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Paul@paulbirch.net and http://www.paulbirch.net

There is an unholy desire for unity within the Christian Church. Unholy, because it rides roughshod over doctrinal disputes, denominational diversity, and the rights of individual Christians to worship according to their own conscience. Unholy, because it is prone to abandon traditional Christian faith for fashionable politics. In England today (this may not be true in Scotland, Northern Ireland or the United States) it is hard to find a sermon that is not (at least in part) based upon the Gospel According to St Marx (sic., which is just what it is, sick!). What is wrong is that where we used to have a fine tradition of dissent, the dissenters no longer dissent, and the traditional church is no longer traditional. We no longer have religious freedom, only the licence to be politically correct.

Libertarians, whom one might expect to stand up for diversity, may make matters even worse, in their calls for the separation of church and state, and the disestablishment of the Church of England. I believe that these libertarians are misguided, basing their case upon the self-serving notions of the American traitors whose respect for life, liberty and property was at best selective, as any dispossessed Tory colonial who survived the rebels' murderous pogrom could have testified. America was never libertarian, or even truly liberal, for all the fine words (and they are fine words) of the American Bill of Rights.

I believe that many libertarians are also in error in their overwhelmingly negative view of the state, an error paralleled in religious thought by those sects who consider mankind as utterly abhorrent in the sight of God ("All your righteousness is as filthy rags" cf. Isaiah 64:6); The environmentalists have a similarly jaundiced view. Of course states regularly violate personal rights; but so do individuals ("All have sinned and come short of the glory of God", Romans 3:23). The truth of the matter is that the state is made up of moral agents who do both good and evil. The state has both good points and bad points. It also has rights, like any other association, deriving from the just rights of its owners.

Libertarian analysis is apt to slide illegitimately between the question of the rights of property and the supposed efficiency of private ownership; a typical argument might be caricatured thus: "taxation is theft because widgets are produced twice as efficiently on the free market as in the public sector so all the roads must be denationalised". I leave it as an exercise for the reader to identify all the errors of logic in that quasi-syllogism. But there are at least two distinct issues here: justice and efficiency.

The first issue is justice — which is to say, the recognition of lawful ownership. It is wrong to imperil the life, restrict the liberty or seize the property of any person without due cause or full compensation. It is wrong to steal — even if someone else could make better use of the stolen property. It is wrong for an individual. It is wrong for a government. It is the principle of meum and teum. It is just as wrong for a person to steal from the government as for the government to steal from the person. Efficiency is not the issue. "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and unto God the things that are God's", Mark-with-a-k 12:17.

There are many just forms of ownership: common ownership, communal ownership, joint ownership, part ownership, temporary ownership, conditional ownership, as well as individual private ownership; there are even more ways in which baskets of rights, or particular rights, can justly be held. It is the function of justice to uphold them all — not merely those one happens to like best. Thus if rights of way are in fact owned in common (as they are in England), then to hand them over to private ownership would be theft — just as much as if privately owned land were to be seized in the name of the public. Whether common ownership is less efficient is beside the point.

Justice must come before economic efficiency, as law is epistemologically prior to the free market. In order of priority we have: survival, order, law, justice, efficiency. At the head of the list I would add: God, the Ground of Being without whom there would be no persons to survive and no world to survive in. Each concept is predicated upon the existence of the previous links in the chain. Justice has no meaning if nobody survives. Law would have no meaning but for God. Atheists will presumably wish to insert Nature in God's place (the ambiguity in this sentence is deliberate), though I doubt that any completely coherent philosophy can thereby result (I'd better throw this red herring back in the pond for now).

Once we have justice, efficiency will tend to follow. Under a free market, people will naturally choose that form of ownership, or distribution of rights, that will maximise their utilities; in this free market, private ownership will usually prove the best, because it avoids the well-known "tragedy of the commons". Nevertheless, we have absolutely no right to demand private ownership, or denationalisation, or disestablishment, where some other form of ownership already exists; we may only justifiably advise that it might be in the interests of the existing owners voluntarily to sell into private hands.

Common ownership is not always economically inefficient; it has advantages as well as disadvantages. For example, it escapes the very real costs of collecting payment, or of excluding non-payers. It also avoids the complications of defining privately owned rights, and the costs of writing out the deeds. Indeed, at any given time, the private ownership of certain types of property is likely to be impracticable, even absurd: throughout history the air we breathe has quite appropriately been owned in common; on the Moon, though, that would probably change. The point about the free market is not that it favours private ownership, but that it tends to favour whichever form of ownership happens to turn out to be most satisfactory to the owners; it has no ideological bias, and in general will come up with a more-or-less optimal mix comprising every conceivable form of ownership under the sun.

One of the difficulties with common ownership is that it is hard to get the required unanimous agreement for any change of status. Tough. That doesn't give you the right to violate the rights of the common owners in the name of efficiency. If you want to privatise the road network you must first buy out all the existing historic rights in the Queen's Highway.

Which leads us neatly onto another point upon which many libertarians are muddled: the reason we must keep the monarchy. It is not because the monarchy is the best guarantee of freedom (though this I believe to be the case). It is not because republics are unstable and that democracy is catastrophic (though this also is true). It is simply this: the Queen is rightfully Queen because she is the Queen; she is the sovereign ruler over this land because she is the lawful owner of most of the basket of rights associated with its sovereignty. No one has the right to dispossess her of those rights — no matter what majority may desire it, or what gains might conceivably result. Nor has anyone the right to deprive me of my right to be the Queen's subject under the rule of law, and to live in the United Kingdom under the British Crown.

