An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church

Establishment of Religion

An arrangement in which a religion or a particular religious institution enjoys official status and the state may enforce conformity. The establishment of Christianity began with Constantine the Great (d. 337) who first tolerated Christianity instead of persecuting it, and then later actively sought to make it the official religion of the Roman Empire. Established Christianity was understood as ordering the ends of the state as well as providing for the salvation of individuals. It was expected to legitimate the authority and actions of the state. This was expressed in the duty of Christians to fight for the preservation and ends of the state and in the duty of the state to suppress and punish false religion and doctrine. In terms of faith, Christianity became less a matter of conscious decision and commitment and more a matter of birth and assimilation into the surrounding culture. No longer was there a process of initiation (the catechumenate) in preparation for adult baptism. Instead, all citizens were baptized at birth so that “Christian” became just another word for citizen. In this context, religious orders became “a higher way” which transcended the roles and relations of citizen to state and thereby at times challenged the authority of the state. With the Protestant Reformation and a renewed sense of the individual decision of faith, the increase of religious bodies, and the rise of the nation-state seeking to secure itself amidst competing religious bodies, establishment of religion gave way to religious freedom. This change ultimately led, in fact if not in principle, to the secular state. Anglicanism follows this development, moving from exclusive establishment at the time of the English Reformation, to increased religious toleration, to an established church in a secular state. Although the Church of England continues as an established church, the Anglican Communion worldwide is seen as a denomination whose churches are spread throughout the world by voluntary membership apart from the efforts of the state.

Glossary definitions provided courtesy of Church Publishing Incorporated, New York, NY,(All Rights reserved) from “An Episcopal Dictionary of the Church, A User Friendly Reference for Episcopalians,” Don S. Armentrout and Robert Boak Slocum, editors.