Thursday, 18 October 2007

Church and State

For the past few days I have been reading up on the subject of the Establishment of the Church and England. Why? Because the Political Studies Association is preparing a response to the summer Green Paper on Governance and I have drawn the short straw.

Should one bother about the issue at all? Well it occupies over two pages in the Green Paper, admittedly some of it on arcane topics like Royal Peculiars. It has been a challenge for me to get my head round some of the issues. But advocates of modernisation would argue that we should not stop short at the Church-State boundary, particularly in a multi-faith society.

It should also be noted that there could be a crisis if the current Prince of Wales succeeds to the throne and proceeds with his intention to be 'Defender of Faith' rather than Defender of the Faith which is what as Supreme Governor of the Church he is supposed to do. But then some would argue that the whole notion of a Supreme Governor is a contradiction.

It's actually quite difficult to work out what the distribution of allegiance to different faiths is in the UK. The 2001 census contained a question on the issue for the first time since 1851. The results were complicated by the fact that, in a protest at the question, 390,000 people classified themeselves as 'Jedi knights', making them a larger grouping that Buddhists, Jews or Sikhs.

If the Jedi Knights are treated as no religion, then 71.6 per cent of the population professes to be Christian. The next largest group is Mulsims with 2.7 per cent. Only 15.5 per cent state that they have no religion.

However, opinion poll data in response to the question 'Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?' produces a different response. 41 per cent said 'none'. Of course, the question implies membership. 29 per cent said that they were Church of England/Anglican as against 11 per cent Catholics, although the evidence suggests that there the Catholic church now has more regular communicants than the Church of England.

The explanation for this paradox is that there are many people who are baptised members of the Church of England but have little or no regular contact with the Church, something that goes to the essence of an Established Church. When I had an entry in International Who's Who I listed myself as an 'Anglican'.

What does that mean in my case (and I suspect many other nominal members of the C of E? It means that I went to a C of E primary school, as all my grandchildren of school age do (although at least one of their parents is a more regular attender at church than I have ever been). I hence received a substantial early grounding in the theology of the Anglican Church which remains with me to this day.

The Church of England is divided into three main factions: Anglo-Catholic; Broad Church Liberal; and Evangelical (this is a bit of an over simplification but will do). Many Anglo-Catholics eventually 'go over' to Rome and the numbers have increased since the introduction of women priests. However, others hope that one day the Church of England will overcome the 'Henrician anomaly' and re-unite with the Roman Catholic church, but possibly with a separate Anglican rite. Arguments over theological questions with Catholic friends always come down to the doctrine of transubstantiation which I certainly cannot accept.

The Evangelicals are a growing force in the Church of England. In their more extreme versions, they resort to practices like speaking in tongues. They emphasise the literal truth of the Bible (including the Old Testament). They believe in the Protestant doctrine of the individual having a direct relationship with God with a limited role for intermediaries. My local church is in this camp and I would not enter it under any circumstances.

I would align with the broad church liberal camp. I welcome women priests and I have no objection to priests who are gay. I would set to one side most of the Old Testament and refer to the New Testament and in particular the Sermon on the Mount. And because I don't accept there was a bodily resurrection (as distinct from a renewed sense of Christ's presence among the disciples) I have never become a communicant member of the Church of England.

What I do see the Church of England is a national church which, in the words of a recent piece by the Bishop of Derby, aims at inclusivness and above all at being 'constantly available' to any citizen (as well as having a responsibility for the maintenance of much of the fabric of the national heritage, although perhaps someone else should pay for that). Others, such as the former Bishop of Woolwich want the Church 'to be responsible for God for their own corporate life, their own choice of leaders, their own ground rules of behaviour' so that they can 'seek release from their captivity.'

Clearly the present situation is full of anomalies. The Second Church Commissioner operates in effect as a kind of minister of ecclesiastical affairs, but was not able to give satisfaction to a MP whose constituent had been unable to get a bill settled by Bradford Cathedral despite taking them to court. The Bishops in the Upper House are something of an anomaly in a multi-faith society, but the creation of a wholly elected upper house could solve this problem.

There does appear to be a vade mecum available. Iain McLean of Oxford University has suggested a reform of Establishment on the 'Scottish model'. Reform It should be remembered that when the Queen is in Scotland she does not worship in the local branch of the Anglican Communion, the Episcopalian Church, but at the Kirk (the Church of Scotland). Given that, it is something of a mystery why the then Archbishop of Canterbury refused to give communion to the Moderator of the Church of Scotland at her Coronation in 1953.

The 'Scottish model' is disputed even in Scotland. But in essence it would mean that the Church of England would remain as a national church, but would be removed from political control. Many experts see the Green Paper as giving some encouragement in that direction.


Matt Wardman said...


Thanks for the article. I'd call myself a "nominal" CofE member - having been more active in the past.


I'd suggest that the anglo-cath/broad/evangelical analysis held up to perhaps 1970-1975. I prefer Lesslie Newbigins suggestion of Liberal on one wing via a Catholic/Evangelical centre to Fundamentalist the other side.

On the stats. I'm really at sea here - and I daren't believe any of them. For example, the stats on the front page of the British Humanist Association website for the last 9 months or so "proved" that 36% are humanists by using questions that could be assented to by perhaps 80% of Christians.

There be dragons!

Matt Wardman said...

A further, slightly tangential and constitutional, comment. You say:

>Clearly the present situation is full of anomalies.

Agreed. I'd suggest the right question is not "is this tidy", but rather "does this work".

And I'd suggest that on any meaningful measure (e.g., people killed in civil wars in the last 500 years) we have the most successful constitutional arrangement in the whole of Europe (bar perhaps 1 or 2 others).

A cluster of anomalies makes gradual adjustment possible.

The minute we freeze our arrangements into some crystalline written setup, we guarantee a nasty fracture at some time in the future.

The best quote I have seen on this subject:

"Since 1789 France has had a Republic, an Empire, a Restoration, a constitutional Coup, a Commune, a Second Republic, a Second Empire, a Third Republic, a Fascist regime, a Fourth Republic, and a Fifth Republic. With a military coup every 50 or 60 years.

In that time Britain has had …. the Abdication Crisis and the death of the awful People’s Princess."

Unwritten is best imho.

Wyn Grant said...

The current situation works very well for me, but some of the people I have consulted who have more expertise hold a different view. I agree my categorisation is probably out of date: I used to know quite a lot about these things when I shared a flat with a Theology PhD student. I am certainly not in favour of a written consititution, I do think that gradual adjustment is possible, and I think that the Green Paper on Governance is a very unsatisfactory document in many ways.