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Why the Anglican establishment is good for a liberal society

Why the Anglican establishment is good for a liberal society

This article is the second in a two part series presenting the best arguments both for and against establishment. Part one, by Jonathan Chaplin, is here. 

The establishment of the Church of England commands little respect and less enthusiasm. It is widely regarded as an antiquarian relic, whose continuance is morally and politically indefensible. We now live in a liberal, plural society where – it is supposed – public institutions and rituals should be neutral with regard to rival worldviews. Such a society should therefore be secular, ceding no public privilege to any religion. The only reason for letting religious privilege persist in England is practical, not moral: its abolition would cost too much parliamentary time. So the Anglican establishment shuffles on, unloved by those outside the church and an embarrassment to those within it, suffering slow and unlamented decay by piecemeal dismemberment.

I think that the Church of England’s establishment deserves far more love than it gets. My defence takes its cue from the pre-eminent postwar theorist of liberal politics, John Rawls. Rawls was motivated by awareness that liberal values are not universally held, and that a liberal ethos is therefore contested and vulnerable. There will always be hostile views that would suppress it, and there is no guarantee that these will not prevail (as they did in the Weimar Republic). The virtues of tolerance, of being ready to meet others halfway, of reasonableness, and of fairness comprise political capital that can depreciate and constantly needs to be renewed.

So a liberal point of view is not neutral. Liberal space is not indefinite, but bounded by certain moral convictions, which are expressive of an exalted, humanist understanding of human beings. Some worldviews, however, are corrosive of humanism—not only Nazism, but also Hobbesianism and Social Darwinism. So if a liberal ethos is to survive, supportive, humanist views have to be actively fostered by public institutions.

However, there are a variety of humanisms, and a single set of public institutions and rituals cannot simultaneously affirm them all. So one must be chosen; but which? One candidate is an atheistic Enlightenment version, which France confesses. Another is an ecumenical monotheism, which the U.S. Constitution permits and American governments have in fact chosen. Another is Trinitarian Christianity, which is written into the Irish Constitution. And still another is Anglican Christianity, which England has established.

As an expression of orthodox Christianity, Anglicanism is basically humanist in its affirmation of the special dignity of human being made in the image of God—a dignity intensified by God’s assumption of humanity in the Incarnation. According to this high vision, human beings are not merely the random result of the blind operation of physical forces, nor their activity simply determined by genes or chemistry, nor their asserted significance just so much desperate whistling in the enveloping cosmic dark. No, in Christian eyes humans are the creatures of a benevolent divine intelligence, which has striven through natural evolution to bring about human individuals who flourish in freely understanding and investing themselves in the world’s good.

One retort to this would be that, while Anglicanism may be the sitting candidate, there is a better one standing. But is there? There are, of course, other, non-religious humanisms. But how far these are intellectually viable apart from a theological basis is doubtful, even in the eyes of some atheist philosophers. Raymond Gaita, for example, thinks that secular philosophical talk about inalienable human dignity and rights is just so much “whistling in the dark”, such notions having no secure home outside of religion.

Another question that my argument raises is this: Can the public privileging of a particular religion be compatible with the liberal right to religious freedom? Yes, it can. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the penalties for religious non-conformity in England were gradually lifted, and non-Anglicans were permitted entry to universities, the armed services, and public office. The result now is that there is no public office in England that determines either law or public policy, which may not be filled with non-Anglicans, or non-Christians, or unbelievers.

The claim that the establishment of the Church of England is compatible with the exercise of religious freedom is also corroborated by international legal conventions and the case law of the European Convention on Human Rights. US First Amendment case law, which holds that the free exercise of religion can never be complete until Church and State are separated, is the global exception, not the rule.

Most US commentators, however, regard the establishment of a particular religion as entailing a necessary offense against the equal dignity of non-conformists. It implies a “symbolic ostracism”. This I doubt. I can understand why public Christian theological affirmation might disturb non-Christian or non-theistic citizens. It might confront them with views that they do not agree with. It might require them to tolerate an alien element in public institutions and rituals. However, encounter with difference is a normal feature of social life, and tolerance is a classic liberal virtue. So why would it – as such and absent any restriction of civil or political liberties – offend their dignity as equal citizens?

There can be no such thing as a public order that is morally, anthropologically, and metaphysically neutral. It must commit itself one way or another. Therefore it is inevitable that some members of any plural society will find themselves in a public order that affirms a worldview that is somewhat different to their own; and will feel irritated by it. Secularist public institutions that refuse to make any theological affirmation need not be intentionally atheist; yet they are still not neutral. They cannot avoid implying that theological affirmation is unimportant for social health. Many theistic citizens – not least Muslims – will disagree strongly with this implication, and feel somewhat disturbed by the studiously agnostic silence of public space. This alone, however, does not give them sufficient reason to feel that their dignity as equal citizens is being affronted. Not all contradiction amounts to objective offence.

In sum, my argument is this. The establishment of the Church of England represents a deeply humanist worldview that is supportive of a liberal ethos, and there is no obvious alternative. The Anglican form of establishment has not involved civil and political penalties for non-Anglicans for well over a century, and Anglican public orthodoxy can contradict the views of some citizens without offending against their equal dignity. Therefore the secularist claim that dignity, liberty, equality, and fairness in a plural society require disestablishment does not wash.

Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology, and Director of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, at the University of Oxford.

This article is an abbreviated version of a chapter in The Established Church: Past, Present, and Future, ed. Mark Chapman, Judith Maltby, and William Whyte (London: Continuum, July 2011), which is debated by Theo Hobson and the author in the May/June 2012 issue of Theology.

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Image by Rincewind42 from available under this Creative Commons licence.


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