The increasingly regular calls for proper debate about the disestablishment of the Church of England were renewed this week with a call for the severing of the Church-crown link by economist, Blair loyalist and leading Labour peer Lord Desai.
Lord Desai noted that disestablishment was the subject of a ‘great debate’ in the 19th century and said it was time this conversation was now ‘reopened’ in the light of falling church attendance figures and the increasingly plural and secular nature of English society.
The peer is himself a committed secularist, but many other calls for the Church to be set free have come from believers – including retired evangelical bishop Colin Buchanan, the Anglo-Catholic Jubilee Group, other senior clergy, and the religion and society think-tank Ekklesia, which argues that ceasing to be in tow to the powers-that-be could help the Church to become “more Christian” in its social stance.
“As society [changes]... we should really ask ourselves do we still need an established church and is an established church necessary anyway?” Lord Desai, aged 68, said.
But he showed his own commitment to the status quo in another way by adding that he did not believe the disestablishment would threaten the wealth and privilege of the Crown. “I have no problem about the monarchy whatsoever,” he declared.
The Indian-born economist, who is Professor Emeritus at the London School of Economics, follows government minister Phil Woolas’ call for change, which was immediately slapped down by the government and by former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey.
The Ministry of Justice has said that the Church of England is ‘by law’ established as the official Church in England with the Monarch as its Supreme Governor in all matters, temporal and spiritual.
“The Government remains committed to this position and values the establishment of the Church of England,” it declared.
A Church of England spokesperson said the government had ‘repeatedly’ stressed the value it placed on the establishment of the Church of England as something valued by people of all faiths and none.
He added: “The Church is honoured to perform this service to the nation which embraces a wide range of aspects - from the parish system and bishops in the House of Lords, to church schools and helping the nation mark important events.”
However, critics argue that Establishment gives the Church a sense of self-importance, an instinct to sympathise with the powerful, a dependence on the state and a status well beyond its actual size and influence.
They also point out that the capacity of the Church to serve whole communities spiritually and socially is in no way dependent on being tied to the Crown. Other churches that are not established maintain parish systems. The C of E is in fact the only state-sanctioned church in the whole worldwide Anglican Communion.
England is now the only Western democracy where unelected leaders from one denomination sit in a parliamentary chamber by right.
But both this and the controversial issue of church schools which are allowed by law to discriminate in matters of access and employment are technically separate from the question of Establishment, which is the specific Church link with the Crown.
“It appears that, oddly, even official C of E spokespeople do not understand the actual constitutional situation”, an ecclesiastical historian told Ekklesia. “This in itself may be an indication that change is needed.”
In an article published today on Ekklesia, which examines the radical stance of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus, leading biblical scholar Christopher Rowland, from the University of Oxford, says that the church is supposed to be “a community which bears witness in its practice and proclamation to the divine perfection of God’s kingdom — a goal of, and an environment and criterion for, present action. Such sentiments are not easily pursued when there is the kind of cosy relationship between church and state which we find throughout the history of Anglicanism.”
See: 'A kingdom, but not as we know it' - http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8020