The separation of Church and State


When I was a kid in primary school I remember looking up the Concise Oxford Dictionary for all sorts of odd words.  Of course  there were the rude words: bum, tit, dick –  all and more were studied diligently.  Then there were the long words.  The longest word in the dictionary at the time was antidisestablishmentarianism.  I had no idea what it meant back then, nor did I care very much about it at the time.  Now, it seems, I  am on the edge of being accused of it!  Of course I am not guilty, but you will have to read on to find out…

Antidisestablishmentarianism was a  term used in 19th century England in regard to the relationship between the Church of England and the British Government.  It was, obviously, the alternative to disestablishmentarianism; the separation of church and government or as we are probably more familiar the separation of Church and State.  So how does that work itself out in Australia in the 21st century?

First up, the Constitution of Australia is, at best, ambiguous on the degree of the separation of church and state.  The phrase itself is not ‘Australian’ as such, nor is it’s popularly understood intention.  The phrase comes to us from the USofA where the separation of church and state is enshrined in their constitution.  While the intention of the US constitution and the subsequent amendmants to the constitution in regard to separation of church and state are not all that clearly set out, an argument can be put that this separation,  in its embryonic form, was more to protect the church from the manipulation of the sate than the state by the church.  Given that those who originally put the argument were church leaders is it a  pretty strong case.

Australia’s constitution does not separate church and state. The closest it comes is in section 116, which says the Commonwealth cannot make any law for ”establishing any religion”, ”imposing any religious observance” or ”prohibiting the free exercise of any religion”.   There is not so much a ‘wall of seperation’ as there is in the US but a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ that each will not try to control the other.

Again, this is as much to protect religion from the state as the state from religion.  Given that our current Head of State is also the head of the Church of England, we need to think before we speak in this regard.

As for me: I am a pastor of a  Baptist Church.  I am not ordained but I am a  recognised pastor.  Baptists are not ordained in the same way that say Anglicans or Catholics are ordained as priests for life.  For those of us who are recognised, we are ordained as leaders in our church for the length of tenure in that church.  But that doesn’t mean much to most people apart from Baptists, and then not much to most of them.

I am a Christian and it not something I can leave at the door so to speak.  My faith shapes me.  If I am the sort of person that you believe would make a  good councillor for Shellharbour it is to some degree because of my faith.  It is an integral part of who I am and informs what I do.

Now, back to the big words: I support a  separation between church and state, so I suppose I am the dis-establishment part of the equation.  I have told my church that I will not use the pulpit for political purposes.  I have asked them to support me as a person who is doing waht they believ to be right and I have given them the freedom to do that and still make up their own mind on who they vote for on September 3rd.

Likewise, I will not use the platform of council to preach.  While it is my desire that people find faith and my privilege to point them in the right direction it is not as a  councillor that I will do that.

Nor is it my intention to try and turn Shellharbour into some extension of the Kingdom of God.  Where that has ever been tried before (and probably by better people than I) it has always failed and failed miserably.  Jesus himself said that his kingdom was not from this world.  Faith and nationalism are not good bedfellows.

So, I believe in the separation of church and state for the good of all parties concerned.  I also believe that a  citizen I am and as a  person of faith I am still eligible to stand for councillor.  It is my responsibility to make sure I don’t cross the line either way, again for the good of all.  Where, if ever, a conflict of interests arises I am required to declare it and I will.  My actions will be accountably to the people I serve.  We are all in this together.

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About Brian Pember

Warilla, NSW, Australia View all posts by Brian Pember

9 responses to “The separation of Church and State

  • sallyamber

    Very well said! I have faith in your ability to make decisions based on sound reason and your high ethical standards.

  • Tanya

    Hey Brian
    one of the things I’ve always treaseured the most of you & also your lovely wife, is the openess & truthfullnes you both have & have had. I have no doubt that this position on council will benefit Sheelharbour no end, just because of that honesty. People will know who you are by your love but also by your light.

  • Gary Butler

    As a committed atheist, this council election may be the first time I have ever knowingly voted for anyone who preaches in a church. While I don’t share your religious beliefs, this post reassures me that you don’t plan on Warilla becoming a theocracy. Given what I know of your charity work around the area, I feel confident that you’ll do the job in an ethical way in the interests of the whole community, rather than favouring your own congregation. Even the non-believers expect something better from our council than we received from the previous mob.

    I’d also like to mention that Jake was a pleasure to teach at TAFE – your fatherly influence on him gives me added confidence in your ability to do good things for young people in Warilla.

    • Brian Pember

      Thank you Dr Gary! Your comments are very encouraging and I am humbled by them.

      I might also say that Jake was impressed with your teaching; you encyclopaedic knowledge made a great impression on him.

      Do you remember that I accosted you in the street once? I was looking for a guitar player for one of our gatherings at the time and someone mentioned to me that you were a musician. Perhaps another time…

  • Gary Butler

    I don’t recall the “accosting”, but I’ve certainly seen you around the place & I walk past your church on a fairly regular basis. As an unbeliever I’d feel a bit hypocritical playing for a church function, but it would really depend on what you wanted and whether I was available at the time. Even if it was something I couldn’t do I might know students who are available if you’re looking for musicians.

    • Brian Pember

      The ‘accosting’ was probably about 15 years ago. You have just got off the bus I think and I said G’day and introduced myself. Not all that memorable really.

      If the church you walk past is the one in William Avenue, it’s not mine. I was on the staff there for a few years so you can be forgiven in thinking that is where I am still. I now have a small faith community gathering at the Warilla North Community Centre.

      The last thing I would want you to do is something hypercritical; there is enough of that going on already. But a jam could be good! In regard to students, if you had any there were looking for a church and lived local to Warilla we would be happy to nurture them. It would be hypercritical of us to have people in just for their musical ability. If they were to be a part of our faith community, even as curious enquirers, we would try our best to grow them, including, but not restricted to their musical talents.

  • Gary Butler

    Warilla North? I thought you were a local! I’m disappointed now 🙂

    I’ll refer any (potential) Christians to you if you’ll refer any (potential) guitar students to me. Can’t say fairer than that.

  • Lainie

    ‘My actions will be accountability to the people I serve, we are all in this together”………..Well said my friend.

    Your desire to be able to not “cross the line in any way” and also your willingness to try separate the duties of a Councillor from the heart and soul of a Man of Faith is laudable.

    Knowing you this is achievable but It will certainly be difficult and many prayers go before you.

    It takes people to make a Community, it takes great Leaders to oversee Community and see that what needs to be done is done well by those who should be doing it.

    I have complete faith in your leadership abilities to be able to achieve this and know the asset you will be to Shellharbour should you become a Councillor.

    You will make a difference and you will see that all you set out to do is done to the utmost of your ability.

    Just be wary of not becoming obsequious in the process of the service you give to those you “serve” in the Community or you may be in danger of being used and hurt. I do not say this as a slur but as someone who knows you a little and cares. Guard your heart. (in all ways)

    I agree, we are all in this together but how many really seriously consider their personal position in Community let alone their own obligation to Community?

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