. The difference between power and influence can be seen between the Christian Democrat Party (CDP) and the Australian Christian Lobby (ACL). Now both are full of godly people who I respect, so don’t hear me slagging off either. But the CDP seeks to gain control in parliament. Now that sounds ridiculous because they are such a small party in NSW. But imagine if they grew to the size that they could form government. What then are we looking at? Christians running government on the basis that they are Christians. On the other hand, the ACL seeks to influence government policy by highlighting policy issues that they think a Christian voice would speak to. They don’t seek to wrest power but to influence policy. They don’t highlight who is and isn’t Christian in the major parties, but rather highlight what their polices are. What frustrates me about ACL is that they have a grab bag of policies that they consider ‘Christian’, as if somehow what is done with the economy or taxation is not a Christian concern as well. But they are respecting the separation of church and state. The second way – submitting to the state – we can see in the school chaplaincy program. We accept coin from the government to fund chaplains, but that ties their hands from doing what every Christian ought to be doing – sharing the good news of Jesus with as many as are willing to hear. This is called proselytizing and is off limits to chaplains. We accept a neutered version of Christian ministry in order to get the funding. Keeping the distance between church and state is important – that is preventing control of the state by the church and preventing control of the church by the sate. Churches should still be law-abiders and politicians should still be influenced by religion and allow that religion to influence their legislation. But we should resist all moves to close the separation between church and state – for the sake of the gospel.