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Church and State

The first time I visited Rome, my wife and I stayed at a fifteenth-century palazzo on Via della Conciliazione, about 500 metres from St. Peter’s Basilica, that once belonged to a Catholic Cardinal known for his love of fine art and expensive antiques.

In my naivete, I assumed that Via della Conciliazione (literally, the Way of Reconciliation) was so named because it was the main street leading to St. Peter’s, the most well-known Christian church in the world, and as such epitomised the message of the gospel: that God had reconciled the world to Himself through Christ (2 Cor 5.18).

However, I soon discovered that the name of the street had decidedly more political than spiritual connotations! On February 11th, 1929, Italian Prime Minister Benito Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty on behalf of King Victor Emmanuel III, recognising Vatican City as an independent state under the sovereignty of the Holy See, thereby settling the so-called ‘Roman Question’ (the extent of the temporal power of the Pope as ruler of a civil territory).

Mussolini, an avowed atheist and fascist, commissioned the construction of the Via della Conciliazione to commemorate the successful conclusion of the negotiations and to symbolise the rapprochement between the Church and the secular Italian State. But the art of the deal, as they say, is in the detail.

As Richard Collier observed in his superb biography Duce, in exchange for Pope Pius’s absolute sovereignty over the 110-acre independent Vatican State and the recognition of Roman Catholicism as Italy’s official religion, the Vatican pledged to recognise the Kingdom of Italy with Rome as its capital, and to remain outside all temporal disputes — and agreed (here is the sting in the tail) that from henceforth all bishops must be approved by the Facists and swear an oath of loyalty to the state, the king and the government.

The ‘reconciliation’ came at a price, as the next 15 years would demonstrate. By the end of the Second World War, 309,453 Italians were dead and 135,070 were missing. To put that in human terms, about 94,600 children, 86% of which were under 15 years of age, had lost at least one parent. Approximately 1.9 million homes were destroyed and another 5000 badly damaged; industrial capacity was significantly reduced and transport infrastructure was severely damaged; food production had halved, and per capita GDP had dropped by 57%.

It is not for nothing that German historian Father Hubert Wolf called the Lateran Treaty “a pact with the devil”. Like Jacob of old, the Church sold its birthright (its prophetic calling) in exchange for a bowl of porridge (territorial sovereignty over an area 1/8 the size of New York’s Central Park and an indemnity of 82 million dollars for papal lands appropriated by the government). And once the relationship was consummated, there was no going back.

China and the Vatican

Fast forward 90 years, and history is repeating itself. The Vatican is still doing deals with corrupt and repressive regimes in an effort to secure official recognition and the freedom to practice religion. Take for example, the Vatican’s controversial deal with the Chinese Communist Party, originally struck in September 2018 for two years and since renewed twice for two years each time, most recently in September 2022. The agreement, the details of which have not been made public, allows the Pope to appoint and veto bishops approved by the Chinese Communist Party.

However, critics of the deal, such as the 90-year-old former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who is currently facing trumped-up charges of “collusion with foreign forces”, see it as a betrayal of the Catholic Church in China as it allows Beijing to have more control over the underground churches in exchange for the Vatican’s control over the appointment of bishops.

In its latest report, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom stated, “The ruling Chinese Communist Party and its government exercise comprehensive and extensive control over religion in China through a complex web of state laws, regulations, and policies, which the Party and government agencies implement and enforce at all levels.”

Central to the Party’s strategy is the seven state-controlled national religious organisations, including the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the Bishop’s Conference of the Catholic Church in China, the Protestant Three-Self Patriotic Movement, and the China Christian Council. Followers of the recognised religious groups must register with the government and are subject to ongoing ‘supervision’ by the state-controlled religious organisations, the government, and the Party.

The state-controlled national religious organisations are also responsible for implementing the ‘Sinicization of religion’ policy which, in effect, means promoting the Chinese Communist Party’s ideology under the guise of religious service and education.

Independent groups that refuse to join the officially recognised religious organisations, such as Protestant house churches and underground Catholics (which constitute the majority of China’s Christians), are particularly targeted for repression.

Parliament and the Church of England

However, this is not just a Catholic problem; it is a Christian problem — and has been ever since the Edict of Milan in 313 AD, which gave Christianity legal status and a reprieve from persecution, and the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 AD, which recognised the Catholic orthodoxy of Nicene Christians as the state religion of the Roman Empire. As a result of these edicts, the Roman Emperor became, in effect, the patron of the Church, and Christianity became the preferred religious system of the Empire.

