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A Baptist reflection on monarchy 

The new King’s aspiration to be Defender of Faith encapsulates how both the established church and monarchy have changed - and should receive a qualified welcome. By Nigel Wright


Thirty years ago, I wrote an article for the press in which I argued that come the next coronation the ceremony should be divided into two. In the first, which would take place in Westminster Hall, the new monarch should be installed as head of state, an essentially temporal role. In the second, which would take place in Westminster Abbey, the monarch might be inducted as supreme governor of the Church of England.

My reasoning, which I thought quite elegant, was that whereas the monarch is head of state for all the peoples of the UK, he or she is supreme governor of the Church of England for only a minority.  

Technically, this role excludes, for instance, the majority of British people now believed to be non-religious, all those who are adherents of other religions, all religious dissenters and nonconformists (including Baptists), the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of Scotland, all the Churches in Northern Ireland and even ‘Anglicans’ such as the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church in Wales, and certainly all other ‘Anglicans’ throughout the Anglican world communion. It seems to make ever less sense that there should be only one ceremony which is bound in certain respects not to apply to the majority of people in our islands. It could be interpreted as an implicit claim to ownership or what is sometimes called ‘effortless assumptions of superiority’ on the part of the C. of E.

Of course, I never really thought that my feeble offering would make any difference to anything. It suggests, after all, a radical reworking of the British constitution, and now that we are at the point where it becomes relevant the emphasis, not unreasonably, is on seamless continuity rather than radical disruption.

Yet it was, and is, a reminder that there is an alternative vision of church-state relations that has come to be called the ‘separation of church and state’. This is both a political and a religious doctrine. Politically, it asserts that affairs of state should not be controlled by any one religious denomination or power, as has been the case in the history of Christendom. Such control has led in our history to religious discrimination and even persecution.

Conversely, it asserts that people’s religious beliefs and consciences should not be dictated by the state. This leads to loss of freedom and to compulsion in religion, and religion that is compulsory is not genuine. At least, such has been the historic belief of Baptists going back to the time when Thomas Helwys (c. 1575-1616) wrote, 'The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them [in religion] and to set spiritual Lords over them.’

I found it striking that in the ceremony of accession of the new king, not only did he automatically assume the role of supreme governor but was required to swear to the maintenance of the Church of Scotland as ‘the true Protestant religion’.
This rather suggests that, at least in Scotland, those who do not subscribe to the Westminster Confession or Presbyterianism are not true Protestants. The only excuse for this is surely that the whole process is archaic, that nobody takes it absolutely seriously and once the legal formalities have been fulfilled, we return to business as usual. 

How do Baptists respond to this? I suspect that our churches have now become a ‘mixed multitude’ (no offence intended), composed of people from a variety of church backgrounds, many of whom have no great understanding of the political significance of Baptist doctrine. Many will also have appreciated the remarkable prominence of prayer, scripture and Christian liturgy as well as the late Queen’s devoted Christian witness in the period of mourning.

It should be remembered that the Baptist martyr Helwys was equally emphatic about loyalty to king and nation in their proper sphere, the maintenance of peace and order. He denied the legitimacy of the king in dictating religious conformity but implicitly saw that there could be a vital role in securing religious freedom. Baptists have been radical but not anarchic.

Under God, the king (for which read ‘the state’) belongs to the order of preservation, but the church to the order of redemption. Only the state has the power to compel, which is why the church should maintain a critical distance from it, while recognising its temporal necessity. In this sense the church knows it is dependent on the state in many ways; but only Christ has the right to govern the church.

The Church of England remains the Established Church and will do so until it itself decides to redefine its status. To unpick its present constitutional status would be a massive and unsettling intellectual undertaking for both Church and state, which is why many argue things should be left as they are.

But it should not escape attention that the Church has already undergone some massive shifts. Nowhere is this clearer than in redefining what is means to be ‘established’. Originally this was without doubt a claim to religious monopoly, an assertion of power over against other religious groupings, especially the Roman Catholic Church with its one-time claims to political as well as religious dominance. As the alleged Vicar of Christ the Pope outranked secular rulers and denied the validity of the C. of E., which in turn denied the validity of other groupings.

This has now changed. The Church now sees itself as holding a stewardship on behalf not only of other churches but of other religions. It aspires to stand for the persistence of faith within the life of our four nations and for the maintenance of religious freedom not its restriction. This is clearly seen in the aspiration of King Charles to be the ‘Defender of Faith’ not just the Defender of the Faith.

From a Baptist perspective this is entirely correct, though with the qualification that this should be the duty of all agents of the state, royal or otherwise. Religious freedom is the cornerstone of all our freedoms. It was Henry VIII who was first awarded the title by the Pope and who decided to keep it even after he had effectively made himself a pope within his own realm. The new King’s aspiration is to be welcomed, especially by people like me who, in principle, follow Helwys in rejecting any monarch’s intrusion into the realms of the religious conscience. Only Christ can govern his church.

I have never considered myself a Royalist. I know which side I would have been on at the Battle of Marston Moor. Yet monarchy has taken a shift similar in nature to the Church of England. Charles III is not Charles I. Monarchy has shifted from the abuse of power to a vocation to service, from divine right to public consent. The late Queen lived these things out flawlessly. We might even call it love. While this continues most of us can live with it.

Dr Nigel G. Wright is Principal Emeritus, Spurgeon’s College. He is the author of Free Church, Free State

Image | Samuel Regan-Asante | Unsplash

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Baptist Times, 21/09/2022
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