Disestablishment may be back on the agenda as church feels pressure

By staff writers
February 17, 2008

Pressures from several directions are putting the disestablishment of the Church of England back on the agenda, say reports following the General Synod and concerns about the long term impact of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Sharia speech.

A survey of the Church's governing body found up to 63 per cent of members now believe the Church will be disestablished within a generation, says the Sunday Telegraph.

Labour MPs recently tabled a parliamentary Early Day Motion on the subject, a Home Office report some months back is reported to have expressed concern over the impact of Establishment on other sections of society, and there were some calls for the cutting of the Church-Crown link following the row about Dr Williams' comments on religious and civil law.

Now the Sunday Telegraph newspaper claims that senior Anglican bishops now fear that the Church of England's special link with the state is under threat following moves to end the prime minister's involvement in key clerical appointments.

[The Economist magazine has now also called for disestablishment - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6779 ]

The issue was discussed on BBC Radio 4's 'Sunday' programme, with Bishop of Liverpool James Jones and Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the Christian think-tank Ekklesia, which says that disestablishment would both free the Church to think more creatively about its role, reflect Gospel values of risk and identification with those at the margins, and assist moves away from privilege towards a level playing field.

Bishop Jones said that the Church of England has "a unique history and a unique place" within the nation, exists in all communities, and seeks to use its Established voice to speak on behalf of others, not just itself, as Dr Williams did last week.

Jonathan Bartley pointed out that privileges like unelected bishops in the Lords have been used to defend its institutional interests and to thwart equalities in public service provision, and that Christians are already hugely represented by elected members. "Why can't [the Church's members] use the 'normal channels' like everyone else?", he asked.

Telegraph religion reporter Jonathan Wynne-Jones claims today that "leading Anglican figures" have expressed concern at the long-term significance of a decision taken by the General Synod to give the Church the final say in choosing bishops, a process previously open to the scrutiny of the prime minister.

PM Gordon Brown has reassured the Church of England that it will not lose its established status as the country's official church, headed by the Queen as supreme governor and "defender of the faith".

But according to the newspaper, one bishop said "We should have been given a chance to discuss the issue before being presented with it as a fait accompli."

Jack Straw, the UK Justice Secretary, has also raised the possibility of Britain drawing up its first written constitution, which puts the status of the church and the relation of religion and governance back in the frame.

Under the proposed reforms, Mr Brown has surrendered the prime minister's right to choose between two names presented to him by the Church body responsible for choosing bishops, the Crown Nominations Commission.

Disestablishment is backed by secularists, who argue that with the great majority of people now not attending Church or putting Christian faith at the top of their life-shaping influences, a state religion is an anachronism.

Those favouring the move inside the church argue not just on the basis of fairness, but say that the C of E should take its fate into its own hands and stop seeking false comfort in its reliance on the status quo.

Some Anglican liberals fear that cutting the direct link with government might hand the Church over to hard-line evangelicals.

But others point out that the divisions in Anglicanism remain on both sides in the rest of the 71 million world-wide Communion - which is entirely disestablished, apart from the English church.

Radical Christians argue that the church should divest itself of overt privileges in order to bring its actions in line with its proclamation of Christ, who refused worldly power - not least in the Temptation story which gave rise to the current season of Lent.

See also: Simon Barrow, Giving up Establishment for Lent - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6774

Establishing fairness for church and society - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6780

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