THE QUESTION OF whether, why and how the Church of England should be disestablished (and what this means) may seem a rather quaint one, especially given the other ructions facing the increasingly disunited kingdom we are part of right now. But I believe it still matters, because it goes to the heart of the systems of privilege and inequality that obtain in the relationship between subjects (who should be citizens) and their governing institutions across these islands.
It also concerns, inter alia, the way in which Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are required to live with archaic constitutional and political frameworks which continue to disadvantage them. And of course it deeply effects how belief (religious and non-religious) is handled, heard, contested and respected within and between our communities.
For its part, Ekklesia has advocated the disestablishment of England’s Anglican Church for a full twenty years now, and my own involvement in these debates goes back at least that long – encompassing a book entitled Setting the Church of England Free: The Case for Disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2001) edited by the social theologian Kenneth Leech, which I contributed to and helped to publish and launch. During that time I had also moved from being an adviser in adult education for Southwark Diocese to become a commission secretary and assistant general secretary of Churches Together in Britain and Ireland. So I have viewed, experienced and participated in the debate from various vantage points.
What is Establishment, and why disestablish?
At the outset, it is important to be absolutely clear what Establishment is and what it isn’t. The term has a very specific reference. It means that the Church of England is subject to the Crown and given a certain position in relation to the state by the Crown, in law. Other privileges – such as retaining bishops in the House of Lords, the expansion of Church schools which are allowed to discriminate on the basis of religion or belief in selection and employment (something which Ekklesia has opposed), and the claim of certain Church leaders to be “speaking on behalf of the nation” may be argued to flow from Establishment, but they are not Establishment itself. The mechanism of Establishment, by which just one Church from just one nation claims an official place in the parliamentary and legal framework of the UK, is in that sense a technical matter – but, as such, it is perhaps best thought of as a key, opening the door to other advantages and giving the Church of England a privileged place overall.
The clear case against Establishment can be made (and I would argue needs to be made) on both secular and theological grounds. First, the existence of a state church (and especially a state church from just one part of the UK) is, even in an attenuated form, deeply anomalous within a modern plural democracy which is, in a whole series of respects, best described as a ‘mixed belief’ society, and which aspires to equality for all people whatever their belief or non-belief. That is especially the case when practising church membership amounts to a million or so people in a country with a population of 56 million. Yes, Church of England churches do extensive good work in their communities, but so do other belief and non-belief communities, and none of that needs to depend upon constitutional privilege. Not one second of it.
Second, Establishment leads to a situation where leaders of one church in one nation sit in an unelected chamber and help determine the laws governing people whose own multi-faith and secular nations owe no allegiance to the Church of England. Sometimes, indeed, they have used those very positions to push back against equality legislation with which they disagree, to the detriment of many others (including LGBTQIA+ Christians, I might add). Bishops in the Lords also advocate for fine causes around homelessness, refugees and poverty, of course. But that does not justify their ability to legislate on behalf on four nations without election, or any real accountability outwith their own institution. No other modern democracy allows such a thing.
In fact in 2010, as part of the Power 2010 initiative promoting political reform, Ekklesia suggested that people write to bishops in the Lords, asking them whether they agreed that in future it would be appropriate that they should be elected/nominated in the same way as everyone else (rather than being there by right), and further enquiring what proposals they would make to achieve a properly democratic, accountable second chamber. Thousands of letters were sent. Virtually none of those who received them replied. No proposals were offered back, and we were told that members of the public politely calling legislators to account like this was ‘bullying’. On the contrary, it was responsible and appropriate, but perhaps illustrated the extent to which privilege creates presumption, especially when it chooses to hide behind a rhetoric of service that avoids confronting self-interest and isolation from a wider public.
The Christian case against an Established Church
Moving on, the Anglican churches in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it should be noted, are all disestablished. Indeed, the only Established Church in the entire, world-wide Anglican Communion, which claims 85 million adherents across 15 provinces, is in England. This makes it an anomaly even within its own global family, as well as an obvious relic and hangover of a colonial era and mindset which in other respects people recognise needs to be moved on from – and in most cases actively repented of. (When the worldwide Communion meets, in non-pandemic times, it is to Canterbury that it is required to travel. This centripetality is often justified in terms of ‘special status’, as well as the precedent of history.)
Speaking from a dissenting Christian viewpoint, the kind of earthly power, privilege and wealth embodied in Established status seems to me to stand in direct contradiction to the life and being of Jesus – who proclaimed and enacted good news to the poor, whose mother sang joyfully of the mighty being tumbled from their thrones, whose death was engineered by an fatal alliance of interests in state and religion, and whose earliest followers were seen as directly subversive of Empire, militarism, domination and the ethics of Caesar.
In other words, from where I stand, the whole culture and status of Establishment (including the confused and dangerous notion of preserving a ‘Christian nation’, which often accompanies it) is inimical to the levelling dynamic of a Gospel which is based on the power of love overturning the love of power. Establishment is, you could say, a residual manifestation of the fading functionalism of a top-down Christendom order; one which has prevailed for 1700 years, and through which churches sought protection, privilege and temporal power in exchange for blessing the powers that be and sacralising unequal, monarchical, violent systems.
