AT 03: Vestiges in Society

by David Nussbaum
Originally published in Anabaptism Today, Issue 3, June 1993

In the wake of Constantine's embrace of Christianity in the fourth century, practices and theology developed to support a close relationship between church and state. In the Clearing Away the Vestiges (February 1993) David Nussbaum examined vestiges of this ancient relationship that still linger in the church today. In this article he explores Constantinian vestiges that persist in wider society.

Significant shifts are taking place in the world-view of the contemporary church in Britain and in the church-view of contemporary society. By some estimations, ours is rapidly becoming a secular culture. We could applaud these trends as allowing a more authentic biblical Christianity. Alternatively, we could bewail the loss of Christendom as a movement away from a Christian ethos which society should preserve.

Many nonchristians oppose any disestablishment of the church. They prefer the church to retain its historic position as a bastion of the status quo: having a chaplaincy function in society, giving out pious platitudes and providing a religious flavour to Christmas. Absence of such a church, some fear, might destabilize society. Other nonchristians welcome the trend toward secularisation as a route which ultimately will see the church become irrelevant.

Yet the existence of a considerable residue of Constantinian thinking and practice indicates that rumours of the death of Christendom may be somewhat premature. The Constantinian residue in wider society presents the church with an opportunity to take the initiative and do the unexpected, by seeming to campaign against its own interests. It may be unlikely that society will push quickly ahead on its own; perhaps the church will need to clear away these remains of Christendom rather than clinging to them for (false) security in a time of change. Vestiges of Christendom in British society include:

1. Bishops in the House of Lords

This part of the legislature reserves places for senior representatives of one particular church. If the state wants religious groups to participate in the government, perhaps representatives from many faiths and other world views could be included in a "second chamber" rather than restricting religious representation to one church.

2. Prayers in the House of Commons

Daily proceedings in the House of Commons begin with prayers. Does this suggest that all its proceedings have divine sanction or inspiration? Maybe not, since these prayers are not televised like the rest of the proceedings. It is appropriate to pray about politics, but should prayers of one religious group be part of the legislature's procedure?

3. Chaplains in the armed forces

The state often is anxious to gain religious sanction for its coercive activities. Christians working amongst members of the armed forces is one thing; having Christians work in an official religious capacity as ranked members of the armed forces is another. This allows the state to give privileged access only on its own terms. There are few examples of chaplains to the armed forces advising members of the military not to participate in actions they were told to take because such actions were wrong.

4. Inscriptions on coins

Money goes to, or perhaps comes from, the heart of the state--and the state may claim divine sanction for its finances. In the USA, where church and state are supposedly separate, coins bear the slogan "In God we trust". Every coin in England bears at least the letters "D. G. REG. F. D.", which some older coins spell out more fully: "Dei Gratia Regina [Rex] Fidei Defensor" ("By the Grace of God Queen [King] Defender of the Faith"). The inscription implies that the monarch has divine sanction and defends the (correct) religious faith. Which faith is not clear: the pope gave the title "Defender of the Faith" to Henry VIII before the schism which created "the" Church of England.

5. The national anthem

The British national anthem begins, "God save our gracious Queen . . ." There is no need for a national anthem to invoke deity at all. Still less is it necessary for the invocation of deity to be directed towards the salvation, longevity and supremacy of the monarch. A now less familiar verse invokes deity in a notably bellicose fashion:

O Lord our God, arise,
Scatter our enemies,
And make them fall;
Confourd their plitics,
Frustrute their knavish tricks;
On Thee our hopes we fix;
God save us all.

6. The coronation service

In England, the accession of a monarch takes place in a church building, with the most senior bishop of the established church officiating. Why should this be? There is even a special liturgy "for use in all churches and chapels within this realm, every year, upon the anniversary of the day of the accession of the reigning sovereign".

7. Use of the oath

Since it often is impossible to know whether witnesses are telling the truth in court, it is attractive to the state to instill fear that God somehow will "get" those who lie. There is a strange irony here. The court asks witnesses to place their hand on the Bible--in which it is written, "do not swear" (Matt. 5:34-37)--and then to say, "I swear . . ." Jesus told his followers simply to tell the truth. The state can impress upon witnesses the seriousness of their testimony without invoking the threat of the Almighty, even supposing he was minded to help the state.

8. Blasphemy laws

In Britain laws against blasphemy protect the Christian religion, but not other religions or nonreligious world views. Perhaps this is a reciprocal arrangement: the law protects the God of the Christians against things being said against him, and in return God punishes those who commit perjury in the state's courts.

9. Compulsory Christianity in state schools

Until the introduction of the national curriculum recently, the only compulsory subject in state schools was religious education. This focused particularly on the Christian religion. Some sort of communal worship still is required. Why should the state protect especially the Christian faith? Sometimes the effect seems to be like a vaccination: just enough of a sanitised version to protect the child against ever catching the real thing.

10. Charitable status

Church property benefits from tax exemptions. The most advantageous of these arise from having charitable status, which exempts from tax any income derived from church property and any gain when it is sold. Specially reduced rates of local taxation also support ecclesiastical privilege. While it maybe appropriate for churches to enjoy the benefits of charitable status, there is no need for religious activities as such to be regarded as charitable.

11. Remembrance Day

A nation can remember and even honour those who died in wars, without doing so in the form of a Christian or even religious ceremony. There can be something disturbing about a Christian event which marks the deaths of many who died in the course of killing other Christians. For Christians, loyalty to the body of Christ is primary, coming before loyalty to nation. Perhaps the church could organize an alternative event which remembers especially all those killed by Christians, particularly those who were themselves Christians.

12. Sunday

It is convenient for the church that the state has imposed on society special laws for the day on which Christians usually want to worship. Other days of the week might merit special consideration: Saturday has biblical backing as a day of rest, and Friday might suit Muslims. The church could make it clear that if it advocates Sunday as a special day, this is merely for pragmatic reasons, not because Christians believe there is any reason society should treat Sunday as special.

13. Christmas and Easter

The state fixes general holidays around certain Christian festivals. This is convenient for the church, since it focuses public attention on Christian stories. But Would Christians object if the state changed bank holidays from Christian dates to dates of nationally notable events? When I was a boy, those of us who wished to were allowed to miss school in order to attend church on Ascension Day (a Thursday). It seemed a fine excuse! Should Christians be reluctant to work on Good Friday?

Some modest proposals

In working with the ecclesiastical vestiges of Christendom, which are usually internal, the church itself can make changes. If vestiges persist, theology which supported them will be preserved. If the church is to present an authentic witness to society, it must detach itself from those parts of its life whose source is in society rather than in the revelation of God in Jesus Christ.

Addressing the residue of Christendom in wider society might be more difficult. What impact would it have on the church's witness if it campaigned against use of the oath? Against blasphemy laws which protect only Christianity? Against privileged place for Christianity in state schools? If the church wants to promote a general day of rest each week, why not Saturday?

Are Christendom and persecution the only alternatives for the relationship between church and state? What other models should we pursue? How much toleration should a truly Christian church expect? How do we promote people's freedom to choose, whilst encouraging them to accept the Christian message'? Rather than seeking to maintain the privileges afforded to Christianity in society, the church should promote the free status of all religions and non-religions. We could do so because we are confident that the message of Jesus will flourish: not by legal might, nor by the power of the state, but through the activity of the Holy Spirit of God.