The Economist magazine, a highly influential English-language news and international affairs weekly, has come out in favour of the disestablishment of the Church of England and a clearer distinction between religion and governance.
The development follows interventions from a number of quarters in the aftermath of the Archbishop of Canterbury's controversial interview and speech on civil and religious law, including Anglican leaders reportedly worried about the impact of proposed changes to the appointment of bishops (which currently involves the Prime Minister), several MPs who have tabled an Early Day motion on disestablishment, secular groups who argue that privileging religion is unfair, and the Christian think-tank Ekklesia which says that Establishment inhibits the development of both a plural society and free faith.
In a leading article arguing that "religion should have a smaller official role in Britain, not a greater one", The Economist, which has a circulation of 1.2 million on both sides of the Atlantic and has sometimes been described as 'a bible' for those concerned with global finance and economy, says large-scale religious exceptionalism is a problem in public life.
The magazine notes: "The powers of the Church of England have been trimmed and privileges have been granted to other religions. Yet although a mere 1.7m people attend its services regularly, its special status endures. The queen is its head; Parliament approves its prayer book; and only last year did the prime minister relinquish the right to select its bishops, [some] of whom sit in the House of Lords."
Argues The Economist leader: "Faced with this anomaly, the archbishop proposes to expand the privileges of all religions. It would be better instead to curtail the entitlements of his one."
It continues: "It makes no sense in a pluralistic society to give one church special status. Nor does it make sense, in a largely secular country, to give special status to all faiths. The point of democracies is that the public arena is open to all groups—religious, humanist or football fans. The quality of the argument, not the quality of the access to power, is what matters. And citizens, not theocrats, choose."
But the magazine adds that "Disestablishing the Church of England does not mean that it has no public role to play... Let religion compete in the marketplace for ideas, not seek shelter behind special privileges. One law for all, with its enlightened insistence on tolerance and free speech, is not a “bit of a danger” [as Dr Williams appeared to suggest]. It is what underwrites the ability of all religions to go about their business unhindered."
The issue has been picked up by discussants on the Thinking Anglicans blog, which charts developments affecting the Church worldwide (http://www.thinkinganglicans.org.uk/).
Simon Barrow, co-director of the think-tank Ekklesia, commented: "The fact that a major commentator on global affairs like The Economist has raised the issue of disestablishment shows that it will not go away. One might disagree with the magazine's over-enthusiasm for market solutions in all spheres of life, but the alternative to an unjustifiably privileged position for the C of E under the Crown is not the rule of money but the positive development of free faith in civil society."
Ekklesia points out that the Church of England is now the only state church in the 71 million strong worldwide Anglican Communion, and that Britain is the only democracy in Europe where unelected leaders of one religious group are allowed to sit in the legislature as of right, rather than through usual electoral procedures.
It says that careful distinctions need to be made between Establishment (the formal link between Church and Crown) and other issues about the settlement of religion in society - including schools, public services, law and representation.
"Establishment creates an environment of privilege and exemption, but removing this does not automatically solve all other issues about religion. Rather, it provides a clearer distinction between voluntary association within civil society, in which faith groups have an important role to play alongside others, and formal mechanisms of governance which should aim at a level playing field for all - irrespective of differences of belief."
The think-tank also says that the Church contradicts its own founder's rejection of power and prestige when it seeks to secure special advantage for itself, and that this brings discredit on its message and standing in wider society.
"Defending something unfair and anachronistic in the interests of self-preservation hardly constitutes a positive witness to a Gospel which is supposed to be about the power of love overcoming the love of power," says Barrow.
Economist leader, 'Church and state - sever them': http://www.economist.com/opinion/displaystory.cfm?story_id=10689643
Simon Barrow, 'Giving up Establishment for Lent' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/6774