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Reform Magazine | May 18, 2024

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A good question: Should the Church of England be disestablished? - Reform Magazine

A good question: Should the Church of England be disestablished?

Each month we ask one question and get four answers. This month: Disestablishmentarianism


‘There’s no fully coherent solution’

This is the most complex and paradoxical issue that I know of. I mostly want to say a strong “Yes!”, but part of me resists a black-and-white approach that wishes away the complexity.

Growing up Anglican, I gradually became conscious of a problem: Did the radicalism of Christianity square with the official, pompous, imperial, feudal and royal aspects of the Church? On the other hand, other Churches had their faults; in fact, it seemed that establishment probably contributed to the CofE’s liberal character, which I approved of. But I gave the dilemma little thought.

Then came 9/11, and I started rethinking the whole church/state issue. There seemed an urgent need to affirm the liberal state in a new clear way, to articulate the values that unite the nation. This seemed obstructed by an obsolete pretence that we are united by Anglican faith. This pretence seemed bad for religious culture as well as political culture: Surely young British people dismissed Christianity partly due to its official traditionalist image? Shouldn’t we dismantle that image? I wrote a short book making this case. I also explored the Christian origins of political liberalism in the 17th Century. I argued that (Protestant) Christians were, paradoxically, the founders of “secular liberalism” and that we should continue to affirm this paradox; we should show liberal people that Christianity underlies their worldview rather than threatening it. That means emphasising its compatibility with the liberal state which is effectively secular. Look what a strange, unusual religion this is – it is on the side of secular liberalism!

This theological approach still leads me to advocate disestablishment. It seems a necessary step, just to enable us to communicate what Christianity is. At present such communication is blocked by the decaying relics of theocracy.

And yet, at the same time, I’ve become more aware that there’s no fully coherent solution to the issue. If we became an officially secular state, there would be something false about that, for we would be denying the fact that our secular liberalism is deeply rooted in centuries of Christianity.

The task is to construct a compromise that expresses the complicated reality: We are a secular liberal nation with Christian roots. In a sense we already have such a compromise: An official establishment that hardly has any teeth. But this is rather unhealthy. It is healthier to follow the US, and have an official separation of church and state that is balanced by some traditional Christian symbolism. Maybe just the archbishops of Canterbury and York should stay in the Lords, for old time’s sake. Maybe the link between the Church and the monarchy should be allowed to linger on, semi-officially. Maybe a loud affirmation of our Christian roots should be central to some new constitutional formula.

We should try to square the circle: End establishment, but not in a narrowly dogmatic secularist way.

Theo Hobson is a writer whose books include Reinventing Liberal Christianity (Eerdmans, 2014) and Against Establishment: An Anglican polemic (DLT, 2003)


anjum_anwarANJUM ANWAR
‘Anglicanism listens and gives voices to the outsiders’

The question of disestablished church rests primarily with the Christian community, but, as a Muslim living in UK, my voice needs to be heard. I believe that the Church of England plays a vital role in representing and speaking, not only for Christians, but also for people of other faiths. The Church of England is not a toothless organisation, as many seem to think, but it is a robust institution raising issues of faith in the public domain.

What would be the consequences for minority faiths of disestablishing the Church of England? Would I, as a Muslim, be comfortable in an atheistic secular state which many seek to establish? Would a secular state secure my rights as a member of a minority faith? For me Anglicanism provides a framework that listens and gives voices to the outsiders, and creates a sense of an identity under the umbrella of “people of faith”.

Instead of disestablishing the Church, I would want the UK to enhance the way it works so that both church and state, together, can cater for many different communities. Can Anglicanism create a national identity which incorporates our multifaith society, whilst retaining Christian identity as the overall umbrella? Only time will tell!

Many do not believe that the UK is any longer a Christian country, and see the separation of church and state as a way forward, very much like our friends in the US. However, as a Muslim, I feel that once the Church is disestablished, then aggressive secularism may further weaken faith, culminating in a total secular state eventually leading to what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the time of Tito. As Bishop Tom Wright says, this is the scenario where a beautiful garden is paved over and turned into patio. But the strength of faith will make sure it pushes back through the concrete. Faith can’t be kept beneath the stairs, as it were. It belongs in a robust public domain with other worldviews and philosophies.

My fears may be unfounded, but as a person of faith I would like to see evidence that disestablishment is the only way forward. Until then, I sleep comfortably knowing that the voice of faith is heard and the Church of England’s leaders speak on issues which are relevant to all.

When the Prophet Muhammad and his family and companions were being persecuted, he said: “Go to Abyssinia, for there rules a Christian King who does no wrong.” We may not have a king, but we have Her Majesty. Her sacred, Christian anointing as Queen sets her apart – above the political fray – to serve.
From such anointing comes the character of monarchy – service – but also one of the chief characteristics of citizenship which is that interdependence which comes from mutual service. An established Church enhances such a view. It is fundamental to the nature of our society. It needs to remain so.

