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FAITH: Separation of Church and State

A column from Castlegar pastor Robin Pengelly
Robin Pengelly is the pastor of Castlegar United Church.

We hear the phrase “separation of church and state” over and over again in contemporary Canadian society. Well, I hate to break it to some folks, but that is a United States thing. We don’t actually have that in Canada, not legally anyway.

Since 1982, we have been guaranteed freedom of religion by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, but that same document also references the “supremacy of God.” So you are free to be atheist, but your government isn’t.

My own United Church of Canada, was established by an Act of Parliament in 1925. We receive no public funding, so in that regard, we are separate, but if we want to change anything in our founding documents, it literally takes another Act of Parliament. Politicians 100 years ago hoped that by having our own church, Canada would seem more sophisticated, like all those European Protestant countries that have them.

And speaking of national churches, presently, if you take public office, a government job, or become a Canadian Citizen through immigration, you are required to swear an oath of allegiance to the King. King Charles III also happens to be the head of the Church of England. Again, not much separation there.

Historically, religion and politics have been inseparable. In many countries, as well as some traditional Indigenous Canadian cultures, they still are. Perhaps the separation idea has gained popularity because our current Western understanding of politics is mainly concerned with gaining and maintaining power. This is very different from traditional Indigenous, Eastern, and ancient Greek understanding of politics as living a good life within the larger community.

That shift from community to power is where the gap widens between church and state for me. Jesus modelled the need to stand up to political systems which put power and the benefit of a few ahead of the well-being of all, even if standing up to power results in negative consequences for us as individuals. Christians owe no loyalty to any political party and need to resist divisive politics. Our loyalty is to God and our political aim is justice, not power over others.

To live in wholeness as individuals, we will never be able to separate our values and beliefs from the rest of what we do, including our politics. I’m glad to be a part of a country that allows the freedom for each of us to do that.

Robin Pengelly is the pastor of Castlegar United Church.

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