Disestablishment or Desacralization?

Nicholas Turner considers which title we should use

The disestablishment of the Church or the desacralization of the State? The heart of the debate is not about what will happen to the social status of Church of England clergy, nor who will grab hold of the assets, nor what it might mean ecumenically for other churches in this country. The core argument is ‘What is the debate?’ Whatever the denotation of this word might be, to speak of disestablishment is immediately to add such a raft of connotations, that most of the conclusions are outlined before anyone has begun speaking.

It would be more useful to ask what the debate is about and what are the issues involved, if (and this is the crucial point) we do not, for the moment, give it this standard title ‘Disestablishment’? It is time to dis-establish this over-used title. What conclusions might we come to, if we could only view it from the other side?

What would happen to the Church of England is, and ought to be, of less interest to most people than what would happen to the State. The political implications of a desacralized State are far more interesting than the religious implications of a disestablished Church, for we already have several examples of these, whether Roman or Methodist or, not so far away, the Church in Wales. ‘Desacralization’ is not a well-known term. The Oxford English Dictionary acknowledges it only in its full edition, giving a date of 1959 for its first use. It has a long way to go to catch up with ‘disestablishment’ first recorded in 1806 and found in the Concise Oxford. It nevertheless contains more interesting ideas than its older counterpart.

The Sovereign’s claim

Part of the claim of a Sovereign within any form of constitutional monarchy is that he or she is not a tyrant, ruling by mere force, but has a moral and constitutional authority. Election would certainly bestow authority, but it would not of itself distinguish between a president and a sovereign. The anointing with moral authority may appear a ceremonial fiction, but it is a necessary part of the self-understanding not only of the monarch but of the nation. In Europe this has meant being crowned and consecrated by the Church, either the Pope or the leading bishop of the national church.

It is usual to affect cynicism and lack of interest in all things constitutional. And yet the recent discussions about ‘President Blair’ and his alleged attempts to muscle in on the Queen Mother’s funeral show that the fears to which our constitution responds are surprisingly real to many people. The monarch acts as a constitutional check upon the power of the executive. She is the guarantor against a president becoming a tyrant. She herself acts not on her own authority but on God’s.

In the current situation, the principal safeguard against an arrogant prime minister is the democratic vote. But this, important as it is, does not remove the fear that his successor, even if voted in by a genuine majority of the electorate, might not abrogate still further powers to himself. The monarch is the constitutional guardian against an elected dictatorship.

There are different ways of inserting the checks and balances into the exercise of power within a nation, and a new republican, written constitution is perfectly possible. In our own circumstances who would decide how it would be decided? Lawyers of course. And whose lawyers? The Lord Chancellor would presumably be the man we should look to in the first instance. And he would then turn to colleagues in the European Court. Different interest groups would then lobby for particular rights to be enshrined in any such written constitution – gay marriages and the right to assisted suicide would be among the more interesting, current candidates.

All this is perfectly possible, and the debate might prove hugely stimulating. A great number of people would be energetically in favour. All the same this is not 1789 or 1945. There is no real crisis, no revolution or the overthrow of tyranny to initiate the process. In such circumstances, a constitutional reinvention is likely to be more unsettling than what it seeks to supersede.

You might say we are ‘a modern democracy’, and therefore deserve a modern, written and legally comprehensive constitution. You might also say (and I would) that modern democracies are two a penny. All power to them and we hope they continue and flourish; but our own proud boast is not that we are modern, but that we are an old democracy. A bit vague and fluffy at the edges maybe, but one that has stood the test of time and come through many trials over the centuries.

Saxon romance

It might be that as the different groups clamoured for the attention of the constitutional lawyers, we would (‘we’ being most people rather than simply church-goers) begin to warm to the Saxon origin of the English monarchy. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of present Queen’s coronation, we might look back to the first, over 1,000 years ago. Edgar, who was (in simple historical terms) a Good Thing, began to reign over all England in 959, aged only 17, having become king in the north some two years earlier. The next year he appointed Dunstan Archbishop of Canterbury, who then in 973, when the young ruler had reached the canonical age of 30, consecrated him king in the presence of his people.

The king, elected by parliament or witan appoints the archbishop, who is given the pallium by the Pope, and who then consecrates the king. No wonder the constitution is unwritten: the subtlety of its circularity, where ‘none is afore or after other’, looks ridiculous when unravelled, but has had great power as a framework, symbol and ideal. Its attraction is that it has lasted and it is ours: a new (and better) constitution would not at first be either.

The fear of tyranny is not absurd. It is a constant of all societies. Let me give a trivial example. If the CofE were disestablished all its lands should presumably be ‘returned’ to the Crown; but if the State were desacralized, there would be no Crown. Who then would inherit the assets? The government, or its cronies, or quangos? Would a few of the best churches be kept as monuments and the rest privatized? I guess that many would rather the dear, despised CofE carry on as caretaker than see its real estate parcelled out Thomas Cromwell style to the tyrant’s friends.

