The Idea Of A Christian Society, Lecture Three
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I have spoken of this essay as being, in one aspect, a kind of preface to the problem of Church and State; it is as well, at this point, to indicate its prefatorial imitations. The problem is one of concern to every Christian country — that is, to every possible form of Christian society. It will take a different form according to the traditions of that society — Roman, Orthodox, or Lutheran. It will take still another form in those countries, obviously the United States of America and the Dominions, where the variety of races and religious communions represented appears to render the problem insoluble. Indeed, for these latter countries the problem might not appear even to exist; these countries might appear to be committed from their origin to a neutral form of society. I am not ignoring the possibility of a neutral society, under such conditions, persisting indefinitely. But I believe that if these countries are to develop a positive culture of their own, and not remain merely derivatives of Europe, they can only proceed either in the direction of a pagan or of a Christian society. I am not suggesting that the latter alternative must lead to the forcible suppression, or to the complete disappearance of dissident sects; still less, I hope, to a superficial union of Churches under an official exterior, a union in which theological differences would be so belittled that its Christianity might become wholly bogus. But a positive culture must have a positive set of values, and the dissentients must remain marginal, tending to make only marginal contributions.
However dissimilar the local conditions, therefore, this question of Church and State is of importance everywhere. Its actuality in Europe may make it appear all the more remote in America, just as its actuality in England raises a number of considerations remote to the rest of Europe. But if what I say in the following pages has its direct application only in England, it is not because I am thinking of local matters without relation to Christendom as a whole. It is partly that I can only discuss profitably the situations with which I am most familiar, and partly that a more generalised consideration would appear to deal only with figments and fancies. I have therefore limited my field to the possibility of a Christian society in England, and in speaking of Church and State it is the Anglican Church that I have in mind. But it must be remembered that such terms as ‘Establishment’ and ‘Established Church’ can have a wider meaning than we ordinarily give them. On the other hand, I only mean such a Church as can claim to represent the traditional form of Christian belief and worship of the great mass of the people of a particular country.
If my outline of a Christian society has commanded the assent of the reader, he will agree that such a society can only be realised when the great majority of the sheep belong to one fold. To those who maintain that unity is a matter of indifference, to those who maintain even that a diversity of theological views is a good thing to an indefinite degree, I can make no appeal. But if the desirability of unity be admitted, if the idea of a Christian society be grasped and accepted, then it can only be realised, in England, through the Church of England. This is not the place for discussing the theological position of that Church: if in any points it is wrong, inconsistent, or evasive, these are matters for reform within the Church. And I am not overlooking the possibility and hope of eventual reunion or re-integration, on one side and another; I am only affirming that it is this Church which, by reason of its tradition, its organisation, and its relation in the past to the religious-social life of the people, is the one for our purpose — and that no Christianisation of England can take place without it.
The Church of a Christian society, then, should have some relation to the three elements in a Christian society that I have named. It must have a hierarchical organisation in direct and official relation to the State: in which relation it is always in danger of sinking into a mere department of State. It must have an organisation, such as the parochial system, in direct contact with the smallest units of the community and their individual members. And finally, it must have, in the persons of its more intellectual, scholarly and devout officers, its masters of ascetic theology and its men of wider interests, a relation to the Community of Christians. In matters of dogma, matters of faith and morals, it will speak as the final authority within the nation; in more mixed questions it will speak through individuals. At times, it can and should be in conflict with the State, in rebuking derelictions in policy, or in defending itself against encroachments of the temporal power, or in shielding the community against tyranny and asserting its neglected rights, or in contesting heretical opinion or immoral legislation and administration. At times, the hierarchy of the Church may be under attack from the Community of Christians, or from groups within it: for any organisation is always in danger of corruption and in need of reform from within.