If the past 1,700 years of church history teaches us anything, it’s that religion and politics don’t mix! Whenever Church and State merge, whether it’s the church becoming the government (as in the medieval and renaissance notion of Christendom), or the church beholden to the government (as in the case of State churches), the church’s prophetic and priestly role is compromised.

The Church of England is a case in point. Originally created to accommodate its founder’s political ambitions and sexual proclivities (the notorious Henry VIII), the Church of England is ultimately answerable to the UK Parliament. The reigning British monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church and formally appoints high-ranking members of the Church, such as diocesan bishops and the Archbishop of Canterbury, on the advice of the Prime Minister, who in turn acts on the advice of the Crown Nominations Commission.

American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, satirised the ‘election’ process of the Church of England in his book English Traits (1856). “The King sends the Dean and the Canons a congé d’élire or leave to elect, but also sends them the name of the person whom they are to elect. They go into the Cathedral, chant and pray, and after these invocations invariably find that the dictates of the Holy Ghost agree with the recommendation of the King.”

But is this merely symbolic, or does Parliament exercise real power over the Church? Consider, for example, the scenario that unfolded in the General Synod of the Church of England on February 9th, 2023. In a landmark ruling, majorities in the houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity voted to allow priests to bless same-sex marriages and partnerships.

Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and Archbishop Stephen Cottrell of York said during the synod assembly that “for the first time, the Church of England will publicly, unreservedly and joyfully welcome same-sex couples in church”. Reaction from conservative, evangelical Anglican leaders in the UK and in the Global South was swift.

Archbishop Laurent Mbanda, the Anglican primate of Rwanda, said: “What the Church of England has done is the last nail in the coffin. Therefore, we do not recognise Canterbury and the authority of the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is unbiblical, and the Archbishop of Canterbury does not have the authority to lead anymore. He cannot lead the synod into a heresy.”

In April, Archbishop Mbanda’s province will host the fourth meeting of the Global Anglican Future Conference (GAFCON), a movement of conservative Anglican bishops and leaders that represents 85 million Anglicans worldwide.

Archbishop Foley Beach, chair of the GAFCON Primates Council, said, “The Archbishop of Canterbury has abrogated his fiduciary responsibility and violated his consecration vows to ‘banish and drive away from the church all erroneous and strange doctrine contrary to God’s word’ with his advocating this change in the Church of England. It is now time for the primates of Anglican Communion to choose for themselves their first among equals rather than having a secular government of one nation appoint our leader…”

In a meeting with 14 MPs on February 2nd, a week before the crucial vote, Archbishop Welby was allegedly threatened with ‘disestablishment’ if he did not support further changes to the church’s policy on same-sex marriage. Welby reportedly replied that he would rather see the disestablishment of the Church of England than witness the fragmentation of the global Anglican Communion over the issue of same-sex marriage.

According to the Church Times, some MPs had a meeting with Sir Tony Baldry, the former Second Church Estates Commissioner, to discuss the lack of progress on the issue and to “examine what potential avenues Parliament has to act.” Options to force same-sex church marriages included “the removal of all the safeguards written into the legislation to assure Parliament during the progress of the bill that Christian groups would be protected.”

Labour MP, Sir Chris Bryant, a former Anglican minister, also invited the Leader of the House, Penny Mordaunt, a fellow campaigner for gay marriage, to permit parliamentary time “for legislation to push the Church of England into allowing same-sex marriages to be conducted by parishes and clergy who want to do that if Synod doesn’t act.”

Speaking at a global Anglican Consultative Council meeting in Accra, Ghana, on February 12th, Archbishop Welby claimed that in the days preceding the vote, he had been summoned twice to Parliament and “threatened with parliamentary action to force same-sex marriage on us.”

A kingdom not of this world

All of this sounds a lot like state-sanctioned intimidation and coercion — the actions of a government or parliament that feels as though it ‘owns’ the church. But as American civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr. observed, the church is neither the master nor the servant of the state — it is the conscience of the state.

Jesus, the true Head of the Church, drew a line in the sand when he said to the political rulers of his day, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18.36). The Greek word kosmos denotes a world system that is alienated from and opposed to God and that is under the control of Satan (see John 12.31).

The Book of Revelation draws a distinction between “the kingdom of this world” which by nature is corrupt and destined for divine judgment, and “the kingdom of our Lord and His Christ” which by nature is spiritual, moral, and apolitical (Rev 11.15).

Indeed, there needs to be a clear delineation between the church as a spiritual entity representing God’s eternal values and principles and the secular government administering the temporal affairs of state. Only then can the church be a prophetic voice of conscience and reason, unaffected by vested interests and social indebtedness.

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