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Article 37 — Of the Civil Magistrates

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Posted by Geoffrey Firth, 11 Apr 2017

Geoffrey Firth examines the doctrine of the 39 Articles on church and state relations.

XXXVII — OF THE CIVIL MAGISTRATES
The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other his Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen do most plainly testify; but that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.

The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.

The Laws of the Realm may punish Christian men with death, for heinous and grievous offences.

It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars.

To our modern ears, Article 37 sounds a little strange, uncomfortable even. It first appeared in Archbishop Parker’s reworking of the Articles in 1563, replacing a shorter and simpler statement on royal supremacy. Nevertheless Article 37’s bold assertion that the ‘King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England… whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil…’ is striking. The notion that the monarch has power over the church may well leave us wondering as to the applicability of Article 37 in our own times.

But before we dismiss Article 37, there are valuable insights here that rightly challenge some of our modern thinking. For sure, the Article must be approached with some caution, but that does not mean that the Article does not speak to us today.

The context out of which the Article appears is key to reading rightly the intention behind what is being said. In a turbulent period of history, the reformation in England begins with a rejection of the Roman Church’s assertion of supremacy over the temporal authority, namely the King. In short, Henry VIII’s desire for divorce prompted a constitutional crisis when the Pope refused permission, prompting loud and outraged questions over his right to assert authority over the King. That history is reflected in the Article.

Article 37 draws on Matthew 22:15-22 (paying taxes to Caesar), Romans 13:1-7, and 1 Peter 2:13-17. Paul emphatically demands, ‘Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.’ This is matched by Peter’s insistence that his readers, ‘Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution.’ But exactly what does that mean?


BY WHAT AUTHORITY?

Being people of our own time, we approach Article 37 in ways that divide the state and the church into two distinct categories. Contemporary society tells us that ‘religion’ is a private, individual matter and therefore seeks to push the church out of the public square. The reasons for this are varied, but assumptions of this kind force onto Article 37 a view of life that its framers could not (rightly) conceive.

We talk in terms that make strong distinctions between temporal and spiritual, but the Church Militant is ‘here in earth’ (as the Prayer Book puts it) and is thus manifested in a temporal realm. We cannot, as Oliver O’Donovan says in his book on the Articles, escape the State.

Rather than imposing our modern frame of reference on the text, O’Donovan helpfully speaks of two types of authority. The opening of Article 37 draws attention to the first kind: ‘The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England…’. This is an Authority to Command. It is the government that bears responsibility for the ordering and shaping of society. The church, therefore, relies in general terms on government, as it is government that provides the context in which the visible church exists.

But that Authority to Command, absolute as it is, is restrained by a second authority, an Authority of Truth. It is to the Authority of Truth that the second part of Article 37 alludes: ‘we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments…’ This is an authority also considered elsewhere (Article 20), and it restrains the role of the government. The Church of England is a national church, not a state church. Indeed we may go further: the King’s Majesty, the government, only has pre-eminence to command because of the prior Authority of Truth as set forth in scripture.

The position of Article 37 is helpfully summarized by O’Donovan: ‘Society, then, is one society, and the monarch’s writ runs everywhere within it, though always (and again, in every aspect of social life) subject to the critical authority of the word of God, Which the monarch himself does not have the authority to expound or preach.’

The point is illustrated with the Article itself. We read that ‘It is lawful for Christian men, at the commandment of the Magistrate, to wear weapons, and serve in the wars’. The law that gives the magistrate the right to command men to bear weapons must surely be law of God itself. As a military chaplain, my desire to say more here is very great indeed! Suffice to say, it means that those operating in the military do not exercise authority in their own right and that the lawful fulfilment of military duties (including the taking of a life of others) is an action on behalf of the State.

And although less clearly asserted, the same logic must underpin the article’s belief that the government has the right to carry out the death penalty (though whether that is regularly today the most expedient course is another discussion).

In our own time, the Article is useful in that it pushes back against societal and cultural pressures that refuse the right of the church to be heard in the public square. Indeed, more than that: it refuses to accept that the church can only speak when legitimacy is granted by the state. Theologically it is the other way round. The right of the State to exercise the Authority to Command is a right given by the Authority of Truth. A thought, perhaps, to remember the next time the secularists invite us to leave our faith at the door.

Geoffrey Firth is a RAF Chaplain presently based at RAF Marham in Norfolk, and a member of the Church Society Council.

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