Mr. O’Keeffe’s case, however it may be decided, is the best marked illustration which has as yet presented the of the state of things which is practically inseparable from the adoption of the system of a free Church in a free State. The effect of it is, and of necessity must be, to make the relation between the different members of the Church one of contract, the contract being interpreted in all its terms by the ordinary tribunals. If the Arian and Athanasian controversy were to break out again in any Church so situated, the lay courts would have to decide whether either party could expel the other from their position and treat them as heretics. Of course a Church completely united in doctrine and sentiment has a force of its own independent of every other organization whatever, and intensely strong while it lasts as against all whom it affects at all. Such a force, however, does not usually last for any great length of time, and cannot in the nature of things continue after the point at which serious divisions of sentiment and opinion arise. When that point is reached the possession of the property and titles which are the outward and visible parts of a Church comes to be of the very highest importance. The person who is recognized by the law of the land as the proper bishop or priest is pretty sure in this age to be generally recognized in that capacity in the long run, and the recognition will be general in proportion to the degree of respect which popular opinion pays to the authority which decides the question.
This is perhaps the strongest, the most curious, and, when carefully considered, by far the most instructive and conclusive illustration which could be given of the application of the principles which we have frequently insisted upon as to the relation between Church and State and the real supremacy of the State. No doubt, when the State interferes directly with the education of the clergy, the whole internal organization of Churches, and the existence of religious orders and corporations, the principle is applied in a more glaring and obvious way; but there is something more decisive, because it is so much quieter and less conscious, in the attitude of States like our own and the United States in this matter. When Churches are treated simply as private associations, when they are put without dispute or remonstrance on the very same footing, say, as railway companies, the fact that they are subordinate to and dependent upon wider principles than those which they profess, that they are in the State and that the State is not in them, is impressed on the imagination of every one with a force and exactitude which cannot be exceeded. When a large number of rival Churches stand for all purposes upon precisely the same footing, it is, practically speaking, impossible for any one of them to pretend to an exclusive possession of true doctrine. The result of this in the long run may be to discredit them as a whole, and, by degrees, to attach increasing importance to the common maxims of the lay society which underlies and sustains them. This, however, is subject to the chance that the old theological passions may revive in their ancient force, and either in one of their old forms or in some new one may weld existing sects into one body and make them the rivals, or possibly the masters, of the State. Whether such an event is possible or not is a question which it is idle to discuss. It is one of the possibilities of history with which we may exercise our minds, though it appears at present too remote for serious attention.
We may observe, in conclusion, that to believe in this supremacy of the State over the Church, and to believe that it is important that the State should act upon distinct principles with regard to religion, is perfectly distinct from the opinion which has been attributed to us, with that want of intelligence which is probably due rather to a lack of sympathy than to a desire to misrepresent, that a "spiritual autocracy" on the part of the State ought to be substituted in England and America for the present state of things. The notion of "putting ourselves spiritually into the hands of Lord Palmerston or Mr. Disraeli, to say nothing of Mr. Gladstone," is as ludicrous in our eyes as it can be in the eyes of any one else, and as for America it would, if possible, be more absurd to make General Grant into a Pope than to confer that office on Mr. Gladstone. The governing power of a State may act on very definite religious principles though no statesman in it would ever think for a moment of exercising the slightest influence over theological controversy in any of its forms, or of interfering with the freest possible theological discussion. Both England and the United States, but especially the latter, do act on such a principle. Their principle is that theology is matter of opinion, and that it would be as inexpedient for Parliament to interfere with the discussion of theological questions as to interfere with the proceedings of the Geographical Society or the Political Economy Club. This, however, is in itself a theological opinion, and one of the very highest importance, and fraught with innumerable practical consequences. One of these consequences, as yet obscurely recognized, is that in reference to particular points -- such as the law of marriage and above all the laws relating to education -- the State, if it is to legislate at all, will have to legislate in favour of some and in opposition to other theological opinions. It will have to a limited but still to a decisive extent to take sides, and people may do this very effectually without degrading public bodies into theological schools. The difference between such a policy and that of the Germans and the Swiss is a difference, not so much of principle as of degree, due to the difference between the temper, the institutions, and the circumstances and position of England and America on the one hand, and those of Germany and Switzerland on the other. A thousand things are possible in either of the Continental nations which no rational person dreams of in relation to our own country or the United States.
Pall Mall Gazette, April 29, 1873.