Act of Settlement

There is one scandal for which the CofE continues to be damned. Again, we should ask whether there is a more interesting perspective. The 1701 Act of Settlement prevents the heir to the throne from marrying a Roman Catholic. What is surely extraordinary is that for 170 years after the break with Rome, no such requirement was made.

It says a great deal about the tolerance of the establishment that the personal faith of the monarch had not until then been a constitutional issue. When the crisis came, the problem was not that James II was a Catholic, but rather that he was a fool and a despot, that he refused to keep his private faith private, and gave every sign (such as imprisoning the Archbishop of Canterbury) that he would not fulfil his role as governor of the established religion.

It is the politics of the sacralized State that has mattered most to us. Enter St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, marvel at its size, imagine its power at the centre of the eighteenth century European absolutist monarchies, and look at the memorial (to the left as you enter) to James III, Charles III and Henry IX, Kings of England. If the 1701 Act is to be repealed, that says more about changes in the Pope’s political ‘jurisdiction’ than it does about the personal faith of the monarch.

The Protestant heritage

Is there anything left of the Protestant political heritage? Can we still be inspired by that vision of a Christian nation under God, a commonwealth of equals in which every subject alike stands under the judgement of his law?

‘The famous Tenth’ it is often called; ‘An Exhortation concerning Good Order and Obedience to Rulers and Magistrates’ to give it its full title, is the most well-known of the Homilies compiled by Cranmer in 1547. Condemned long ago as erroneous, and undoubtedly unsympathetic to a modern, democratic mind, it nevertheless reveals the strong religious and moral foundation that lies behind the unwritten constitution we now enjoy. It deserves at least to be studied.

The common English Bible, making the word of God as readily available to the plough boy as to the noble, proclaimed our equality by making us all the children of the same God. That lost world of the Tenth Homily neither can nor should return. But its understanding of law, as coming ultimately from an acknowledged source higher than man is a profound guarantor of justice and equity.

It will no more make us good than the modern laws, but it has a longevity, proven by history, that has not yet been gained by the contemporary, secular, human rights approach. That may be unfair, for only time will tell. Nevertheless it would be unfortunate, and a mistake, if we were too quickly to desacralize our State for the sake of being modern, however great the seeming merits.

The problem

The issue in the popular mind is how to get rid of a tired, anachronistic religious body from its position of privilege within the modern, multi-faith nation. This may be true, but the real issue, and we as members of the CofE need to teach it and publicize it for we are guardians of the unwritten constitution, is ‘What would be the consequences of the desacralization of the State?’ Would we lose more than we gain?

It is ironic that when the Church of England, its bishops, clergy and leading laity, held the greatest power, the calls for its disestablishment were weakest, and yet the arguments were the stronger, if only for the sake of tolerance and a greater sensitivity in moral and political teaching. The roles are reversed. Now it is the State that has the power, and is most in danger of the abuse of power, and most in need of still being checked, guided and influenced by a sacred partner.

As I finish this writing, I encounter an eloquent piece by the Chief Rabbi, who champions another title for the debate, ‘Antidisestablishmentarianism’: ‘It is one of those endearing English idiosyncrasies that non-Christians are more likely to appreciate the benefits of establishment than members of the Church of England itself.’

The loss of nerve in the shared understanding of the Protestant nation and commonwealth can be seen, ironically, in the prayers for the Accession (Anniversary) Service, which, not being a full part of the Prayer Book, have undergone extensive revision since they were first devised in 1576. This prayer from the most recent revision of 1901 is full of pious sentiment, but lacks the assurance of the more familiar collect for the Queen in the Holy Communion service.

ALMIGHTY God, who rulest over all the kingdoms of the world, and dost order them according to thy good pleasure: We yield thee unfeigned thanks, for that thou wast pleased to set thy Servant our Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH, upon the Throne of this Realm. Let thy wisdom be her guide, and let thine arm strengthen her; let truth and justice, holiness and righteousness, peace and charity, abound in her days; direct all her counsels and endeavours to thy glory, and the welfare of her subjects; give us grace to obey her cheerfully for conscience sake, and let her always possess the hearts of her people; let her reign be long and prosperous, and crown her with everlasting life in the world to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The otherwise rather pedestrian recorder of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bursts into poetic rapture when he comes to the first English coronation:

[ad973] In this year, Edgar, ruler of the English, was consecrated as king in a great assembly in the ancient town of Acemannesceastor, also called Bath by the warriors dwelling in this island. There was great rejoicing come to all on that blessed day, which children of men name and call Pentecost Day. There was a large congregation, as I have heard, of priests, a goodly multitude of monks, and a great gathering of learned men. Nigh on a thousand years had passed since the time of the Lord of Victories, when all this happened. Edmund's son, valiant in deeds of conflict, was nine-and-twenty years in this world, and then in his thirtieth year was consecrated king.

Two key features of the ceremony, introduced by Archbishop Dunstan and which have been continued ever since, were the use of oil and of the biblical text, ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King’ (1 Kings 1.45), and the repetition by the sovereign before the archbishop of the solemn oath to uphold the Church of God, protect his people and maintain his justice and mercy.

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