Our allegiance to a higher authority

by
26 March 2008

Pledging loyalty to the Crownmay conflict with our duty to God, says Jonathan Bartley

THERE are some pretty evident problems for atheists, humanists, and agnostics — and those of some other faiths — contained in the latest proposals that school-leavers should pledge loyalty to the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.

The former Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, who conducted the recent citizenship review that gave rise to the suggestion, said that the aim of pledging loyalty to the Crown was greater social cohesion. The impact may, however, be quite the reverse.

This is something that goes far wider than a simple issue of the monarch’s dual role. The proposals should set alarm bells ringing for all Christians — whether they support an Established Church or not.

The announcement is timely. This, after all, is the season when churches remember the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. A victim of the Roman Empire, Jesus demonstrated his allegiance to a higher authority. Through baptism, the early Christians gladly took on their new citizenship of the Kingdom of God — and sometimes paid for it with their lives.

Yet it has not always been easy to work out how the two citizenships relate to one another. There are stories of soldiers going into the baptismal waters but keeping their sword arms above the waterline to enable them to carry out the Empire’s requirement to kill. Within Christendom, baptism became associated with territory, or even a sign of loyalty to the state.

For the Christian, however, the awkward fact remains that, while the two citizenships may at times overlap, two masters cannot be served. When Jesus faced Pontius Pilate, he made it clear that his Kingdom was not of this world (the Greek, kosmos, is perhaps better translated as “system”). It was not that his kingdom had no bearing on this age. Rather, it was one of different values — one that would lead its citizens to challenge, and sometimes disobey, earthly rulers.

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This is not something that Gordon Brown accepts. Most notably in the incendiary context of religious terror, he has stated his belief that religious commitments must be subservient to civic ones. The latest proposals urge us to buy more fully into this way of thinking. Our complete allegiance to the rule of law and the nation-state is demanded. And those who do not choose this path will be branded divisive and dangerous — particularly when their rationale is religious.

But if, as a Christian, I believe I should follow the Christian tradition of sanctuary and help a failed asylum-seeker facing deportation, or give a job to an immigrant who deserves one, I will be a dissident. Likewise, if I consider a government is acting unjustly, waging war indiscriminately, or seeking to get me to participate in its acts of violence, I am bound to say, “No.” This may make me unpopular, but should not make me an enemy.

Social cohesion is not fostered by demanding that we pay homage to civic institutions, but is founded on a shared understanding of such values as social justice, equality, and peacemaking. A truly United Kingdom will never be one that seeks authority over the Kingdom of God.

Jonathan Bartley is director of Ekklesia.

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