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Is disestablishment becoming more likely?

Is disestablishment becoming more likely?

Paul Bickley addresses public calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England. 19/01/2023

It’s strange times when disestablishment pops up on breakfast TV. In November, after the 2021 Census results were announced, Martin Lewis and Susanna Reid interviewed the surprisingly cheery Bishop of Lancaster, Rt Rev Dr Jill Duff. The Bishop did about as good a job as possible on a difficult pitch (YouTube video title LOWEST CHRISTIAN COUNT IN HISTORY!), but the presenters and commentators – impressed by Rt Rev Jill as they clearly were – didn’t seem convinced. Journalist Kevin McGuire was blunt in his assessment – “It’s time to disestablish – yeah, I know people will be sitting at home saying there are bigger issues, but I think it’s a ridiculous system…”. The package left viewers with the impression that the only thing which would see the established status of the Church of England survive is the fact that no–one wants to go about the bloody business of putting it out of its misery. 

That is, until sex. Sex always gets people talking. If not exactly sex, then same–sex marriage.  

Legal in the UK since the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013, the Church of England still neither conducts same–sex marriages nor, in a doctrinal sense, believes they are possible. This is hugely controversial even within the Church, and along with its wider thinking on human sexuality is the subject of ongoing dispute within England and between various Anglican churches across the globe.  

The Church of England has reached the end of a listening process called ‘Living in Love and Faith’. This multi–year project was meant to help the bitterly opposed factions of the Church of England hear each other’s point of view and build consensus. This week, the Church of England’s bishops met to agree motions for the Church’s decision–making body – the General Synod. Traditionalists were hoping for no change, while opposing campaigners sought changes to the Church’s doctrines and cannons that would recognize same–sex marriage as equal to heterosexual marriage, thus allowing ministers in the Church of England to marry same–sex couples, and indeed themselves to marry someone of the same sex. 

The leaked outcomes suggest – predictably – that neither side will be satisfied. There’ll be no change to the Church’s official understanding of marriage, but ways of blessing and same–sex partnerships will be introduced, even encouraged. All this will be debated at the next General Synod meeting next month. 

Leaving the issue of substance aside, the debate has put the constitutional status of the Church of England back on the agenda for the second time in just a few months. 

Penny Mordaunt, Leader of the House and former Conservative Party leadership candidate, wrote to bishops expressing a desire that they put forward a change proposal. While her letter was appropriately subtle, other Parliamentarians have been more abrupt – along the lines of ‘make these changes or we’ll make them for you’: Tony Baldry MP wrote to The Times – “I have little doubt that if the Church cannot find a way forward that enables clergy either to marry same–sex couples or to bless their weddings, MPs will soon feel the need to intervene to change the law. The Church of England is running out of time here”. In response to leaks, Ben Bradshaw said bishops were “heading for a major constitutional clash with parliament”. 

I suppose that’s the nature of being the established Church. It’s not always a position of access and power – in this case it seems like a potential vulnerability. Maybe this is it? Maybe this is the accelerant that, poured on the faint embers of what to most people is a thoroughly irrelevant debate around establishment, would start the fire that will finally burn down the house. 

I’m not so sure…  

To be clear, some MPs threatening to force the Church to do this or that is a long way from Parliament doing it. An attempt to force the issue would run against a longstanding convention that doctrinal matters are a matter for the Church. And while it’s quite easy to imagine parliamentary speechifying, motions, debates, and perhaps Private Member’s Bills, you would need a government to carve out Parliamentary time and space to legislate for any direct change. And while David Cameron’s sentiments around women bishops quite likely prevail (“The Church needs to get on with it and get with the programme”), it’s hard to imagine Rishi Sunak – our first minority faith PM – risking any of his fragile political capital. However odd the Church of England may seem in its beliefs to many Parliamentarians, the prospect of a Parliament containing many people of other faiths and of no faith instructing the Church what its doctrine around marriage would be, is hardly a good look. 

Are ministers now willing to risk such a car crash? Would any imaginable future government? I suggest that the likelihood of this is small, though by no means non–existent. (Though if we could wait a few years, it would be a cute way to celebrate the centenary of the Prayer Book controversy, where Parliament refused to authorize a revision of the prayer book for reasons of it being a bit too Roman Catholic).  

If it did happen, then calculations change – there would, at that point, be a significant push for disestablishment from within the Church. Traditionalists in the Church of England resile from even the theoretical possibility of Parliament determining the Church of England’s doctrines on marriage. And while theological liberals may see temporary advantage in Parliament exercising dominance on this question, surely many would baulk. They would will the end, but could they will the means?  

It looks increasingly weird, but (as a non–Anglican) I think there are things to be said in defence of established Church. It was described by Queen Elizabeth II as ‘an umbrella under which all faiths shelter’ – and many from minority faith traditions would vastly prefer the relatively soft, hospitable, establishment we have now to a symbolically secular state. Nigel Biggar’s argument that liberal democracy needs a basis for its humanism, and Anglican Christianity is our basis, is a coherent one, though most would not be convinced. 

In the end, these arguments will not determine the matter. Why? Because while our attention is on what is being potentially disestablished (the Church of England – a relatively weak, primarily constitutional position at that), we are ignoring the silent, implicit and inexorable establishment of a much stronger set of public values, assumptions and priorities in our institutions. These values – autonomy, choice, affirmation of those things which are perceived as essential human identities – will simply crowd out the gentle, undemanding thing which is contemporary Anglicanism as a public faith. In fact, they really already have. 

The establishment of the Church of England can only survive by adopting these values – but at that point, would it be a thing worth saving?


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Image by Dominika Gregušová on Pexels

Paul Bickley

Paul Bickley

Paul is Head of Political Engagement at Theos. His background is in Parliament and public affairs, and he holds an MLitt from the University of St Andrews’ School of Divinity.

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Posted 19 January 2023

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