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What is an Established Church?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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An established church is a church given special recognition by a national government. The church represents the official religious faith of the nation and receives support from the government, in a wide variety of forms from financial assistance to legal protections. Established churches can be seen in many regions of the world, although some nations, like the United States, have laws specifically prohibiting the creation of this type of church, in the interests of maintaining a separation between church and state.

Christian, Buddhist, and Muslim sects can all be seen in roles as established churches in nations like England, Bhutan, and Saudi Arabia. In nations with an established church, the head of government may also be the head of the church, and people may be required to follow the teachings of the church, although this is not always the case. In some regions, while the church enjoys official government recognition, many citizens are not among the faithful and do not attend church.

Some nations have adopted an existing religion as their established church, while others have established their own denominations. In cases where the state creates a church, the church cannot make changes in policy without consulting the state, and the state cannot change the laws pertaining to the church without discussing the matter with religious leaders. The Church of England is an example of a state church of this nature.

Acceptance of other faiths in nations with an established church varies. Some countries promote freedom of religious expression, allowing their citizens to practice any religions, or none at all, if that is their preference. They may also actively protect the right to worship any faith peacefully through laws and other measures. In other regions, religions or sects seen in conflict with the established church may be suppressed and people who belong to those groups may be persecuted. Historically, nations were sometimes quite brutal about their enforcement of religious faith, as seen during the Inquisition in Europe.

Some nations that once had established churches have chosen to abandon this type of church in the interests of protecting the clear divisions between church and state. In these countries, people are welcome to continue practicing the faith, but it is not longer recognized as the official church of the government. Nations have also changed allegiance, as seen in England when King Henry VIII broke with Roman Catholicism and established the Church of England.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By Terrificli — On Apr 02, 2014

@Markerrag -- that separation is very ingrained, but what does it mean? That has been up for debate, particularly in the 21st century. Does it mean that the state simply can't establish a national church? Does it mean that churches should have no input in government at all? Is the truth somewhere between those two extremes?

Courts have struggled with the phrase "separation of church and state" for years and will continue to do so. It is likely that concept may never been defined in black-and-white terms.

By Markerrag — On Apr 02, 2014

One of the founding principals of the United States was that established churches are a bad idea. Whether that notion is bad or not is up to debate, but the idea that U.S. citizens are free to worship -- or not -- as they please is not a right that people will are likely to let go without a fight.

Separation of church and state is, after all, very ingrained in the United States.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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