Lord Carey of Clifton, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, believes that the Church of England should push for disestablishment if the government opts for a wholly-elected second chamber – according to Times religion correspondent Ruth Gledhill, writing in this week’s Church of England Newspaper and on her weblog.
Dr Carey, a leading figure on the conservative wing of the church, is the latest in a line of former church leaders of different persuasions who favour ending the official state link through the crown. They include former Bishop of Birmingham Mark Santer, former Bishop of Durham David Jenkins, and former Archdeacon of York George Austin.
Present Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was in favour of a disestablished church when he was in Wales and during his time as an academic. But commentators say that he seems to have fallen in line with the Lambeth consensus since his elevation.
Others who have spoken out for change in recent times include evangelical former Bishop of Woolwich Colin Buchanan, a long-term campaigner; radical Anglo-Catholics and others associated with the Jubilee Group; and the think-tanks Ekklesia, Demos and the Fabian Society.
Ms Gledhill says that Lord Carey told her: “If the Government goes for a wholly elected second chamber it will present the church and nation with a major crisis. Why should the church submit to the Prime Minister's intervention in the appointment of bishops if they have no place in parliament? If the church has any sense of pride it will push for disestablishment if the 100 per cent option wins the day.”
He continued: “If other options prevail the Church should accept without complaining a drop from 26 bishops to say 16. After all, the presence of bishops is rarely more than 4 or 5. If bishops are excluded from the second chamber it seems to me that the next target will be the monarchy."
On 7 March 2007 MPs surprised some observers by voting for a wholly elected House of Lords, something that Charter 88 and others have been pushing for. It is suspected that tactical voting by opponents may have helped.
But then a week later the House of Lords defied the Commons by supporting a 100 per cent nominated second chamber, with four bishops, including Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, voting against the democratic option and for the preservation of their own unelected presence.
Reasons for favouring disestablishment vary. Some see it as a matter of getting the church to stand on its own feet or "setting it free" (as in Magna Carta). Many, including secularists and humanists, perceive it as a necessity in a plural society where no one faith or belief system should hold sway. Yet others argue on Christian grounds that the church being embedded in a privileged institution is incompatible with the leveling message of the gospel.
At official level the Church of England, which is now the only established church in the 78 million worldwide Anglican Communion, has tried to thwart a major debate about disestablishment – seeing the current arrangement as part of its own preservation.
Critics argue that in tying itself to an anachronism the Church is in fact stifling creativity and harming its reputation.