Uncertain Times

Paul Richardson introduces a new series of articles on the State/Church link

Times of rapid demographic, cultural and economic change inevitably lead to calls for constitutional change. Britain entered the twenty-first century with a question mark hanging over some of its most venerable institutions. In the wake of the Queen Mother’s funeral and the Jubilee celebrations the monarchy has won back support but it is still under pressure to modernize. The House of Lords is in line for extensive revision with a large number of elected peers likely to join the chamber. Concerns are being raised about the effectiveness of the legal system and about the appropriateness of judges being members of the legislature. There are complaints about anomalous arrangements in the House of Commons that permit Scottish MPs to vote on such matters as a ban on fox hunting that affect only England but give English MPs no say over matters reserved to the Scottish Parliament. Regional government in some form or another looks likely for England

Open season

In such a situation it is inevitable that the establishment of the Church of England has also become a matter for scrutiny and debate. The future of the establishment is closely intertwined with other issues of constitutional change. It is difficult to see how the monarchy can be modernized and be made to appear relevant to a multi-cultural society if the Act of the Settlement, banning the heir to the throne from marrying a Roman Catholic, remains in force. There is considerable pressure to reduce the number of bishops in whatever body takes the place of the House of Lords and even moves to replace them with representatives from all major religious bodies (if anyone can think of a way to select them). As the population of England become less and less even nominally Anglican and as the number of non-Christians continues to increase, the appropriateness of giving a special position to one particular religious institution looks less and less defensible.

Opinion polls have shown 48 per cent opposed to the Prime Minister having any say in the appointment of an archbishop of Canterbury. Even the vice-chairman of the Conservative Party has called for a debate about whether to break the link between Church and State.

Archbishop George Carey has made a robust defence of the establishment and there are a number of bishops who share his opinion. The Archbishop of York appears more ready to question aspects of the current arrangements and radical noises have come from the Archbishop of Wales who, at the time of writing, is being widely tipped as the next occupant of Lambeth Palace.

What is Establishment?

Part of the problem of discussing the establishment is that few people have a clear idea of what it involves. In a number of European countries churches receive support from tax revenue to pay clergy or maintain buildings and in Germany there are confessional departments of theology in the universities. The British system may guarantee Christianity a place in important state occasions such as the coronation but it does not involve very much in the way of financial support. As the Bishop of London has pointed out, churches pay more in VAT on restoration work than they receive in the form of grants from English Heritage.

In practical terms, perhaps the most important aspect of establishment is that canon law is part of statute law. General Synod is unique in being able to pass measures that are laid before Parliament and then become the law of the land. In the process, Parliament retains power to intervene and reject or amend measures put before it. The powers are exercised very infrequently but the row over the Churchwardens’ Measure was a reminder that they still exist, a fact that is bound to have an influence over church policy. The Church Commissioners are responsible to Parliament and there is no guarantee that all their funds would pass to the Church in the event of a break with the State.

Symbols in the market place

A major result of the establishment is that religious symbols remain prominent in national life. There is a range of informal links between government leaders and such figures as the Archbishop of Canterbury that enable the Church to get across its views although it is doubtful if any archbishop will ever again emulate Dr Geoffrey Fisher who went alone to No 10 to express his disquiet over Suez. In return for influence the Church has to concede a measure of control. The Prime Minister retains a role in the appointment of bishops, and, through his Appointments Secretary, has a powerful say in the choice of cathedral deans.

Those voices within the Church of England calling for disestablishment usually concentrate on the power it gives to the Prime Minister and Parliament to interfere in the internal affairs of the church. As far as episcopal appointments are concerned, it is difficult to resist the conclusion that the calibre of bishops was higher before the present system that reduced the role of the Prime Minister and gave a major voice to the Crown Appointments Commission was put in place. This may be because a greater supply of abler candidates was available then than it is today, but it may also be because Prime Ministers like Harold Macmillan were more prepared to take a risk with imaginative appointments. Can anyone see Mervyn Stockwood making it past the present Commission? Winston Churchill has been blamed for appointing Fisher rather than Bell to Canterbury but Vernon Bogdanor has claimed soundings showed that Fisher was actually the choice of the Church (see his study The Monarchy and the Constitution).

A post-Christian environment

A better case for disestablishment, voiced from within the Church, is the fear that it gives bishops an inflated sense of their importance and prevents the Church from coming to terms with the fact that we live in a post-Christian world. Christendom is dead but the establishment shields the established Church against having to face this terrible truth. Maybe it would be better if we had to earn our right to contribute to public debate by the quality of our thinking than rely on a platform in the House of Lords.

Advocates of disestablishment from outside the Church frequently concentrate on the need to forge a new sense of national identity with which immigrants and their descendants can identify. Britain is now a multi-cultural, multi-faith society, we are told. We need new national symbols with which all our people can feel comfortable. It is inappropriate to give a privileged place to any one church or religion. Reference is sometimes made to the United States where, it is said, the public square is kept empty of emblems of religious allegiance and patriotism is based on such ideals as freedom, equality of opportunity, or civil liberty.