Although I am not here concerned with the means by which a Christian society could be brought about, it is necessary always to consider the idea in relation to particular existing societies; because one does not expect or desire that its constitution would be identical in all Christian countries. I do not assume that the relation of Church and State in England, either as it is or as it might be, is a model for all other communities. Whether an ‘Establishment’ is the best relation in the abstract, is nowhere my question. Were there no Establishment in England, we should have to examine its desirability. But as we have the Establishment, we must take the situation as we find it, and consider for a moment the merits of the problem of Disestablishment. The advocates of this course, within the Church, have many cogent reasons to expose: the abuses and scandals which such a change might remedy, the inconsistencies which might be removed, and the advantages which might accrue, are too patent to require mention. That abuses and defects of another kind might make their appearance in a disestablished Church, is a possibility which has not perhaps received enough attention. But what is much more to my point is the gravity of the abdication which the Church — whether voluntarily or under pressure — would be making. Setting aside the anomalies which might be corrected without going to that length, I will admit that an Established Church is exposed to peculiar temptations and compulsions: it has greater advantages and greater difficulties. But we must pause to reflect that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be re-established, and that the very act of disestablishment separates it more definitely and irrevocably from the life of the nation than if it had never been established. The effect on the mind of the people of the visible and dramatic withdrawal of the Church from the affairs of the nation, of the deliberate recognition of two standards and ways of life, of the Church’s abandonment of all those who are not by their wholehearted profession within the fold — this is incalculable; the risks are so great that such an act can be nothing but a desperate measure. It appears to assume something which I am not yet ready to take for granted: that the division between Christians and non-Christians in this country is already, or is determined to become, so clear that it can be reduced to statistics. But if one believes, as I do, that the great majority of people are neither one thing nor the other, but are living in a no man’s land, then the situation looks very different; and disestablishment instead of being the recognition of a condition at which we have arrived, would be the creation of a condition the results of which we cannot foresee.
With the reform of the Establishment I am not here concerned: the discussion of that requires a familiarity with constitutional, canon, and civil law. But I do not think that the argument from the prosperity of the disestablished Church of Wales, sometimes brought forward by advocates of disestablishment, is to the point. Apart from the differences of racial temperament which must be taken into account, the full effect of disestablishment cannot be seen from the illustration of a small part of the island; and, if disestablishment were made general, the full effect would not appear at once. And I think that the tendency of the time is opposed to the view that the religious and the secular life of the individual and the community can form two separate and autonomous domains. I know that a theology of the absolute separation of the life of the Spirit and the life of the World has spread from Germany. Such a doctrine appears more plausible, when the Church’s position is wholly defensive, when it is subject to daily persecution, when its spiritual claims are questioned and when its immediate necessity is to keep itself alive and to keep its doctrine pure. But this theology is incompatible with the assumptions underlying everything that I have been saying. The increasing complexity of modern life renders it unacceptable, for, as I have already said, we are faced with vital problems arising not merely out of the necessity of cooperating with non-Christians, but out of our unescapeable implication in non-Christian institutions and systems. And finally, the totalitarian tendency is against it, for the tendency of totalitarianism is to re-affirm, on a lower level, the religious-social nature of society. And I am convinced that you cannot have a national Christian society, a religious-social community, a society with a political philosophy founded upon the Christian faith, if it is constituted as a mere congeries of private and independent sects. The national faith must have an official recognition by the State, as well as an accepted status in the community and a basis of conviction in the heart of the individual.
Heresy is often defined as an insistence upon one half of the truth; it can also be an attempt to simplify the truth, by reducing it to the limits of our ordinary understanding, instead of enlarging our reason to the apprehension of truth. Monotheism or tritheism is easier to grasp than trinitarianism. We have observed the lamentable results of the attempt to isolate the Church from the World; there are also instances of the failure of the attempt to integrate the World in the Church; we must also be on guard against the attempt to integrate the Church in the World. A permanent danger of an established Church is Erastianism: we do not need to refer to the eighteenth century, or to pre-war Russia, to remind ourselves of that. Deplorable as such a situation is, it is not so much the immediate and manifest scandals but the ultimate consequences of Erastianism that are the most serious offences. By alienating the mass of the people from orthodox Christianity, by leading them to identify the Church with the actual hierarchy and to suspect it of being an instrument of oligarchy or class, it leaves men’s minds exposed to varieties of irresponsible and irreflective enthusiasm followed by a second crop of paganism.
