The power of the sword

bush-blairThose who say that religion and politics don’t mix live in a different thought world to that of the articles, as well as most of human history. Although the inseparable nature of politics as religious and religion as political has been apparent at a number of points, it is nowhere more evident than in the thirty-seventh article. More than many, it breathes the air of a bygone age, but it also throws up subjects like capital punishment and war which really need whole series of posts in their own right.

XXXVII. Of the Civil Magistrates
The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign jurisdiction.
Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.
The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.
The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.
It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

It is noteworthy that the sole (quite frequently quoted) reference in the articles to the pope comes in this article on civil power. “The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.” No doubt that recognised the de facto reality that the pope was one among many competing political powers in Europe, whatever else his role might have been. Alongside this, during the whole mediaeval period, bishops more generally were powerful nobles in their own right, and exercised considerable secular power from their castles and palaces. On the ground it was not easy to distinguish between temporal and secular authority. Handing heretics over to the “secular arm” for the death penalty because the church could not execute people was in some respects a legal fiction.

This jumbling up of authority had been inherited as the daily reality of life, irrespective of theological perspective. Nonetheless it was increasingly coming under threat from the widespread social changes that marked the end of the late mediaeval period, and the beginning of the early modern, with the bourgeoisie coming into their own, and changing the balance of power between monarch, nobles and bishops.

It was common ground that the Reformation generally made a theological virtue out of the practical necessity of turning to princes for protection from the pope. By the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, the principle of “whose realm, his religion” (cuius regio, eius religio) was well established. Considerably earlier, however, the Anglican Reformers had developed their own strong theory of monarchical power rooted in the Old Testament. In the early stages of the Reformation they proclaimed the boy-king Edward VI as a new Josiah, and took the model of the Deuteronomic reforms as the model for Protestant reformation. Anglican England began life as a theocracy, and only slowly grew away from it. As the symbiosis between temporal and spiritual power diluted itself in myriad ways in the succeeding centuries, competing accounts and visions of authority emerged, none being particularly successful nor becoming triumphant.

In many respects this was not, and is not, simply an Anglican problem but a Christian one. (Even Rome’s answer is only achieved by maintaining a small corner of the Eternal City as an independent theocracy.) The primary theological resources of the New Testament (and its earliest interpreters)  had little to say about the exercise of power or any theology of the State. It is one of the features of the Bible’s been compiled over time and in diverse circumstances. To risk a large generalisation, the Old Testament scriptures were written by and for those who held power and wealth, the New Testament scriptures by and for those who had little of either.

This means that the church was ill-equipped to respond to becoming either the official or a majority religion, and has continued to struggle with its inheritance of becoming one. The Reformers’ abandonment of the mediaeval theologians’ work exacerbated the lack of guidance in the earlier patristic era to which they turned. The best they had was Augustine, veering between his magisterial vision of the City of God, and his practical turn to the secular power to defeat the Donatists. In the end, perhaps, they were more than ready to follow the lead of Eusebius’ baptism of Constantine’s ascendancy as providence.

Something of the problem is suggested by the last two clauses of the article, asserting the rightness both of capital punishment and waging war. The former has received little recent theological treatment, but Harry Potter’s (no, really!) book Hanging in Judgment showed how strongly the Church of England was against abolition for a very long time. There is more recent writing on war: notably Anglican ethicists (Biggar, O’Donovan) are much more inclined to see the strength of the case than some others. That I agree with them, rather than Yoder or Hauerwas may simply illustrate my Anglican inheritance, although I prefer to think that it illustrates the strength of the argument.

The loudest voices against the just war tradition come from the descendants of the Anabaptist tradition, ruled out as “slanderous folks” by this article, and generally condemned by the magisterial Reformers. They dovetail more comfortably with the dominant Western consensus: that both war and the death penalty are immoral, and at best to be considered the failures of a civilised society. This consensus is usually simply assumed today, without feeling much need of a theological argument to back up such (presumed) self-evident truths. As this article illustrates, there is as great a gulf between the tradition articulated in the articles and the contemporary consensus here as there is on any matter relating to sexuality. 

In the spirit of this article, I personally fail to see how the Anabaptist tradition offers any answer other than an opt-out, a misplaced application of eschatology to the created order. Something better needs to be said by the church to power, not least to those members of the church who hold power, and are faced with decisions which will inflict violence on others, such as the two whose image heads this post. 

The Anglican tradition may not have been particularly good at producing a coherent political theology for a multi-cultural democracy in the modern world. However, its history points strongly to the need for an affirming theology that gives God an interest in the ordering of society, and encourages political participation as a Christian vocation.

I cannot see that a term such as “Anabaptist Anglican” (as one person I know once titled their now defunct blog), however well-intentioned, is anything more than an oxymoron. For Anglicans, a commitment to God’s ordering and re-ordering of the world as a question of justice means that a theology of law, statehood and even of war is something at which the church and its theologians should be working. However difficult it is now, and however inadequate or wrong-headed it was in the past, this is an aspect of the tradition we have inherited. No church, if it is serious about God being a God of the real world, can afford to neglect it.