The forcible imposition in this country of even a wonderfully libertarian free-market anarcho-capitalist federal republic (whatever that might mean) would grossly violate many of the most valued rights of the persons who together make up the British people; it would thus be flatly wrong, and anti-libertarian, almost totalitarian, in nature.

So what has all of this to do with the Church of England? Simply this: the established church is part of what makes up the nation. It is not the property of the General Synod alone to do with as they will, nor of the government to denationalise, nor even of the Queen to disestablish. The persons who make up the British people have common rights in it. They have, by birth, a right to attend the traditional Anglican church, or to be married in it, or even to dissent from it! No one has the right to steal those rights away from them, however out-of-date some may consider them to be.

The Church of England was itself established as a dissent from Roman Catholicism; it in no way denies freedom of religion. If people were forced to adhere to the state church (as in times past they have been) or if it held a regulatory monopoly of religion, this would of course be unjustified. No such complaint holds water against the Anglican church. Nobody has to have anything to do with it; and anybody has the right to set up his own denomination or cult or philosophy in competition with it, or to ignore religion altogether.

But what if through the doctrine of disestablishmentarianism (hoorah for anti-disestablishmentarianism, the longest word in the English language!) Anglicans are denied the right to worship in their own traditional way? Surely this is itself a violation of the freedom of religion that liberals of every stamp are supposed to espouse.

Let's be clear on this: the Church of England, though established, is and remains a voluntary association; it has no political privilege, beyond that of the coronation of the monarch (it is true that bishops sit in the House of Lords, but they are there in their role as ex-feudal lords rather than as representatives of the Church); it does not depend upon taxation or other forms of coercion (it is true that it has charitable status, like other churches, but that anomaly is best solved by lifting the tax burden from all associations, including businesses). The Established Church is not part of the State; it is part of the Nation.

Now we must accept, I think, that of late the Anglican church has become corrupted. This has occurred less by the interference of the state (the interference is almost entirely the other way round) than through internal malfeasance. That an avowed atheist should be permitted to remain as a bishop is of course appalling; that priests who reject the fundamental doctrines of the church can continue without being unfrocked is disgraceful. It is appalling and disgraceful not merely because of its dishonesty and hypocrisy, but because it violates the clear rights of the members of the church and the people of this country. It could and would be brought before the courts of the land — if only they hadn't been corrupted too!

The imposition of so-called women priests is one of the latest victories of the violators — one that libertarians may easily be deceived into favouring. Yet if a woman honestly believes she has a calling from God to preach the gospel, there are already dozens of denominations in which she may do so; indeed, there is nothing to stop Anglican feminists setting up their own denomination called, let us say, the Reformed Episcopalian Church.

However, the theological theory of priesthood that underlies traditional Anglican beliefs is fundamentally incompatible with the blasphemous notion of any female standing in, as it were, for Christ; furthermore, Pauline tradition says "let your women keep silence in church", 1 Co. 14:34. Now I'm not claiming that this theory is correct (on the contrary, I would argue for the priesthood of all believers, and rather suspect that St. Paul only wanted to make those gossiping housewives in the back row shut up during the sermon); but some people believe it, and I insist that they have a right to believe it, and to worship accordingly.

The feminists do not simply wish to provide an alternative; they want to destroy the traditional priesthood, and deny these believers their freedom of worship. In this respect it is important to appreciate that once the apostolic succession, with its "laying on of hands" (Heb. 6:2), has been broken, it can never be mended (except perhaps through the priests of another apostolic denomination, such as the Roman Catholics — otherwise the church must remain for ever apostate).

All Christian churches should stand by their beliefs and their charters; they should not allow themselves to be driven by the winds of fashion or inveigled by the changing times into abandoning long-held doctrines; for to do so would be to betray all those persons who still hold those beliefs, or would like the opportunity of choosing whether to continue to do so. It is quite irrelevant that attendance may fall off, or even that the church may eventually have to close, for "where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst" (Matt. 18:20). It does not matter if an obsolete church closes down because nobody wants to worship in it; it does matter if people are forcibly deprived of their mode of worship because a majority now wants things done another way. Let the people who want change start their own churches, or move to a church that already suits them, but in Christian charity and simple justice they must not violate the rights of other members to worship in their traditional way.

The Church — by which I mean the whole church, the body of Christ — is not harmed by the coming and going of little churches and chapels and denominations. On the contrary, it is only through such diversity that a place can be found for every honest supplicant. This is surely something with which everyone of liberal sympathies can agree. "Whosoever cometh unto me I will in no wise cast out" (John 6:37). Can the Church of today say as much? I know from personal experience that it cannot.

It is the mania for unity at all costs that does the harm. For the costs include the jettisoning of unwanted baggage — such as the gospel! — and the violation of the rights and conscience of countless dissenting Christians and non-Christians.

The continuation and ideally the cleansing of the established Church of England is thus of first importance in the maintenance of our tradition of religious freedom; first, because its disestablishment would violate rights, as its corruption violates rights today; second, because it is a symbol of the nation and an example to us all, so we had better make it a good example; third, because it provides something different from other churches, something irreplaceable, something they are in no position to imitate. This is something we should all support, if we believe in freedom of conscience, whether we happen to accept the Thirty-Nine Articles or not.

© Paul Birch, 16th Jan. 1998.