Giving up Establishment for Lent

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
17 Feb 2008

One of the things about being in a position of privilege over many, many years is not just that you take it for granted, but that it seems perfectly and inviolably "natural". Indeed having your position at the top table questioned feels like an affront to your dignity and a threat to your security - as it no doubt did for Jesus' disciples when they were rebuked by him for putting themselves first.

Bishop of Liverpool James Jones spoke effusively of the "unique position" and responsibility of the Church of England on BBC Radio 4 this morning ('Sunday', 17 February 2008). Indeed, if I counted right, he used the word "unique" on four occasions within three minutes, claiming that the Establishment of his Church under the Crown and the presence of 26 unelected bishops in the (equally unelected) House of Lords was a perfectly beneficent arrangement that gave it a "unique opportunity" to speak on behalf of others in a goodly way. Who could possibly object to something so harmless, wholesome and reasonable?

But the whole point is that people, especially those at the margins, should surely be able and allowed to speak for themselves, and to do so on the basis of equality, rather than to be put in a position where they have to rely on the charity of bishops -- especially when, as my colleague and friend Jonathan Bartley gently but forcefully pointed out, those bishops sometimes discharge the "burden and responsibility" (Rowan Williams) of being the state church by using their parliamentary voting rights to thwart public equalities legislation and exempt themselves from it. [1]

The point is not that the C of E doesn't do any good, but that the good it does do does not have to rely on claiming a special status, and that the special status limits and sometimes undermines the good it does, as well as its standing with others who believe in fairness and freedom. From the viewpoint of those who see the anomaly of Establishment very clearly, those not tucked away within its councils, this point is rather evident. For those who form part of the Establishment the criticism is most puzzling, and usually met with blank astonishment - together with lavish claims about their ("unique") goodness which just sound more and more patronising and out-of -touch, frankly. Oh, to see ourselves as others see us. Very painful.

What we seem to have at the moment in England is "creeping disestablishment", going back to the time of the nineteenth century Reform Acts, some would say. But it is a long and drawn out process that is not really enabling the Church of England, and others in its slipstream, to take a different destiny by the horns. The reason this constitutional arrangement needs to go is that, apart from being unfair and unsustainable in a plural democratic society (no other modern European democracy has unelected church leaders in its legislature), it actively insulates the Church from reality (maybe the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent embarrassment is an example of this), and puts it in a societal position which the one it proclaims as its Lord and Saviour deliberately avoided.

Jesus, born into vulnerability rather than privilege, took the path of downward mobility to move among those rejected, despised and marginalised by overbearing religion and unjust political rulers. They conspired to kill him. He was vindicated not by an earthly fiat, but by the unboundedness of God's transforming, life-giving love.

That narrative lies at the very heart of the Gospel. It is what promises to change our lives and to bring us into a new kind of community, the ekklesia of equals. It is about foot-washing and communion, not reserved seats and banquets for the few.

Indeed, during the season of Lent the contradiction between the Church seeking the preservation of privilege and Christ disdaining it is especially marked and poignant, because we look back to Jesus' 40 days and nights in the wilderness, refusing the devilish blandishments of power, status and instant solutions. Ouch.

Would it be too much to ask the Church of England to give up Establishment for Lent (and then for good), to rediscover its vocation and evangel alongside people; existing with them, not in a protected zone; speaking with them not for them? At the moment it would. But it is right that some of us go on asking, no matter how unpopular or puzzling it is - even to bishops like James Jones, who has shown courage and dignity in other respects.

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(c) Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. His blog can be found here: http://faithinsociety.blogspot.com/ He contributed a chapter called 'Beyond the rhetoric of establishment' to the book Setting the Church of England Free, edited by Kenneth Leech (Jubilee Group, 2002). Simon is an Anglican, a member of a parish in Exeter, and has worked as an adviser in adult education and training for the Church of England, as well as collaborating and consulting on many church-community projects.

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NOTE

[1] Bishops in the House of Lords follow from Establishment, which is the constitutional link between Church and Crown. The two are technically distinct, but effectively connected. The same applies to other privileges, exemptions and financial advantages granted to the Established Church.

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