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Time for the Church to cut the knot

Time for the Church to cut the knot

This is the first in a two part series on establishment. Next week another guest blogger will argue that the Church of England should continue to be established.


Three issues vexing the Church of England right now, and two more that could lurch into view very soon, suggest that the time has come for the Church to initiate steps towards disestablishment.

The Church is already embroiled in two controversies which bring to the fore the irksome constraints on its freedom of action that even our diminished form of establishment still imposes. The first is its increasingly angst-ridden struggle to approve women bishops. The decision on 9th July to defer a vote on the substantive issue until November gives the Church a breathing space to craft a more judicious accommodation between its deeply divided wings than has so far been available. Now one might have thought that this is a dilemma for the Church to resolve entirely through its own internal decision-procedures. But by virtue of establishment the Church doesn’t have purely “internal” decision-procedures, since the legislative proposals (“Measures”) of its governing body, General Synod, require parliamentary approval, first by the Ecclesiastical Committee and then by both Houses of Parliament (at which point the Measure becomes an Act of Parliament). Members of this Committee are now openly warning that if the Church doesn’t approve women bishops in ways compliant with the state’s equality laws, Parliament may overrule it. This is not a fanciful prospect, since it blocked or delayed other Measures as recently as 1984, 1989 and 2002. An exasperated Sir Tony Baldry, the MP charged with officially speaking for the Church in the Commons, has also warned that Parliament might decline to retain bishops in the House of Lords if the Church stalls any longer.

But whatever one’s view of women bishops (I am in favour), the mere fact that an organ of state should have any say at all either in the substance or the timing of such a profoundly theologically contested decision is surely at best faintly ridiculous and at worst constitutionally offensive. The Church should seize this moment to insist on full control of its own decisions and move to end parliamentary accountability entirely.

The second issue is the imminent prospect that the state will legalise same-sex marriage. Warnings of a constitutional train wreck in which the theological authority of the Church might be dramatically pitted against the political authority of the state may have been overblown. But if Parliament changes the general legal meaning of marriage by redefining it as a union of only “two persons” rather than of a man and a woman, it will thrust the Church into the position of having to function as registrar of “marriages” it currently cannot recognise. Both opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage should be alarmed at the prospect of the Church being required by the state to act against its considered theological convictions. Those who today might rejoice at the Church being pressed against its will to implicitly sanction a “progressive” view of marriage, might tomorrow lament its being blocked from, say, pursuing a “progressive” investment policy by a right-wing competition law.

The solution at hand here is the relinquishing by the Church both of its role as registrar of marriages and of its assumed duty to marry any eligible resident of its parishes. These are not part of what has been called the “higher architecture” of establishment but they would have the great value of liberating the Church to determine its own internal theology and practice of marriage irrespective of what the state did (or, as cynical outsiders might say, at least to stew in its own juice).

The third issue causing current vexation is the place of bishops in a reformed House of Lords. The issue here is not so much a constraint on the Church’s freedom of action but rather the legitimacy of privileged access to the legislature widely seen as inequitable. Here the Church should voluntarily relinquish any special status and work for a chamber in which its own representatives (who need not be bishops) could be appointed alongside those of many other religious, professional, labour, cultural and business groups on broadly proportionate terms.

One of the two issues that could soon suddenly catch us by surprise is the appointment of Rowan Williams’ successor. It’s true that in 2007 Gordon Brown surrendered the Prime Minister’s active role in the process. But if it were to emerge that David Cameron had been working back channels to ensure an Archbishop who was “safe” on, for example, same-sex marriage, or indeed on banking reform, the subsequent furore would lend weight to a full and formal cessation of even a ceremonial role for the Crown in senior Church appointments.

The other looming issue that could up-end both Church and state is the content of the next Coronation service, an event we can reasonably surmise may occur within the next few years. A key issue is whether King Charles will pledge to defend the Church of England alone – which will seem hopelessly anachronistic – or, instead, act as “defender of faith” in general – which would be difficult to square honestly with his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Here an obvious, albeit radical, solution beckons: replace the religious Coronation “service” in Westminster Abbey with a civic Coronation “ceremony” in, for example, Westminster Hall, and remove from the oath any specific monarchical allegiances to the Church of England (thereby also implying an end both to the role of Supreme Governor and to “Protestant Succession”).

The Church could still make Westminster Abbey available for an ecumenical “service of consecration” for a monarch who voluntarily sought one (though he or she might have other offers). Those in the Church who would grieve over the apparent loss of public prestige this change would imply might reflect on the fact that such a voluntary, yet eminently public, event would be a much more authentic testimony to the personal faith of the monarch than obligatory official participation. And they might also ponder the prospect that the Church would be free to design a service in which, among other things, the monarch, and thereby his or her government, could be reminded that God does not take kindly to abuses of authority and, in the words of the Magnificat recited weekly in Anglican churches throughout the land, that he is in the business of “bringing down the mighty from their thrones and raising up those of low estate”. A Church with the bottle to do that would elicit the respect of outsiders – and many insiders – more than one content to serve merely as a pliant master of ceremonies to the state.


Jonathan Chaplin is Director of the Kirby Laing Centre for Christian Ethics and the author of two Theos reports, Talking God and Multiculturalism, both of which are available to download from our reports page


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Image by Rincewind42 from flickr.com available under this Creative Commons licence.

Posted 17 July 2012

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