Through the turbulent years of the seventeenth century, there was much debate over whether England should retain a monarchy or become a republic, and much of that debate was conducted with guns and swords. But the divide was not simply one of Monarchist vs. Republican; it was also a divide based on religious convictions about the function of church in society. Those who opposed Charles I were known as Puritans and Independents, and they believed in freedom of religion, in the right of a person to choose their own faith rather than having it imposed upon them by the state-sanctioned church.
The founder of the Baptist movement, Thomas Helwys, had written to King James in 1612 in what has been hailed as the first manifesto for human liberty to be written in English. In this letter, he argued that a person’s religious conviction is between themselves and God, and that the King may not judge or dictate this. Interestingly, he argued not only for this freedom for himself, but also for the atheist, the Muslim, and the Jew: freedom for one must be freedom for all. The refusal of the monarchy to permit religious toleration led to persecution for Baptists and many fought with Cromwell, taking up the rallying cry, ‘We have no King but Jesus!’
Many contemporary Christians from within the ‘Free Churches’ retain this suspicion of monarchy, not merely from convictions around democracy and unelected rulers, but also in opposition to the ongoing collusion between church and state. The people of King Jesus should be free to prophetically speak truth to power, to critique the offices of state, not bound to them in law and liturgy. For those Christians who hold these convictions, the anointing of an English monarch in a cathedral by an archbishop is an anachronism that harks back to a more sinister time.
Rev Dr Simon Woodman is currently Minister of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church and Baptist Chaplain at King’s College London. He is a Trustee of the Christian Enquiry Agency. Previously Simon was a lecturer at Cardiff University and Tutor and Acting Principal at South Wales Baptist College.