Time to Split Church From State

It’s an emotive time of year for the subject to have once again come up, but I’m going to confront it head on: the Anglican Church should, for everyone’s benefit, be disestablished from being a component of the British state.

That wasn’t so hard. Even the current Archbishop of Canterbury has acknowledged that the world wouldn’t come to a grinding halt if the church he leads (albeit barely). In his interview with the New Statesman he said:

“The answer’s yes.” He went on: “Because I grew up in a disestablished Church; I spent ten years working in a disestablished Church; and I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.”

Yet he was clear that ultimately it is not on the agenda. “At the same time, my unease about going for straight disestablishment is to do with the fact that it’s a very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society. I think the motives that would now drive disestablishment from the state side would be mostly to do with . . . trying to push religion into the private sphere, and that’s the point where I think I’d be bloody-minded and say, ‘Well, not on that basis.'”

An interesting point – that the church itself would benefit by losing the constraints it too has by being part of the state. I don’t however think there will ever be a ‘right’ time for doing so, and I don’t think the motives for wanting to do so are chiefly dictated by a desire to push religion into an exclusively private sphere. The split should happen now. When I attended this summer’s lecture by Bishop Gene Robinson, he made an unequivocal case that the church could and should have a leading role in pushing social change forward in this country, and his argument made a great deal of sense. Where the government and lobbying organisations are effective at changing laws, they are notoriously bad at bringing attitudes up to date as quickly. The Anglican Church is uniquely well positioned to act as the other half of that equation, but as long as it exerts privileges as an arm of the state, merely on the grounds of belief, I don’t believe it can do anything other than interfere and muddy the waters. The Telegraph argues otherwise:

The Archbishop of Canterbury is formally enshrined as the moral conscience of the state, a role that can sometimes be as deeply vexing to politicians as it is welcome, but that always bears the stamp of a long-held authority. Indeed, with growing co-operation between the faiths, the Archbishop of Canterbury is ever more likely to raise issues of pressing concern to a number of British spiritual leaders, and not simply members of the Church of England.

I can see where they’re coming from, but I don’t think Rowan Williams is understood to speak for anyone; in this day and age such authority and political legitimacy can only come from elected representatives. Even members of his own Church are increasingly disinclined to acknowledge his authority. Although his views are often highly regarded, I don’t believe Rowan Williams or any future Archbishop of Canterbury speaks for the nation, at least no more than the Queen does. While she remains head of state, she at least can lay claim to speaking out (and annually at that) from tradition if nothing else; not so the Archbishop. Inter-faith cooperation is happening independently of bishops sitting in the House of Lords, and would no doubt be strengthened by them setting their sights on community and not meddling in legislation:

the establishment is a great deal more than how the Queen gets crowned or who sits in the House of Lords. From the church’s perspective, at its heart is the idea that I, as a parish priest, am at the service of my parish and not just my congregation. Church of England churches are not religious clubs run for the benefit of members. We are – at best – a focus for the entire community. We serve religious and non-religious alike.

Terry Sanderson argues that way lies self-destruction:

Without the support of the state and left to its own devices, the Church of England would be dead and gone within decades, ripped apart by its own internal rivalries and left penniless by the indifference of the population.

But I’m not sure I agree with that either. Church attendance may be down, but the population certainly isn’t indifferent to religion. I would argue it’s Anglicanism’s loss of focus on the community which has crashed its popularity – Islam certainly isn’t doing badly, nor is African Christian church attendance. Split church from state and its internal rivalries will no doubt become more vociferous, but modernisers will also have an entirely free hand with which to reform the organisation and make it more relevant for the 21st century.

If the Church however is to remain part of the State, it needs to get its house in order – as does the state. Gene Robinson was quite right earlier in the year when he said it was madness for an established Church to be allowed to discriminate. If it’s to remain an established institution, it needs to live up to the ideals of equality and diversity which now characterise the modern state: it’s time for the institution’s inherent misogyny and homophobia to go, whatever the cost. The New Statesman believes:

Against the odds, Williams succeeded in raising the sights of his church beyond the destructive, inescapable issues of sexuality and gender, despite the best efforts of extremists on both sides to disrupt the ten-yearly Lambeth Conference, over which he presided in late summer.

He did nothing of the sort. Traditionalist extremists for the most part refused to attend, and he personally banned Gene Robinson from taking part, if not actually attending. While church is still part of state Archbishop Williams clearly judges his hands perversely to be tied to conservatism and tradition. Oddly it seems likely that were disestablishment actually to happen he would likely behave in a less subservient manner to the bigots in his organisation. In order to save the Church of England and allow it to evolve into the organisation it needs to be for the 21st century, it needs to be freed. Is it, as he implies in the initial quote, British parliamentarians who cause such a privately liberal man to behave in such a publicly illiberal way? Perhaps, but liberal Anglicans would argue it might also be a weakness of leadership which causes him to pander to regressive elements in the Communion.

Either way in an age of freedom, democracy and accountability, an organisation based entirely on faith and belief should not be allowed to operate as a component of the state. The ability to inhibit social change based entirely on faith and belief is a horrible anachronism which must be ended.  The Anglican Church’s voice undoubtedly needs to be heard, but on its own terms for the first time, with the freedom to stand up for morality worldwide.

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2 responses to “Time to Split Church From State

  1. I tend to agree with Terry Sanderson. As soon as the CofE loses state support it will wither away. My only concern is the vacuum will be filled by a more pernicious strain of the Christianity virus!

  2. It risks that of course. The CofE and Williams are under pressure from Anglican extremism throughout the world, but particularly in the developing world. Should the church no longer be representative of the state will that accelerate that trend or stop it in its tracks? I suspect there’s evidence to support both outcomes, but my suspicion is it would act as a brake on it. Much of the strengthening homophobia and misogyny in African in particular has been expressed in response to the church as representative of the British state. If it no longer were, would that excuse be easier or harder to substantiate?

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