Lancing a boil: thoughts on disestablishment

February 12, 2008 at 8:54 pm | Posted in British Politics, The God Delusion | 1 Comment
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From the moment the Archbishop dropped that Sharia clanger with all the deftness of throwing a hard-bound King James bible fall on your toes, it was inevitable that there would be calls in some quarters (particularly from secularists) for the disestablishment of the Church of England. Whilst it’s been mentioned elsewhere, I hadn’t seen it advocated by a mainstream commentator until today. In the case of Andrew Anthony, the word ‘mainstream’ is used grudgingly, as this third-rate, Fisher Price immitation of Nick Cohen has neither the style nor substance to be considered especially influential (his bafflingly over-discussed book The Fallout is basically a cover version of What’s Left, but without the devastating prose). Still, let’s put past greivances aside, for on this issue we can wholeheartedly agree:

If Dr Williams was seriously concerned about constitutional law and religious justice, he would look at the dwindling number of his followers in this country and call for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

Much of the grievance members of other religions and denominations currently feel stems from the privilege – state endorsement, parliamentary representation – that Dr Williams’s church conspicuously enjoys. Who can deny that the church’s special treatment looks increasingly absurd in our multicultural society? Even Dr Williams himself has acknowledged that Britain is not a Christian country in terms of “active churchgoers”. Therefore the choice on offer is either to downgrade the Church of England, or upgrade other religions. Dr Williams has made his preference obvious.

I said in an earlier post that I thought disestablishment of the Church of England was one of several reforms which could be made or policies introduced that would have far greater potential to promote greater cross-cultural cohesion (or at least prevent from further erosion) than promoting Sharia as a way of solving inter-Muslim disputes, and still keep our tradition as a country of democratically-enacted laws.

That said, if we are to advocate disestablishment, we should also be honest with each other about how this might alter the regious landscape in a way we might not find entirely to our liking. Even in the unlikely impossible event that it were to happen, disestablishment would not kill the C of E, and nor, for that matter, should any secularist seek to see it killed. On the contrary, such a change could revitalise the church to levels not seen in years.

Barring the occasional PR blunder like Shariagate or the occasional tutting statement about foreign policy or public morals, the leadership of the C of E has remained fairly benign & apolitical, and has also been far more successful at slowly modifying its values and attitudes to reflect those of the country than an autonomous body like the Catholic Church. The extent to which its intertwining with the state has caused these conditions is up for debate, but what is not debatable is that disestablishment would give the Church freedom to begin exerting overt political pressure in the form of statements & campaigns against abortion, gay marriage or gay adoption.

But the Church has a negative view of these anyway, right? Correct, but it does so from a moral/theological standpoint, not as a political issue. My point is that without the prestige, comfort and legitimacy endowed on the Church of England through its relationship with the state, the Church would need to find new ways of surviving, and what’s to say those survival methods won’t be strikingly similar to the Evangelical practices seen in the United States? You certainly won’t find many secularists over there who would argue that the Jerry Falwells of the world have made enriched the American conversation.

This isn’t an argument for not going through with it; I’ve said before that a truly democratic state is not one where an unelected monarch appoints his/her own religious leaders. It should just be a recognition that organised religion isn’t going anywhere, and though we abhor some the words that came out of the Archbishop’s mouth (and words that will come in the future), my guess is we’d have that situation whether the Church were attached to the state or not.

Lancing this boil might well change the complexion of Britain, but we should be prepared that something even more ugly could grown in its place


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  1. […] could help dampen conflicts & division. He also raises one of the points I made in an earlier post: If, say, the Economist got its way and the Church of England were disestablished, and replaced by […]

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