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Thursday, May 18, 2006

God and Caesar


Sts. Constantine and Helen (feast: 21 May) Posted by Picasa

St. Constantine was the first Christian Roman Emperor who legalised Christianity by the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and convened the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. St. Constantine embraced Christianity after seeing a vision of the Cross at the battle of the Milvian Bridge on 28 October 312 AD. He was not, however, baptised until shortly before his death in 337 AD, and that by an heretical Arian bishop, Eusebius of Nicomedia.

Some Christians (not Orthodox) have bitterly criticised Constantine’s legacy to the Church, claiming that his conversion was opportunist and his real motives political, to unite the Empire. Moreover they claim that he fatally compromised the Church’s independence. The Orthodox Church does not hold this view but rather receives Constantine as a saint, not necessarily for his holiness or his abilities as a theologian but for his leadership and protection of the Church.

What ought then to be the relationship between the Church and the State, at least in societies where Christianity is the majority religion? Christians, societies and churches have tussled with these issues for centuries and different models of that relationship have been tried. Some, having flatly rejected the value of Constantine’s legacy, have secularised the State and separated it from any form of religious activity or influence. France and the United States might fall into that category. Interestingly, both countries acquired their modern identities by overthrowing or fleeing from an oppressive regime. However, whereas atheism did take root in France after the 1789 Revolution it did not after the US Declaration of Independence in 1776. This maybe because the French Church was hopelessly compromised by its support of the ruling class whereas the churches in America had acquired their identity and purpose precisely be resisting Anglican — State conformity back in England and fleeing to the American colonies to build a new and freer society, (or so it is claimed!). In earlier times in the West the papacy had come into conflict with rising medieval European nationalism and had even claimed the right to install and depose monarchs should they breach Church discipline. It is no accident then that the rising secular powers in the Medieval period should enlist the support of Protestantism in resisting the temporal claims of Rome. It is no less surprising that the Enlightenment should prove to be the fatal undoing of the very idea of a Christian society when the western Church had such an appalling record of interference in political processes … but can all this be laid at the feet of St. Constantine? I think not and for the following reasons:-

To an Orthodox observer it seems that the west in the second millennium lurched between battles between Church and State and a later tendency to deny the Church any place in the political realm. Neither option commends itself to the Orthodox understanding of sacred and secular realms, Church and Caesar. In the Christian East there never developed an antagonism of quite this order between Church and State and this is true even when the Church had to exist as a second class ethnic state under Islam or when it had to endure the sustained assault of a vicious atheistic State in the Soviet period. The ideal relationship between Church and State which was more or less successfully achieved in the Byzantine period of the Eastern Roman Empire was characterised by “synergeia” … a cooperative and complementary assignment of roles. The Church was responsible for the moral and spiritual leadership and transformation of the society; the State in the person of the Emperor for the rule of law, the promotion of commerce and civilisation and the protection of the Church. Both bishop and monarch were God’s agents in pursuing distinct but coordinated goals for the common good and even a reflection of and participation in the Kingdom of God on earth. Such lofty goals and bipartite cooperation seem to have been rapidly lost in the West after it drifted further and further away from Orthodoxy. By the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th Century the very idea of a Christian society seemed to many to be either an absurdity or a dangerous proposition.

Orthodoxy with its very different understanding of the relationship between the Church and the State has now taken root in the west but it does not as yet have the penetration and influence on the ground to practice a more harmonious model of Church State relations. More pressing perhaps is the question of how the Church can realistically engage with a multifaith liberal democratic polity for such a system has rarely if ever been encountered before the modern era.

It might seem that the inexorable trend towards secularisation and separation of Church and State is the only way to go but I think this is a false and dangerous conclusion. No society can avoid asking searching questions about its identity and common values and these inevitably bear the imprint of the image of God in humans and in human affairs. Perhaps Caesar and God can make peace in the west by dismantling the power relations that have distorted this relationship and instead replace these with models of service and dialogue. For this to work there must be no privileged place at the high table of the State but the State would do well to have places for all. The disestablishment of the Church of England, the reform of the House of Lords and a more community based local politics would go a long way to achieving these aims.

No society that aspires to be Christian can now simply return to the era of Constantine but what it could take from this synthesis is precisely the synergeia that would bring back a proper spiritual dimension to our public discourse and social policy. God and Caesar need not be enemies. If enemies they must be then only martyrdom will be the seed of change.

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