Disestablishment?

Stephen Trott revisits an old chestnut

Talk of disestablishment is suddenly reaching fever pitch in some quarters, with Bishop Mark Santer becoming perhaps the first diocesan bishop since Hensley Henson to call for the separation of Church and State. Disestablishment is a very imprecise term, however. Almost every church and religious organization is established to the extent that they depend on Acts of Parliament for the protection of their places of worship, their charitable foundations and their pension funds.

The smile on the Cheshire Cat

The special place afforded to the Church of England in the life of the nation has fluctuated for better or worse since the first Anglo-Saxon kingdoms accepted the Christian religion. The intimate connection which existed in the mediaeval world between the church and society has disintegrated as the secularization of the state has proceeded. The Church has been disestablished in Ireland and in Wales, and in countless other reforms the Church of England has lost its monopoly, leaving little of its ancient privileges beyond the smile on the Cheshire cat.

Apart from the interlude of the Commonwealth change has largely taken place by evolution rather than revolution. The most recent stimulus for change is the introduction of the Human Rights Act, epitomizing the aspiration of the modern world to guarantee equality and respect for every minority and indeed every individual, so far as it is possible to do so within the constraints of maintaining order and the rights of society as a whole.

Human Rights

The philosophy of human rights draws upon the fundamental respect of Christian teaching for the sacredness of human life as God’s creation, and its principles apply to the Church as well as to the State. The Church ought not to follow behind but must lead the way in guaranteeing the rights of its own internal minorities and individuals, and mechanisms must be put in place to ensure this if it should ever seek full independence from Parliament.

It is all too easy for those in power to persuade themselves that the best interests of the State depend upon smoothing away dissent, the centralization of power and even the formal abolition of opposition parties. But the presumption must be firmly in the direction of the rights of the citizen, both to believe and to practise their beliefs, political or religious; to form associations, parties or unions to further their aims and aspirations; and to be protected from oppression of any kind which seeks to take away their lawful property or their freedom of speech and action.

Reluctant secularizers

Establishment, even in its attenuated modern condition, continues to attract controversy in respect of the unequal status it continues to hold in the English constitution. But in a nation which has become remarkably diverse and pluriform, with its legal system grafted firmly into the emerging European state, a large part of the population still professes a Christian faith in poll after poll, and there are remarkably few signs that British people wish to secularize the monarchy. Such anecdotal evidence as there is suggests that most Christians and even members of other faiths continue to see the value of maintaining a historic link between the monarchy and the Christian faith, in preference to a State with no religious affiliation.

If any bishops remain in the reformed House of Lords, which seems increasingly unlikely, they will be generally regarded as spokesmen for religion, rather than as representatives of one particular Church. In the new House of Lords political patronage will be practically removed, and it is therefore likely that in future a greater voice will be given directly to the diocese concerned in appointing its own bishops to serve as chief pastors.

The Ecclesiastical Committee

The most significant aspect of Establishment which continues to affect the Church is the procedure by which the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament vets proposed synodical legislation before it faces a vote in both Houses. The Committee is required to consider the proposed Measure’s ‘expediency … especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all Her Majesty’s subjects’, an essential check on the possible abuse of power by General Synod legislation. And since the Church’s legislation is constitutionally part of the law of the land, it is possible to ask the courts to review the actions of the Church where disputes arise. This is not possible in the case of Churches which are not established, where the courts will not intervene in what is regarded as a private rather than a public organization.

The Church of England claims to speak for every parish in the realm and for every member of the Church, even those whose adherence to its doctrines or its worship is at best tenuous. Establishment is best understood as a commitment of service to everyone who inhabits any of its parishes, and in exercising a national role it is right that its legislation should be subjected to the same high standards and criteria which govern the drafting of Acts of Parliament.

There are therefore considerable benefits of a practical as well as symbolic nature in retaining the Establishment of the Church, and it has to be asked whether the damage done by suddenly repudiating it would be outweighed by the possible benefits of a final separation of Church and State. Is it not better to proceed cautiously with a process of reform, perhaps even consciously moving towards the minimal style of Establishment which the Church of Scotland enjoys north of the border?

Different in the North

Establishment there retains the advantages of a formal public commitment by the Church to the people of Scotland and a symbolic link with the Crown on the part of the state, affirmed in the Coronation Oath. The Church has complete freedom in all spiritual matters, acknowledged and guaranteed by its own Act of Parliament, but its legal system remains accountable to the courts where more temporal matters need to be resolved. The model adopted in Scotland represents the decision of the Church there not to share any aspect of its spiritual government with the state. The Church of England has largely completed the same objective by means of the 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure, which effectively restricts decisions on such matters to the General Synod. There is actually only a short distance yet to be travelled in the direction of Scottish Establishment.

While the State, through its democratically elected institutions, wishes to maintain Establishment, we should be grateful for the continuing recognition of the importance of religion in human lives and society. If the State wishes to end its affiliation to the Christian faith, it would be difficult and undemocratic to try to maintain for ourselves a special place in the governance of the nation. But if we can agree to continue the evolution of Establishment to its logical conclusion on Scottish lines, this may well prove to be an acceptable solution, both in Church and State, to any remaining sources of controversy. It is actually impossible entirely to separate Church and State: it is far better to acknowledge our practical interdependence and to continue as partners seeking the common good in a relationship which is older than any other English institution.

Stephen Trott is Rector of Pitsford with Boughton, in the Diocese of Peterborough. He is a Church Commissioner.

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