Anjum Anwar MBE is dialogue development officer for Blackburn Cathedral; she is thought to be the first Muslim in the world employed by a church organisation


‘The legacy of a national Church is a vision for neighbourhood’

In the London Evening Standard some years ago, Simon Jenkins wrote this: “The doctors, teachers, social workers and police who work here commute from more salubrious parts. But the priests stay. They stay even when their flock is 70% Muslim. They seem wedded to sheer geography.”

This tenacious attachment to territory is fundamental to the establishment of the Church of England. Anglican clergy don’t often make it explicit, but this curious mix of soul and soil underlies much of what we do; its roots can be traced back to the peculiar mystical geography that shaped the formation of national culture, when, as Adrian Hastings put it in The Construction of Nationhood, “England was imagined through intensely biblical glasses”. King Alfred and the Venerable Bede dreamed up Albion’s story from a theological bed, however nightmarish that may now seem.

Long before the English Reformation placed the monarch as head of a state Church, this theology of place had found expression in the parish system – for close on a thousand years, “the basic territorial unit in the organisation of this country”, as the historian NJG Pounds has described it.

Anglicanism’s inherited sense of local responsibility, still legally enshrined in the “cure of souls” given to every parish priest, was both empowered and compromised by association with secular power – think “God is love” emblazoned over Oliver Twist’s workhouse. Nevertheless, the vision of each parish as, in poet Robert Southey’s words, “a little commonwealth”, has proved staggeringly adaptive and resilient, even surviving what has been called the “local disestablishment of the Church of England”, the Local Government Act of 1894.

Although this measure effectively secularised responsibility for local welfare, it also democratised the churches’ contribution and acknowledged the huge 19th-Century expansion of social service from nonconformist congregations, which made the old Anglican hegemony unworkable, especially in the
new cities. However, the retention of church-state links into the 20th Century gave political heft to a deeply Christian conception of social order, which, via Archbishop William Temple, contributed directly to the formation of the welfare state in 1945.

For this local vicar, then, the enduring legacy of a national church is a vision for neighbourhood. It was this historic social capital that the prime minister was endorsing in his recent “Christian nation” comments – not high issues of state, but foodbanks and vicars rescuing people in dinghies.

The parish remains what PD Thompson termed “a training ground in community life”, and today stands out as a model for local cooperation across socio-religious boundaries. Any conversation about disestablishment that threatens to undermine its mandate of care for all is one worth avoiding.

Andrew Rumsey is a Church of England vicar and the author of Strangely Warmed: Reflections on God, life and bric-a-brac (Mowbray, 2009)


jill_seggerJILL SEGGER
‘Jesus had little time for the religious establishment’

As a member of one of the oldest traditions of dissent, my answer is predictable. But it pivots on another question: How may a faith community best be true to the spirit of Jesus?

When Constantine established Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, a hitherto radical and subversive movement began its journey to the Christendom model of an organisation at home in the corridors of power. Its leaders became accustomed to operating from positions of privilege and – as power tends to corrupt – a habit of protecting its own interests inevitably developed. In our own times, despite the increasing number of radical Anglicans who ask themselves the question posed above, the Church of England can seem very far removed from the lives of marginalised and vulnerable people.

Jesus had little time for the religious establishment of his own day and scandalised it by his teaching and actions. The efforts of good people within the Church of England to follow the way of this turbulent rabbi are often rendered absurd – witness George Carey complaining about the marginalisation of Christians from his seat in the Lords – and at worst are betrayed, alienating the very people who could justifiably expect solidarity from the Church.

When the prophetic assemblies of Occupy pitched their tents outside St Paul’s Cathedral in 2011, the institution reacted in a way that revealed the relationship between heart and treasure. Priority was given to the revenue from the cathedral’s status as a tourist attraction. In June 2014, the Royal Peculiar of Westminster Abbey, failed to engage with the powerless when disabled people arrived on its doorstep hoping for the support of the Church in their struggle to save the services on which they depend. A Birmingham vicar commented: “Yet again [the] Church of England’s public face is that of the oppressive, defensive neoliberal state and not [of] the vulnerable.” John McDonnell MP, tweeted: “No contact from Dean of Westminster so it looks like at the most iconic site of Christian worship in Britain the Church is evicting disabled.” Many comments on such failures, though coming from people who are not themselves churchgoers, retain a deeply Christian awareness that Jesus shunned status and aligned himself with the poor and the powerless. There is both hope and challenge in their looking to the Church to “go and do likewise”.

Where the established Church fails to interrogate its sense of entitlement and self-interest, the spirit of Jesus is not made manifest. If disestablishment could free the servant heart which beats in the best of its clergy and people, it would surely be an instrument of mission.

Jill Segger is a Quaker and associate director of the religion and society thinktank, Ekklesia


This article was published in the October 2014 edition of  Reform.

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