Caesaropapism is Our Greatest Strength

A few months ago I read TAS alum Alan Jacobs’ book The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography and it was truly fascinating. Probably the most entertaining bit was how early on the English attempted to impose their (high church) liturgy on the Scots and a Scotswoman hurled a chair at a priest, after which the bishop of Brechin “read his first service from the prayer book, he did so with two loaded pistols placed on the desk before him, in plain sight of the restive congregation.”

Less entertaining, but ultimately more worthy of reflection is the story of George C. Gorham, a priest who was denied a post by his bishop in a doctrinal dispute over baptism. Gorham then appealed his bishop’s decision to the Judicial Committee on the Privy Council. That is, a so-called “Episcopalian” system saw the decisions of an episkopos reversed by the British equivalent to the Supreme Court. Alan interprets this incident (pp 132-133):

The Judicial Committee’s “neutral reading” was, effectively, a plea that everyone just get along, and get along by vowing obedience to the Book of Common Prayer while allowing one another a good deal of freedom to read that book according to theological preference. The members of the committee were not saying that Gorham’s interpretation of the prayer book’s teaching on baptism was superior to the bishop’s, but rather that the bishop was ruling too narrowly and should have made more room for theological variance. They did not believe that every minister should be Latitudinarian, but they did, it seems, believe the boundaries of the Church of England as a whole needed to be set as broadly as possible.

In contemporary terms we would say the lay court was standing up for the individual’s right to freedom of conscience. We can go further and say that the court was not endorsing a particular view of baptism, but a diversity of belief about the sacrament. Of course in traditional Christian orthodoxy, bishops are supposed to enforce orthodoxy. (Presbyterianism and Congregationalism are early modern exceptions to this long-standing ecclesiastical rule, which dates at least to late antiquity and has antecedents in the New Testament era). For a secular authority to interfere with the internal doctrinal disputes of a church is traditionally understood to be Caesaropapism, a term that carries the pejorative understanding that it is as a form of tyranny.

So we are left with a paradox, when pushes comes to shove whose conscience do we respect? Gorham’s or his bishop’s? Or more broadly when an individual is affiliated with an institution, do we demand that the institution respect the individual’s conscience (and by implication that corporate freedom of conscience does not exist)? Or do we allow the institution to impose its own conscience on those who fall within its dominion (and by implication require that dissenting individuals either exit the institution or suck it up)? The classical liberal notion of freedom of association solves the problem by generally siding with the institution, at least insofar as the individual is free to exit the institution and seek another. (The legal term “public accommodation” is now so expansive that it is hard to identify things that are not public accommodations, but it originally only applied to monopolies and the like). Of course in fairness to Gorham, even if he were free to disaffiliate from the Church of England and seek ordination with a free church, there is a sort of moderate level of coercion insofar as doing so would require forgoing the state support that only the CoE, as the established church, enjoyed. Hence I have more sympathy with Gorham in the British context than I would were he to have pressed a similar case against an Episcopalian bishop in a country like the United States with no established church. Of course as the kind of people who are want to invoke argumentum ad Myhrvold’s Gulch are quick to remind us, the American government does subsidize religion indirectly through tax exemptions and the like, but much like our tacit arts policy (which also mostly consists of tax breaks) and our early tacit media policy (which mostly consisted of things like widespread literacy and favorable postal rates), the indirect nature of American subsidies for religion is consequential in establishing neutrality that promotes both flourishing and diversity of organizations in a way that facilitates dissenters from any particular organization voting with their feet.

This case reminded me of a general issue that cuts across many of our recent debates involving a paradox of freedom and diversity. In particular, are institutions free to restrict the freedom of individuals, each in their own way and so we see diversity between institutions as they exert varying degrees and varieties of restrictions on those individuals who sort into them? Or rather, are individuals to be free to act regardless of which institution they are within, with the corollary that institutions are to be coerced into liberating individuals? That is, will we have a program of intolerance for intolerance and an outcome of institutions that are homogeneously diverse?

For instance, consider the case of Gordon College, an evangelical college near Boston. (And full disclosure, whose president is a friend of mine from grad school, although we have not discussed these issues). Gordon has instituted a policy all students are required to restrict their sexuality only to heterosexual marriages, but gay students (and for that matter, straight single students) are welcome so long as they abide by the school’s conception of chastity. The Gordon policy restricts the freedom of its students, and let’s be honest, it makes especially strong demands of gay students, who Gordon expects to remain abstinent, whereas straight students are allowed to marry, and this is what makes people upset. Now, I work at a public university, which we can think of as the established church of Our Lady of Credentialism, and in the extremely unlikely event that such a proposal were to be proposed at UCLA, I would adamantly oppose it. This is not only because of my personal preferences, but because I feel a public institution has a special responsibility for inclusion and liberty. But even as Gordon’s policies would be unconscionable for a state college, it is also extremely disturbing that a quasi-public accrediting body is attempting to coerce Gordon into dropping this policy. That is, I think a free society should emphasize individual liberty when it comes to the state (including semi-autonomous arms of the state, like public colleges) but freedom of association, even at the expense of individual liberty, when it comes to private institutions. There are hundreds of liberal arts colleges in America, 28 of them in Massachusetts alone, and a free society can allow some of them to restrict student freedom, so long as students uncomfortable with these restrictions are free to choose other schools.

Of course, it’s possible to overdo it. It is troubling to remember that one of the key precedents in the development of the autonomy of the Church from the state was when Ambrose forced Theodosius to reverse an edict demanding restitution from a Christian mob that burned down a synagogue. We moderns think it is just that churches should be subject to the impartial administration of civil and criminal law even as their internal doctrinal matters should be immune to interference. Of course, it’s not always possible to clearly draw the line between internal matters that deserve autonomy and matters of public concern (cough Little Sisters cough), though I’m comfortable with saying Ambrose drew it wrong. I don’t really know whether the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council got it right or wrong, but I do think this is the kind of dilemma that can often be avoided or mitigated by not having an established institution but a plurality of private ones.