Sunday, 26 October 2008

The Established Church

When the Political Studies Association was drafting its reponse to the rather flabby Green Paper on Governance produced by the Brown Government in its early days in office, I was given the task of drafting the section on the Church of England (because no one else would). Around two pages of the Green Paper were devoted to this subject, some of it on very obscure topics like the 'Royal Peculiars' (which admittedly are of special interest to head of state, Her Majesty the Queen). You can link to the document called 'Failed Politics' here: PSA

What quickly became apparent to me was that few political scientists had views on this question, but those that did have views held strong ones and I had quite a difficult task in coming up with an acceptable form of words that did not offend.

Now controversial minister Phil Woolas, having stirred up the immigration pot, has suggested that disestablishment of the state church is inevitable. His infuriated boss at the Home Office banned him from appearing on Any Questions. The last thing the Government wants is a row about disestablishment.

There are, of course, those in the Church of England that favour disestablishment. The Church itself is increasingly divided over a wide range of issues, not least those relating to gay priests and the whole Anglican Communion is splitting apart.

The Church of England has always been divided between 'bells and smells' High Church Anglicans whose only quarrel with Roman Catholics sometimes appears to be that the Pope is not English and at least two other tendencies. With the arrival of women priests, increasing numbers of the Anglo Catholics have 'gone over' to the Roman Catholic church (the English Church purports to be 'Catholic' in the sense of universal). At the other end of the spectrum are the Evangelicals who (in some versions) emphasise the literal truth of the Bible and believe in services which involve a great deal of audience participation, even 'speaking in tongues'.

This leaves a narrowing middle ground for 'broad church' Anglicans who attach importance to the nature of the Elizabethan post-Reformation settlement, particularly in relation to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Such broad church Anglicans are also often 'liberals' on women and gay priests and in their interpretations of doctrine, especially on the Resurrection.

A widely held, and understandable, view is that in a multi-faith society an Established church is at best an irrelevance and at worst an obstacle to harmonious community and inter-faith relations. On the other side, The Times produced the following arguments in favour of Establishment (which were duly attacked by a libertarian in Saturday's paper):

— The presence of a parish priest for every community [the parish church is of importance in rural communities, although many have been closed]

— The right of all, unless there is a separate legal inhibition, to be married, baptised or given a funeral at their parish church [I have a personal interest in the last offer]

— The Church’s central role in helping the nation to mark important events, such as royal weddings [of course some would see them as unimportant]

— The role of the Church as an education provider through church schools [from which I benefitted, as all my grandchildren now do - the standard of these schools is especially high and I know that it was good for my intellectual development to face complex theological questions at the age of seven/eight]

— The public enactment of church legislation. The laws of the Church are part of the laws of England – measures passed by General Synod also need to be passed by Parliament – and therefore the Church’s courts are part of the English legal system

— The role of the Sovereign as supreme governor of the Church [but the Prince of Wales would like to represent 'all the faiths' as and when he becomes monarch]

— The role of the Crown in appointing bishops and other senior clergy [but likely to change]

— The presence of bishops in the House of Lords – they are not there to protect self-interest but to represent communities in a non-party-political way [but, of course, there is pressure to reform the second chamber]

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