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Hallo again to all.

In recent years we have watched the broadening conflict between Matters of the Church and Matters of the Public. It seems to be a sign of a global change to the role of church in society, and to the role of society in the church.

Some examples of what we mean:

  • In North America, church people have been using the secular court system to resolve what are at their core ecclesiastical disputes. The outcome of these court contests seems to us in general to be determined by the beliefs of the senior judges and their interpretation of church charters as secular legal documents.
  • In New Zealand, when an earthquake destroyed the iconic Christchurch Cathedral on New Zealand's earthquake-prone South Island, the citizenry aggressively protested the plans of the Diocese of Christchurch to build a new and different cathedral. Residents of Christchurch have asked New Zealand's high court to forbid the teardown of the existing building or to require the diocese to rebuild it with the same external appearance.
  • The government of Malaysia continues to forbid Christians in that country from using the Malay word 'Allah' to refer to God, insisting that by the laws of that country, only Muslims may use that word.*
  • In the USA, the oldest Anglican seminary (theological college) in that country has been terribly disrupted by a labor dispute.* If that dispute had been at a secular business, we suspect that applicable labor law would already have been invoked and that attorneys general would be involved. The dispute is starting to look like it might have a decent and fair resolution, which pleases us.
  • In the UK, where the Church of England is tightly interwoven with the government, there have been years of (secular) court disputes disputes about whether churches are required to honor anti-discrimination and equality laws.

Bringing legal action against a church is nothing new to this century. Some years ago we wrote about a 19th-century legal dispute between St Mark's Church in Philadelphia and some of its wealthy neighbors about whether its church bells were a public nuisance. We cannot imagine such a dispute arising in the 18th century or earlier. And it seems likely that if a 15th-century citizen had complained about the noise of local church bells he would have swiftly been executed and buried outside the churchyard fence.

What is new to our era is the increasing use of civil courts to resolve ecclesiastical disputes and the reliance by clerical authorities on civil law and civil litigation. The lines are of varying degrees of fuzziness. In most countries the employment agreement between clergy and their employer (usually a diocese) usually must comply with current secular employment law. In every country a priest who commits a crime must answer to civil law, even if the priest believes the actions were motivated by God.**

Some of this secularization of church power structures is for the better. It is getting harder and harder for bishops to cover up sexual-abuse crimes committed on their watch, as well it should. But some of the ecclesiastification (is that a word?) of civil power structures is for the worse. In the USA there have been many news reports of churches spending vast sums of money to influence civil legislation and civil ballot measures. We're sure that undue influence by the church on the government has been around since the beginning of written civilization, so this is certainly nothing new.

We take all of these situations as evidence that the way that society understands churches and their purpose is changing rapidly. When Charlemagne was crowned emperor, the Pope put the crown on his head, which was the custom then. But 14 years later, Charlemagne himself placed the crown on his son Louis' head to make him king of Aquitaine. That was a thousand years ago, so it is evident that the struggle between church and state is nothing new. But as churches become less relevant to the populace, their authority becomes less relevant to the government, and the balance changes rapidly.

Pray for the future of churches and The Church, and for good outcomes of the ongoing conflicts.

See you next week.


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All of us at Anglicans Online

5 October 2014

*This week's AO News Centre has an update on this situation.
**In countries like Zimbabwe, whose president routinely granted clemency to clergy who committed crimes that were politically useful to him, the 'answer to civil law' will of course involve kangaroos.

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