Thomas Erastus (1524–83) was a Swiss theologian who shared with the great Grotius the opinion that the Church should be subject to the State. He was a considerable influence on Richard Hooker. And not only on Hooker, it seems.
Erastus is having a revival. Two prominent modern Rastamen (if we may so call them) are Brian McHenry and Peter Selby.
McHenry, a lawyer and lay member of the Archbishop’s Council, told the Synod in a recent debate that it had been wise to follow the lead set by secular society in the matter of the ordination of women and would be well advised to do so again in other matters of human sexuality. Selby, who is Bishop of Worcester and a member of the House of Lords, told their Lordships, in the course of debate on the Gender Recognition Bill, that the Established Church should be subject to the Laws of the State, and that no exceptions were appropriate.
Readers will recall the Lightman judgment in Williamson vs the Archbishop of Canterbury when it was declared that the doctrine of the Church of England is precisely what Parliament determines it to be.
None of this, of course, is a simple revival of seventeenth-century ecclesiology. Circumstances have changed. Erastus and Hooker envisaged a state which was wholly Christian and uniformly Protestant, with the Monarch as its chief magistrate and Supreme Governor. We now have a State which proudly embraces people of all faiths and a legislature made up, predominantly, of those of none. The Monarch is no longer the chief magistrate in anything more than name, and the Church of England is no longer simply the nation at prayer. It is arguably not even the largest religious grouping in the country.
The principle being upheld by McHenry, Selby and Lightman is not merely a revival but a mutation. These updated Rastamen are the advocates of a supine subjectionism. They hold that the Church’s doctrine is best determined by those who are not its members; that the zeitgeist is to be preferred to the tradition.
It is a point of view. And though it is not one held by Christians in any preceding age or generation, it is easy to see its attractions for them now.
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