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'How do the churches relate to the state?'

Disestablishment is not the live issue among Nonconformists it once was. But in this latest Baptist Historical Society article, Stephen Copson argues that pertinent questions remain 


In 1868 many Baptists (among other Nonconformists) raised three cheers for the Act of Parliament that abolished the compulsory church rate. This local tax required all ratepayers to pay toward the upkeep of the parish church buildings and contribute to the maintenance of the parish clergy.

Many felt vindicated because they already paid for their buildings and ministers and did not see why they should pay for the Anglicans too. They also felt justified that another piece of legislation that discriminated against them had been repealed.

Thirdly they hoped that this would be a continuing journey towards a level playing field for denominations, where the privilege and patronage of the established church would be lessened, maybe even to the extent of disestablishment.

In the first they were satisfied; the second would be complete in the next decade or so, but for the last they would be disappointed. Establishment in England has proved more durable.

The question behind their stance was about the nature of relationship of the churches and the state. Was it right that one denomination should be advantaged over the others? How to find a platform to speak on the issues of the day with authority but not compulsion? Church was not just about being with God but being in the world in a particular way. It mattered that church was a community gathered by faith and simply not by birth.  

A century and a half later and society has changed immeasurably. However you count, Christians are numerically considerably fewer. Some influence persists, but Christian voices are competing to be heard with other philosophies and faiths. Disestablishment is the passion of the very few in a society that is less bothered with labels and more with authenticity.

For most Baptists, it is not even a live issue – does it really matter there are bishops in the House of Lords? [answers on a postcard….]

And yet the core of the argument remains – how do the churches relate to the state? How do we expect to be treated? In a pluralist nation where inspiration for its laws, economics, social attitudes, morals and ethics is drawn from a broad range of sources, how do Christians put forward their insights in a way that will be heard positively?

Siren voices suggest religion belongs in a box marked “private”, so how are treasures of Christian tradition available to enhance the life of the citizen and the body politic? How do Christians reflect on theory and practice as they experience the continuing changes in culture around them, so they can shape their ministry and mission?

There is no single simple answer of course, but we dare not risk failing to ask the questions.  


Image | CB | Freeimages.com


This article is the fifth in a continuing series from Baptist Historical Society highlighting stories and moments from our past.

Early articles have looked at Anne Steele, W. T. Whitley, and Edith Gates, and Renewed for Mission, 50 years on. 

To join the Society or learn more about our Baptist history, visit https://baptisthistory.org.uk

Baptist Times, 19/07/2018
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