Facts on the Separation of Church & State

constI am an ordained Minister of the Word in the Uniting Church in Australia. I am also the elected member for The Park Ward on Mitcham Council.

I was asked recently how I justify my two positions in light of the doctrine of the separation of church and state. How can I be both an ordained Minister, and an elected representative in Local Government?

It’s a fair question, and goes to the heart of a profound misunderstanding many people have around the broader issue of faith and politics.

Let me explain.

I firmly agree with the separation of church of state. But frankly, it doesn’t really matter if I do or don’t. It’s not up to me, or indeed any one person. The separation of church and state is enshrined in Section 116 of the Australian Constitution:

The Commonwealth shall not make any law for establishing any religion, or for imposing any religious observance, or for prohibiting the free exercise of any religion, and no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.

For this reason, there is no established ‘Church of Australia’, like there is a Church of England.

The Anglican, Roman Catholic, Uniting, Baptist, Salvation Army and various Pentecostal denominations all have equal footing in Australia, and none have any claim to State authority.

Consider the alternative circumstance in England:

Their Head of State is (like ours) the Monarch, currently Queen Elizabeth II. She delegates the actual governing of the state to a Parliament through appointment of a Prime Minister, the person able to ensue a majority of votes in the House of Commons.

The Queen is also the Commander of the Armed Forces, and has the power to grant honours, make treaties and recognise States amongst other things.

Interestingly, however, she also has the power to appoint bishops and archbishops in the Church of England. This is because she is also officially the ‘Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England‘.

Consider this quote from her own website: “The connection between Church and State is also symbolised by the fact that the ‘Lords Spiritual’ (consisting of the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and 24 diocesan bishops) sit in the House of Lords. Parish priests also take an oath of allegiance to The Queen”.

Now, despite both the Australian and English Parliaments operating in the Westminster system of Government, their upper house – the House of Lords – differs slightly from our Australian Senate, in that our federated states elect equal numbers of Senators democratically, whereas in the House of Lords, they are appointed Peers – including the 26 Bishops.

Can you imagine a scenario in Australia where a portion of our Senate were automatically appointed Anglican Bishops? Or indeed, heads of any denomination?

It’s unthinkable. Our Constitution, like in the US, is deliberately written to contrast that situation.

Whilst in England last year I chatted about this with several people, all of whom were very comfortable with the expertise present in their House of Lords, and thankful for their considered view, despite not being elected. It’s a different situation to ours.

Our Head of State is also the Queen, represented by a Governor General, but our Constitution ensures no church has status or any privileged power in the State. We have an enshrined separation of church and state.

Which means any citizen has the right to participate in the public square, including clergy.

Indeed our Constitution goes even further – it also forbids a person from being disallowed from participation in the state because of their religion:

“..no religious test shall be required as a qualification for any office or public trust under the Commonwealth.”

There are several examples of where this has been exercised, one example being Brian Howe, Deputy Prime Minister from 1991 to 1995 in the Labor Government, who was a Uniting Church Minister.

Another example is Rev Tim Costello, who was Mayor of St Kilda from 1993 to 1996.

And people moving from the other way, from politics to church leadership, has precedent too – Don Hopgood was Deputy Premier of South Australia for six years, and then later became Moderator of the Uniting Church SA Synod from 1997-1999.

And former SA Premier Lyn Arnold is soon to be ordained in the Anglican Church.

Representatives of Churches, like those of business and a myriad of community organisations, are invited, like all citizens of Australia, to stand for democratic election and participate in the governing of our State.

In considering one’s vote, they should be evaluated like everyone else, on their values, experience, ability and performance.

Here’s a few reasons I love serving in Local Government.