For about the first 300 years of its existence, it was possible to speak of one Christian church.
Then along came Roman Emperor Constantine, who decided Christianity would serve as a better unifying force in the empire than Manichaeism or the cult of various Greco-Roman gods. He put crosses on his soldiers' shields and Christianity, with its history of being persecuted and long list of martyrs, suddenly became the official religion of a state.
From then until recently, state churches were the norm in Europe. Ostensibly, being the official religion meant state protection and a privileged status in society. But as many soon learned, a state church is a captive church. The church was no longer free to name its own bishops without interference from kings, princes, and prime ministers. Governments that collected church taxes could influence church policies and decide church doctrine on political, rather than theological, grounds.
It was all very corrupting. Instead of the representative of the Christ on earth, the church became an arm of the state bureaucracy. Church officials meddled in state affairs as often as the state meddled in theirs. And perhaps worst of all, the state church, which had itself been the victim of so much terrible persecution, became the organ of state persecution of Jews and other non-Christians, of so-called "heretics" and "nonconformists," and of those who persisted in indigenous beliefs, in Europe or elsewhere.
As the church split into churches, especially during the Reformation, this relationship began to weaken. Feudalism faded, democracy put forth tender shoots, and European societies became more pluralistic, making state religion less and less tenable. Not only did the United States prove that churches could survive without state support (and control) - Americans showed that religion thrives when it is free of state shackles.
Although all of Western Europe is democratic these days, state churches still persist in a few countries, most notably Britain. But on Jan. 1, Sweden became the latest nation to begin disestablishing its state church: Over the next four years, the Lutheran Evangelical Church of Sweden and the state will disentangle themselves to a significant degree. Children born of one Lutheran parent are no longer automatically church members. Large amounts of property will be divided up. Church budgets, supported by state-collected taxes, will be trimmed. The king no longer must be a Lutheran. By 2000, the church will appoint its own bishops.
The Church of England would do well to keep an eye on the process. Many English men and women are nominal members of the state church. But as in Sweden, church attendance is extremely low and the majority of the people are at best apathetic to a state church they are forced to support.
Contrast this with those countries where church and state are separated and church membership and support are voluntary. In the US and Canada, religious practice flourishes, and church participation is more the norm than the exception.
Society also benefits from disestablishment as members of minority Christian churches and non-Christians gain more freedom of religion and more freedom from state interference with their religious beliefs. In Britain, questions such as those raised by the possible divorce and remarriage of the Prince of Wales would become moot.
The transition to freedom will be challenging for the Swedish church as it would be for the Church of England. Membership is likely to seek a lower, natural level, but members will be far more committed to their church than is now the case. Even so, churches have nothing to fear from disestablishment. Indeed, they have everything to gain.