Archbishop's speech shows need for disestablishment

The latest address by the Archbishop of Canterbury to the Church of England's General Synod has confirmed the move toward a 'multi-faith settlement' for religion in terms of law and governance in the UK, the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia says.

Instead, Ekklesia suggests that the row over Dr Williams' remarks about civil and religious law highlights the need for disestablishment and a level-playing field for faith communities with other groups in civil society, distinct from the legislature, executive and judiciary.

It points out that the Archbishop sees his intervention concerning Sharia as resulting from being "looked to for some coherent voice on behalf of all the faith communities living here" as part of "the burden and privilege" of being an established Church.

Dr Williams also says his intent is "to raise a wider question about the relation between faith and law" in a context where organised Christianity is losing power, privilege and exemptions previously taken for granted.

Jonathan Bartley, co-director of Ekklesia, says: "The Archbishop has provided the clearest evidence yet that he realises that the special privileges and exemptions that the Church has enjoyed historically are no longer tenable."

"Rather than accepting what others might see as a welcome move toward greater equality and justice for all, the Church of England now seems to be wishing to explore whether special protection and exceptions might be extended to other religions too – for instance Dr Williams' recent claim in his James Callaghan Memorial Lecture that a blasphemy law protecting the Anglican faith might be replaced by a 'legal provision' to 'send a signal' about what was acceptable in terms of 'the general risks of debasing public controversy by thoughtless and, even if unintentionally, cruel styles of speaking and acting'."

"Such a wider restriction on free speech, together with the proposition that churches should be exempt from full equalities provisions when they are in receipt of taxpayers' money or contracts for delivering public services, goes far beyond the protection of the 'rights of conscience' Dr Williams cites," says Jonathan Bartley.

"Letting go of privilege is a far better witness to the Christian message than either clinging on to it, seeking to preserve it on a wider basis, or speaking for others rather than engaging them as equals," he adds.

Such equality can best be achieved by the Church of England ceasing to be established under the Crown, says Ekklesia.


For a specifically Christian argument, see: 'Giving up Establishment for Lent', by Simon Barrow -