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The CoE is a Spiritual NHS
15th June 2012
In a comment piece in Wednesday’s London Evening Standard, Douglas Carswell MP – a refreshingly libertarian voice in the age of cuddly/progressive/compassionate Conservatism - took up the Church of England’s recent claim that the same-sex marriage would push the Church in the direction of disestablishment.
He was dismissive of the claim – wrongly so, I think. Should the legislation proceed as proposed, it would create a situation where you can a) marry by civil ceremony, b) join a civil partnership by civil ceremony, and c) join a civil partnership in a religious ceremony in a willing institution. However, your will not be able to d) enter marriage as a same sex couple by religious ceremony. Can anyone see such an exception surviving in the courts?
But this is by-the-by. Carswell would actually welcome disestablishment, not because he’s a convinced secularist but because he’s a libertarian. The Church of England, he thinks, is a throwback to the basket-case, state run industries of the 1970s. It is inefficient, uncompetitive, flabby and failing. “If the State is useless at running airlines or telephone lines,” asks Doug, “why do we accept that it is any better at running the Church of England?”
In contrast, America has a flourishing free-market of religious denominations. Disestablishment is precisely DC’s prescription: a healthy dose “not of liberation theology, but of libertarian theology”. It not an unfamiliar analogy, notably in John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge’s God is Back: How the Global Rise in Faith is Changing the World. They openly admire the commercial genius that the US has applied to religion, in the same way that it has applied to information technology, or popular music, or just about anything really.
The flourishing free market v. state interference way of thinking about the issue is interesting, illuminating, tempting even. But does it work? For a moment, let’s ‘enter into’ Carswell’s analogy - two points occur.
First, there already is a ‘free market’ in religion in the UK but independence from the state does not necessarily result in dynamism or an entrepreneurial spirit. But it is some of the ‘free’ churches which are in as sharp or even sharper decline that the Anglican Church. Equally, there are parts of the Church of England, namely the diocese of London, which are growing. Is either growth or decline a factor of Establishment or non-establishment? Perhaps marginally but there are countless other factors – overall market shrinkage, for example – which would be judged more important.
Second, Carswell assumes that Establishment – like state ownership – inevitably acts against the interests of the ‘consumer’, making the Church unresponsive to the needs of its potential ‘customers’. He forgets that part of the delicate ecology which is the Establishment of the Church of England is the parish system, where the Church is obliged to serve every member of the community – hatching, matching and dispatching whosoever asks. It offers universal provision. Think of it like this, and you realize Carswell’s not quite right. The Church of England is not so much British Leyland as the National Health Service.
This, of course, puts the Church in a theologically awkward (I would be inclined to say, incoherent) position. You could say that most every parish currently enjoys a significant spiritual subsidy. Providing such services to those who have no tangible relationship to the worshipping community has a moral risk, not dissimilar to providing ongoing health treatment for ongoing smokers, or diabetes sufferers who refuse to change their diet.
Like the NHS, the question is do the abuses of universal access outweigh the benefits? If the Church were obliged to withdraw from its duty to provide a marriage to anyone and everyone, then theological sensibilities would be relieved (no more persistent smokers clogging up the wards). But the ‘cost’ to the individual of a marrying in your picturesque village church might suddenly become much higher (you might have to choose to be part of the Anglican Church).
Most of us would object to the abuses. Few of us would risk the possibility that it’s us or someone dear to us going without healthcare. The analogy isn’t perfect, but it’s better than Carswell’s.