By contrast, disentangling the Church from state and Crown would enable it to negotiate its own future, to stand on its own feet, to question its easy association with the establishment in a broader sense, and perhaps to speak out more boldly (and with integrity, rather than apparent hypocrisy) on issues such as wealth, poverty and power. These are matters which both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures devote a very considerable amount of attention to, advocating on behalf of the disenfranchised. Equally, non-Anglicans have said to me, it would free them from the Church of England as a quietly but persistently dominating and ‘clubbable’ force in many areas of life. It might also enable more effective pressure and scrutiny for reform in vital areas such as safeguarding and abuse – where independent regulation and Mandatory Reporting is surely long overdue. (On that, see Letters to a Broken Church.) It ought certainly to strengthen the hand of those many church members, lay and ordained, whose understanding of the Christian message is egalitarian rather than functionalist.
How would disestablishment be achieved?
So how can disestablishment take place? The legal mechanism required could actually be quite straightforward. Iain MacLean, Nuffield scholar and Professor of Politics at the University of Oxford, set out a straightforward, brief Bill to affect it some years ago, referenced in his book What’s Wrong with the British Constitution? (Oxford University Press, 2012). The real problem is not disestablishment per se (whatever the ecclesiastical fixers defending it might try to tell you), it is untangling a complex web of property and investment rights tied to the Crown and to the current status of the Church. It also needs to be understood that disestablishment would not automatically end the right of bishops to sit and legislate in the House of Lords, or lead to meaningful reform of faith schools (for example), though it would most likely be part of a process that triggered necessary changes in those areas, too. Indeed, it would be hard to see how this could not be the case.
In short, Establishment is not, and never can be, a lone issue. It is part of a wider architecture involving the monarchy, the Lords, an unwritten constitution, the reserved powers of religion in public education, and other archaic features of the present UK landscape. However, while the Liberal Democrat, Labour and Conservative parties at Westminster are rushing around desperately trying to defend the Union as it now is from rebels like me in Scotland (I made Scotland my home eleven years ago), it seems to me that there is little chance that there will be any appetite for the supposedly niche cause of disestablishment, which on closer examination turns out to be part of a stack of institutional cards that is looking increasingly fragile and which may be seen as posing a far wider threat to the status quo.
Equally, there seems to me to be vanishingly little chance of a genuinely reforming government at Westminster taking power in the near future, I am afraid. In this context, the liberal instincts of a party which has trodden closer to the disestablishment cause in England than any other are likely to be overcome, as they have been in the past, by the desire to preserve many other aspects of the current UK status quo, notwithstanding a commitment to electoral reform – with which I heartily agree, on moral as well as political grounds. All that said, there is never a time when it is wrong to consider what is right, even if political conditions and expediency make it (in this case, disestablishment) unlikely in the immediate future. And we should never forget that change can come in unexpected ways – but only if we press for it.
Where this leaves us for the time being, I think, is in a position whereby the cultural and social ‘disestablishing’ of the Church of England will continue within the nation of which it is a much smaller part than it was half a century or more ago, while the mechanisms that give it exaggerated national status are maintained (but look increasingly shaky). This highlights the fact that Establishment is, in reality, a culture and a set of consequential relations, as much as it is a technical or legal question.
A ‘common wealth’ alternative for churches and nations?
From my point of view it is the vision of a Commonwealth of the British Isles, confederally linking independent nations (England, Scotland and Wales) and more autonomous regions, which could genuinely afford the opportunity not just to undo Establishment and other unreformed aspects of the current UK polity, but to replace them with something better, more imaginative, more equal and more thoroughgoingly civic. But that, I realise, may be seen as a controversial take from ‘the Celtic fringe’, and part of a much larger conversation.
What seems clear from where I am located now is that the anomaly of an Established Church in England (and the harmful subservience to certain forms of power and privilege it creates in a much wider sense), while important in its own right, is most likely to be confronted creatively as part of a far larger unravelling and re-ravelling within and among the institutions of which it is currently part.
We should therefore be clear that the alternative to an imperial church form (such as a church that gains its prestige and influence from a hereditary Monarchy) is a ‘common wealth church’ seeking freedom and equality for all. In the same way, the alternative to a struggling union state is a genuine partnership of independent but inter-dependent equals – one that seeks to balance the legitimate requirements of self-determination with the imperative in a global and threatened world towards deeper mutuality and collaboration.
In that spirit, what now characterises itself as *the* Church *of* England would need to discover what it could mean to become *a* church *in* England, promoting and offering its message and activity alongside others, as part of civil society, without fear or favour. That is surely much healthier for all of us, and fits with a pattern of a plural secularity that seeks to preserve the liberty of each by eschewing advantage for a few in the search for the common good of the many.
© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia.
This is an expanded version of a contribution made on behalf of Ekklesia to a discussion of Establishment/disestablishment as part of a Spring Conference event hosted by Humanist and Secularist Liberal Democrats (HSLD), with the participation of people from various belief backgrounds, an MP and a member of the House of Lords. (Ekklesia exists independently of both political parties and religious bodies.)