Many Anglicans have heard or read the word Erastian or Erastianism without really understanding what the word really means. Erastianism is a political theory of absolute state primacy over the church. The idea comes from Thomas Erastus (1524-1583), a Calvinist who debated whether religious leaders had the right to punish sinners and dissidents in matters of doctrine. He argued that sinners (against church precepts or morality, or those who for example denied the Trinity) should be punished by the State.
The idea of the State in control of the Church is an old one, and the ultimate cause of the increase in the political power of the Papacy. The Church under Constantine is the first example of an official established Church. History is characterised by the Church being under the control of a strong State and being independent at times when the secular power was weak or non-existent. Soloviev quoted Saint Jerome as saying: Ecclesia persecutionibus crevit; post quam ad christianos principes venit, potentia quidem et divitiis maior, sed virtutibus minor facta est (The Church firstly languished under persecution. After this, she turned to Christian rulers who gave her wealth and power, but she thereby grew weaker in virtue).
The power the Church obtained from kings and emperors prepared the way towards the schisms between Rome and the Oriental Patriarchates, Luther, King Henry VIII and the Church of England, the Church of Utrecht and the Old Catholics. The principle of Cuius Rex eius religio (literally "whose king, whose religion" – the "Vicar of Bray syndrome" – not having any real religious convictions but just going along with one's country's ruler, and changing as the regime changed) ran parallel with the rival claims of the Popes. The Church in Russia and the Balkans was subjected to imperial domination, a sort of cæsaro-papalism, and in the West, the rule was papo-cæsarism. The Anglican theologian Eric Mascall, in The Recovery of Unity, made the remarkable observation that "the causes of Christian disunity are to be found in the agreements of Christians rather than in their disagreements". Does not all this ring a bell in the collaboration of churchmen in present-day anti-Christian agendas?
The historian will easily identify the first step of the rise of the Papacy in the Gregorian Reform undertaken by after Gregory VII (1073–85). The essential theory behind this reform, which imposed clerical celibacy in the western Church, consisted of affirming that the Church was founded by God and entrusted with the task of embracing all mankind in a single society in which divine will is the only law; that, in her capacity as a divine institution, she is supreme over all human structures, especially the secular state; and that the pope, in his role as head of the Church under the petrine commission, is the vice-regent of God on earth, so that disobedience to him implies disobedience to God: or, in other words, a defection from Christianity. This, under Boniface VIII, who issued Unam sanctam in 1302, became the two swords. Both spiritual and temporal power were to be under the pope's jurisdiction, and that kings were subordinate to the power of the Church.
Now we understand the reason for the revolt of Elizabeth I and Henry VIII before her against the Papacy! It was simple rivalry over who pretended political power, the local Monarch or the Pope as Emperor of the world. This is the whole key to understanding what has gone on in the Christian world since the fourth century, but especially since the mid eleventh century, which was – no coincidence – the fateful year 1054, the schism between Rome and the Byzantine Church.
As the power of the Papacy became extreme through centuries of weak kings and princes, that power went to their heads and corruption set in. What do you do when you want a check on the Pope’s power? You’ve got it. Put the Church under secular authority. That is what the Reformation was all about. The doctrines of Protestantism, the famous solas, was all about making priests and bishops unnecessary. If the clergy is not necessary for salvation, you do away with the Pope, bishops and priests at one fell swoop – but don’t imagine for a moment that this was to give freedom to the people! This is where Erastus and the tyranny of the Protestant State came in. The people would go on tithing, but no longer to the clergy but to line the pockets of politicians and corrupt officials.
When I consider all this, I look upon the demise of Establishment Anglicanism with a feeling of relief. I compare it with the demise of European Establishment Catholicism in the nineteenth century, in the wake of the French Revolution. The doctrine of the separation of Church and State, as it developed in nineteenth century liberalism, was called madness by Gregory XVI in 1832 when he condemned Lamennais. But, it was the only solution for the freedom of the Church from atheistic and anti-clerical political authorities. This is what the document on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, was all about. The State and the Church are two radically separate entities.
Some traditionalists would like to see the State reinforce their agenda and uphold the Social Kingship of Christ. They are living in a fantasy world. The people they would ask to punish heretics by putting them in prison and making them pay fines are those who legislate for abortion, divorce, same-sex marriage and curbs on religious expressions in public places. But, the price of disestablishment is not having the grand buildings one had and the money to finance their upkeep. The Church becomes a private enterprise and has to be financed as such, either by getting people to tithe or earning money.
The Church lives in a world of negative secularism, the ideology that has reigned in France since the Revolution and the anti-clerical era of the 1900’s. It now characterises England’s New Labour and political correctness. The Church does just fine if it collaborates with all this stuff, accepts secular moral / ethical tenets, waters down any requirement religion will make of our moral conduct. But, from the moment the Church complains about abortion, equal opportunities laws to an unreasonable extent – and so forth, persecution is not far away.
I am brought to realise that one aspect of Anglican patrimony will have to go, that of Erastianism or its modern equivalent. It is ironic that some of those who are most vocal in upholding “classical” Anglicanism are those who live in countries where the Church is free in a free State. Isn’t it amazing that you don’t find this way of thinking in England? A few days ago, I received a series of highly rude and aggressive e-mails from a person claiming to be an ordinary Anglican lay parishioner in the north of England. I am English, and know our people have lived under the Established Church. I examined the headers of the e-mails in question, and found the IP address based in Florida – an American! Of course! Is it not amazing that those who live in a free country are those who often despise the freedom of other people’s consciences? Thank goodness there are some wonderful American Anglicans and Catholics who are grateful to be free and love the freedom of others!
At last, we have a Pope who is a theologian and a historian. He has no ambition to be a secular emperor, but he does take his role to govern the Church seriously, and will not allow himself to be trodden underfoot by the atheist and the negative secularist. The Church has to live in a secular world, and this is not necessarily a bad thing. The USA is an example of a secular state that traditionally respects the freedom of conscience and all religions. The price of the Church’s freedom from political interference is the freedom of non-religious people from specifically religious tenets. We can’t have it both ways.
For the first four centuries of the Church’s existence, Christians lived either under persecution or indifference. The Christian community celebrated the liturgy and the Sacraments, studied the Scriptures and the Fathers, prayed and waited for the Parousia. Today, it is the life of monks, and increasingly of the rest of us. We try to have a moral influence on the world as much as possible, but we should try to do so through positive witness and not violence and shows of fanatical behaviour. We are free, but we no longer have the power churches once had. The price is paid and our survival depends on the authenticity of our religion and the quality of our faith, love and prayer.
We will be observed and judged for our love for each other.