Disestablishment debate back in the spotlight

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
27 Nov 2012

On several occasions during the course of the General Synod’s tortured, inconclusive nine-hour debate on provisions for accepting women as bishops in the established Church, speakers rose to say that what was being discussed mattered to England as a whole, not just to the Church of England.

Unexpectedly, given the stifled yawn that the Church’s legislative body usually evokes, they proved right. Rarely if ever has a Synod vote, particularly a negative one, produced such an outpouring of national anguish as this one. What woke both the Church and the wider public from their presumed mutual ease was a dramatic illustration of just how far the cultural and moral assumptions of the two have drifted apart. For most people, Christian or otherwise, continuing to deny full equality to half the human race seems extraordinarily retrogressive.

As Dr Rowan Williams conceded in his archiepiscopal swansong, an institution whose whole identity is built upon the idea of being a ‘national church’ now appears, both inside and outside its structures, to be “wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities of that wider society.” The result is a fresh round of discussions about church-state relations and the wider settlement of the Church of England in national life, forged on the linchpin of establishment – the arrangement by which the Queen remains its supreme governor in matters temporal and spiritual.

Though the Church of England is now the only church within these islands and within the 80 million strong worldwide Anglican Communion which is still by law established, and though this has often been questioned as an archaic privilege in an increasingly plural age, there has hitherto been little political enthusiasm to pursue disestablishment. Once the dust has settled on the Church’s embarrassment at being temporarily thwarted by a hard-line minority over women bishops, it remains to be seen whether anything different will happen this time.

The Church itself has remained fiercely protective of what it sees as its solidifying, pastoral role in society. It argues that it can act as a reminder that there is a higher authority than politicking to which public life needs to be held to account, that an Established church can usefully reflect the concerns of religion and morality more widely in a mixed-belief society, and that its significant voluntary contribution to civic society and an expanding role in education under governments of all stripes merit continuing recognition within the country’s unwritten constitutional settlement. This remains the case, establishment's supporters argue, in spite of the falling numbers and financial challenges that have afflicted the Church in recent years, which means that around a million people (out of a population of 50 million) consistently attend its weekly services.

Scepticism is growing, however, and has reached a new peak this past week. Tony Baldry, the second church estates commissioner, the official link between the church and parliament, has had to resist calls for measures to compel the Church of England to change its mind over women bishops. Archbishop-designate Justin Welby has been summoned to meet MPs and peers. Shadow immigration minister Chris Bryant, a former priest, has called for a moratorium on more male bishops. A petition has been set up on the government’s e-democracy website asking for bishops to be removed from the Lords unless women are consecrated. The hitherto low-key Ecclesiastical Committee, which gives the parliamentary stamp of approval to legislation arising from the established Church, may yet be called into action.

The parliamentary and legal fabric that embeds the Church of England as the ‘national church’ remains obscure and complicated. A bill to effect disestablishment is achievable, as Iain McLean FBA, Professor of Politics at Oxford University and author of What's Wrong with the British Constitution? (OUP, 2009), has argued. It is untangling investments and property rights that could be the nightmare. Other matters, such as reform of the second chamber, are technically separate from the relationship of the Church to the Crown but remain part of its symbolic orbit.

Proponents of de-linking Church and state argue that it would enable both sets of institutions to tackle their own issues without having to take on responsibilities for which neither is equipped. The government should not have to resolve theological disputes within the Church. The Church should not have to make decisions about its own polity and policy on the basis of what is expedient to politicians. The real issue here concerns the ramifications of establishment within a wider social framework.

The courts have already ruled that a Church of England parish is not a “public authority” subject to the public sector equality duty laid down in the Equality Act 2010. This prevents it being forced to marry an otherwise-qualified same-sex couple in the interests of religious freedom. But if the Church of England is no more a public authority than any other faith community, why should it be treated any differently to them? Similarly, why should the government’s decision about what partnerships should be recognised by law, or whether same-sex couples should be able to marry, be dependent upon the Church’s decision to bless or withholding blessing from some or any of those relationships? True freedom of belief, conscience and religion for all not only permits but also requires the disestablishment of the Church and the removal of as-of-right places for its bishops from the UK’s legislature.

Setting the Church of England free would be in its own interests, too. The Christian religion’s claim to truth and authority resides neither in state nor market, but in systems of belief and community which it should be capable of developing through bodies that are part of civic society. Even veteran left-winger Tony Benn believes that it is wrong for the Church of England to remain a quasi-nationalised utility.

The furore about General Synod’s logjam over women bishops shows that the Church has a huge job to recapture public imagination, respect and trust. Its witness and value will be considerably strengthened if it proves able to do the things it aims to be good at without demanding the special privilege establishment confers.

Other roles that establishment buttresses, such as the Church’s presumption to speak on behalf of others, or the wish to discriminate in favour of its own in education, are unpalatable relics of a fading cultural hegemony which it would be best to leave behind for the sake of the Gospel message.

See also:

* Time to set church and state free: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17457

* More on disestablishment from Ekklesia: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/disestablishment

* The People of God and the State in the Bible: a Disestablishing Agenda, Professor Chris Rowland - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8020

* Disestablishing the kingdom, the Rev Tom Hurcombe - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8138

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© Simon Barrow is co-director of the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia. This is a slightly modified version of an article that appeared in The Times newspaper on 24 November 2012, entitled ‘Is it time for the link between Church and State to be broken?’ and on the corresponding website as ‘Is it time to part Church and State?’ (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/faith/article3609978.ece). The author now lives in Scotland, but was an active member of the Church of England for 40 years. He was adviser in adult education and training in the Diocese of Southwark from 1991-1996, and edited a collection of essays on that experience entitled Expanding Horizons: Learning to be the church in the world (SBCS, 1995). His essay 'Beyond the rhetoric of establishment' is published in (ed.) Kenneth Leech, Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2001). He has also edited and written several chapters in Fear or freedom? Why a warring church must change (Shoving Leopard, 2008).

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