Affirming Secularity

Unfortunately the pluralist case masks a hidden agenda. Many of those who make this argument do not want a just neutral state or a public square devoid of religious symbols. They seek a secular society in which religion is banished from public life and reduced to the status of a private hobby. This is precisely the complaint made about America by such informed Christian critics as Yale law professor Stephen Carter. Unfortunately for the secularists many non-Christians have seen where their argument leads and declined to follow it. The Chief Rabbi and a number of Muslim commentators have actually defended the establishment of the Church of England as a sign that the contribution to public discussion by people of all faiths is welcomed and that a religion is not restricted to the private sphere. There is good evidence to suggest that religions become violent and extremist when they are banished from public life. Many Muslims do not consider secularism to be religiously neutral; they see it as a Western phenomenon, a debased product of Christianity.

Pierre Trudeau warned when he was Prime Minister of Canada that it is unwise to stir up debates about symbolism since these are usually the most divisive and violent arguments of all. On coming to power New Labour spoke rather naively about ‘re-branding Britain’. In the wake of Consignia’s flop, there is probably less enthusiasm for re-branding in the business world, but in any case nations are not like companies. They cannot be given a complete make-over and retain the loyalty of their citizens. They must adapt to changing circumstances but they should do so carefully and naturally and in a way that does not leave a large minority feeling alienated and disaffected. The rise of the right in Europe is a warning of the dangers that can arise when questions of identity are not handled sensitively.

In search of identity

The Church of England (together with the Church of Scotland) still has a role to play in developing a sense of identity that builds on the best elements in our tradition while being ready to give recognition to the place of other faiths in national life. But the Church of England may have to pay a price in order to do this. It may have to soften its own profile and tone down its rhetoric. It could well be that case that in giving a moral and religious framework to public life, the Church acts as a bulwark against secularism at the expense of its own strength and vitality. As we all know, those churches that thrive are those that have clear boundaries and preach a definite gospel. They go out to convert others, no matter what religious allegiance they profess. If the established Church acted like this at the national level, it would soon alienate the sympathy and support of others religious bodies.

The establishment could be seen as a cross the Church of England is called upon to carry to keep secularism at bay. There is a risk is that it will tie the Church’s hands and make the task of evangelism more difficult. But it could also be argued that the establishment helps the Church by keeping before its eyes the importance in mission of both dialogue and proclamation. Proclamation is certainly an essential function of the church but so, too, is listening to what the Spirit says to us through the signs of the times and through dialogue with people of good will. A listening Church should be more effective at finding the right language in which to speak about the claims of the gospel.

A Chaplaincy to the nation?

An influential strand in modern theology stresses that the Church must be different, a community of ‘resident aliens’ who convert others by the witness of a life of discipleship lived in community. Church leaders of the stature of Bishop Lesslie Newbigin and Professor Stanley Hauerwas have sought to commend this vision to us. It is the old Anabaptist model of the gathered church, the congregation of the saints, the community of the committed. In a post-Constantinian and post-Christian world, it has much to commend it. But the parochial system and the establishment remind us of a more incarnational vision, of the wheat and the tares growing together until the harvest, of grace springing up in surprising places, of ‘anonymous Christians’ who cannot quite summon up the strength to ‘out’ themselves but who value their links, however tenuous, to the institutional church. Grace Davie describes church-goers as ‘vicarious believers’ who keep the organization going partly for the benefit of those outside its ranks. For all his suspicion of establishment, Archbishop Rowan Williams has recognized the value of the memory of establishment in Wales in giving the Church of Wales a unique role in the life of that country. In England we do not have to depend on the memory; we still have the reality. Financial problems and the collapse of the parochial system may make disestablishment inevitable. Certainly the present system needs modification but it offers enough benefits to make the effort to preserve it worthwhile.

A post-Christian world is not the same as a pre-Christian world. Many of the deepest beliefs of our contemporaries about human rights, concern for other people, the sanctity of life, or the importance of caring for the environment are difficult to justify outside a religious framework. The danger of the establishment is that it encourages the Church to compromise and to carry out its ministry on the world’s terms. The advantage is that it forces the Church to listen to the world and to enter into dialogue with it. Paul Avis has put forward the image of the Church of England as relating to the government as a kind of ‘loyal opposition’, ready to speak truth to power but doing so from a position that is supportive and understanding. This kind of attitude seems to me to sum up the kind of stance that the Church ought usually to adapt towards society in general. There are times for outright condemnation and rejection. More often what is demanded of the Church is honest friendship and critical solidarity. The establishment probably encourages a chaplaincy rather than a prophetic model of ministry. Turbulent priests will always regret this but the chaplaincy approach does have its own clear advantages. In any case, even in the bosom of the establishment there are usually a few brave souls who throw the hope of preferment to the winds and have the courage to rock the boat.

 

Paul Richardson is Assistant Bishop of Newcastle.

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