Tag Archives: religion

The Church, the State, and the Special Place of Religion

Over the last six weeks on Wednesday lunchtimes in Sheffield Cathedral, a range of speakers have taken us from Old Testament Israel to discussions taking place right now about the place of Sharia Courts in British society. In this sixth and final talk in the Religion and Law series, ‘Church Establishment in a Global Context’ by Prof. David McClean, many themes raised before emerged once again.

The established nature of the Church of England is often seen as an anomaly – something out of step with the rest of the world, and thus dated and in need of change. This criticism declares that the links between the Church and the crown are ill-suited to the diversity of religions which now form a part of the United Kingdom.

In England, these links between the Church and the crown go back to the Act of Supremacy in 1538. The Act made King Henry VIII the Head of the Church, so it was his right to elect bishops, deans and some vicars, and to ratify any decisions made at a general synod. Today, royal assent for Church appointments and new pieces of law is still needed. The ‘masterly inactivity’ of the Tudor monarchs in retaining the original settlement of the 1530s still has echoes in how the Church of England is run in the present.

But this relationship between church and crown is not entirely unique, nor only associated with England. David McClean highlighted a number of examples where the church and the state work together. The Danish Church, for instance, is so  entwined with the crown that it is effectively an arm of the state, run by a “Minister for Ecclesiastical Affairs”.

In Greece, although the Greek Orthodox Church is technically the ‘dominant’ and not the ‘established’ Church, it’s still heavily state funded. Even in France, where the relationship between the Church and the State is probably the most hostile, in some areas, such as Alsace-Lorraine, the Church still receives favourable tax benefits and direct financial support.

The nature of the established church, or rather the place of the church and religion across Europe, highlights a key theme across this series of talks: that of the often special relationship of religion in law.  The interlocking of the Church of England and the crown as described by David McClean recalls the close connection of Christianity with the Roman Empire and how their development became closely entwined; but also the special position of clerics within the law of England in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries and how this ‘benefit of clergy’ continued to have resonance throughout Europe into the modern era. Another example is the intrinsic nature of Islamic law to the life of Muslims and how it guides their lives and their communities, and thus becomes a part of secular laws and systems.

The relationship between religion and law, between religion and the state is thus an old one that echoes down the centuries, and remains an area of debate today over the place not only of the Church of England but of all religions and laws in the UK.

And that’s not surprising: because religion isn’t a static entity. Throughout history, it has worked alongside secular laws, as well as created its own rules. Different communities create their own laws to define them. It’s the interaction of individual religious groups and their laws with that of secular law which shapes the societies we have today: and the societies we’ll have in the future.

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Image: Sheffield Cathedral

Secularism and the medieval past

Much of the commentary on the terrible events in Paris a fortnight ago, and even more of the abundant commentary on the commentary that followed, has pivoted around the distinction between religion and the secular that is typically ascribed to the European Enlightenment. Arguments have usually boiled down to how this legacy of the Enlightenment needs to be fiercely guarded at all costs (‘European values’), or, more controversially, how it perhaps needs to be reassessed to adjust to contemporary realities (‘globalisation’).

These are of course primarily political arguments, keyed to current political positions. But they are also historical arguments, in that they both rest on a general, widely-shared view of the shape of (European) history, which for all useful purposes apparently begins with the 18th century.

In point of fact, however, the general consensus that the distinction between religion and the secular originated in the early modern period is, quite simply, not true. Doubtless it took on important new forms at that time. But most historians realise these days that supposed turning points are more historiographical than historical: that very little comes out of nowhere. A recent strand of German research, bringing together sociologists (notably Detlef Pollack) and historians, has profitably discussed whether a process of ‘differentiation’ between religion and the political sphere really began in the 11th century, with the so-called Investiture Quarrel. A similar suggestion has been made, albeit in passing, by the eminent Canadian theorist of ‘secularisation’, Charles Taylor.

Moreover, there is a venerable line of research that explores how the very concept of the ‘secular’, meaning something that is not anti-religious but rather non-religious, was honed in quite specific circumstances by 4th-century Christians as they made sense of the religious and political realities around them, as proposed by R.A. Markus and, more recently, Kate Cooper. As a consequence, modern secularism can be said to derive from a Christian worldview (not a ‘European’ one, though, since a dominant contributor to these early debates was a North African). Arguably that makes the modern concept itself inherently Christian.

Much could be written about these and other ideas. In fact, much already has been written about them in specialist circles, where they are the subjects of often heated controversy. Yet these debates have hardly registered in the copious reflections on the meaning and implications of the Paris attacks. That is not the fault of media-shy medieval historians, nor of lazy journalists content to rehash triumphalist narratives they learned at school (perhaps the most authentically long-lived product of the Enlightenment). It simply reflects the peculiar importance of the Middle Ages in the modern (European) political imaginary. It is an importance that consists, paradoxically, in not mattering at all – thereby authorising political arguments based solely on more recent history. The medieval period is never more crucial than when it acts as a foil to the present day (as pointed out by Julia McClure), and never more present than when it’s silently passed over or peremptorily dismissed.

That’s naturally aggravating for those studying these distant centuries, who find themselves condemned to a highly relevant irrelevance in wider public discourse. But isn’t this politicised depoliticisation also a pity for that public discourse, too? If we don’t realise that ‘modern values’ aren’t quite as straightforwardly modern as seems to be assumed, then the terms of debate will be hugely impoverished, even before anything has been said.