The danger of a National Church becoming a class Church, is not one that concerns us immediately to-day; for now that it is possible to be respectable without being a member of the Church of England, or a Christian of any kind, it is also possible to be a member of the Church of England without being — in that sense — respectable. The danger that a National Church might become also a nationalistic Church is one to which our predecessors theorising about Church and State could hardly have been expected to devote attention, since the danger of nationalism itself, and the danger of the supersession of every form of Christianity, could not have been very present to their minds. Yet the danger was always there: and, for some persons still, Rome is associated with the Armada and Kingsley’s Westward Ho ! For a National Church tends to reflect only the religious-social habits of the nation; and its members, in so far as they are isolated from the Christian communities of other nations, may tend to lose all criteria by which to distinguish, in their own religious-social complex, between what is universal and what is local, accidental, and erratic. Within limits, the cultus of the universal Church may quite properly vary according to the racial temperaments and cultural traditions of each nation. Roman Catholicism is not quite the same thing (to the eye of the sociologist, if not to that of the theologian) in Spain, France, Ireland and the United States of America, and but for central authority it would differ much more widely. The tendency to differ may be as strong among bodies of the same communion in different countries, as among various sects within the same country; and, indeed, the sects within one country may be expected to show traits in common, which none of them will share with the same communion abroad.
The evils of nationalistic Christianity have, in the past, been mitigated by the relative weakness of national consciousness and the strength of Christian tradition. They have not been wholly absent: missionaries have sometimes been accused of propagating (through ignorance, not through cunning) the customs and attitudes of the social groups to which they have belonged, rather than giving the natives the essentials of the Christian faith in such a way that they might harmonise their own culture with it. On the other hand, I think that some events during the last twenty five years have led to an increasing recognition of the supranational Christian society: for if that is not marked by such conferences as those of Lausanne, Stockholm, Oxford, Edinburgh — and also Malines — then I do not know of what use these conferences have been. The purpose of the labours involved in arranging intercommunion between the official Churches of certain countries is not merely to provide reciprocal sacramental advantages for travellers, but to affirm the Universal Church on earth. Certainly, no one to-day can defend the idea of a National Church, without balancing it with the idea of the Universal Church, and without keeping in mind that truth is one and that theology has no frontiers.
I think that the dangers to which a National Church is exposed, when the Universal Church is no more than a pious ideal, are so obvious that only to mention them is to command assent. Completely identified with a particular people, the National Church may at all times, but especially at moments of excitement, become no more than the voice of that people’s prejudice, passion or interest. But there is another danger, not quite so easily identified. I have maintained that the idea of a Christian society implies, for me, the existence of one Church which shall aim at comprehending the whole nation. Unless it has this aim, we relapse into that conflict between citizenship and church membership, between public and private morality, which today makes moral life so difficult for everyone, and which in turn provokes that craving for a simplified, monistic solution of statism or racism which the National Church can only combat if it recognises its position as a part of the Universal Church. But if we allowed ourselves to entertain for Europe (to confine our attention to that continent) the ideal merely of a kind of society of Christian societies, we might tend unconsciously to treat the idea of the Universal Church as only the idea of a supernatural League of Nations. The direct allegiance of the individual would be to his National Church alone, and the Universal Church would remain an abstraction or become a cockpit for conflicting national interests. But the difference between the Universal Church and a perfected League of Nations is this, that the allegiance of the individual to his own Church is secondary to his allegiance to the Universal Church. Unless the National Church is a part of the whole, it has no claim upon me: but a League of Nations which could have a claim upon the devotion of the individual, prior to the claim of his country, is a chimaera which very few persons can even have endeavoured to picture to themselves. I have spoken more than once of the intolerable position of those who try to lead a Christian life in a non-Christian world. But it must be kept in mind that even in a Christian society as well organised as we can conceive possible in this world, the limit would be that our temporal and spiritual life should be harmonised: the temporal and spiritual would never be identified. There would always remain a dual allegiance, to the State and to the Church, to one’s countrymen and to one’s fellow-Christians everywhere, and the latter would always have the primacy. There would always be a tension; and this tension is essential to the idea of a Christian society, and is a distinguishing mark between a Christian and a pagan society.