Thomas Carpenter supports the call for an end to political control of the Church of England

More generally speaking, about the separation of religion and politics. As it happens, my personal view — I’m not pretending this is something that’s discussed in the pubs and kitchen tables of Britain — but my personal view is that, in the tong-run, having the state and the church basically bound up with each other, as we do in this country, is, in the tong run…I actually think it would be better for the church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the church and the state were to, over time, stand on their own two separate feet, so to speak. But that’s not going to happen overnight, for sure.’

With these words the Deputy Prime Minister began one of those artificial rows intended to reassure ordinary Liberal Democrats that the reforming soul of their party is still there, still spotless, after four years of the coalition. The Prime Minister replied that the separation of the Church of England from the State was `a long term Liberal aim, not a Conservative one The same might be said of much legislation enacted under this government, but let that pass. What Mr Clegg is actually proposing is not disestablishment — an independent church may be established, as in England before the Reformation, just as a Church controlled by the State can be disestablished, as is the case in China — but an end to political control over the Church of England. At least that is what the proposal that they Stand on their own two separate feet seems to mean.

Two halves

Mr Clegg should speak for his own kitchen table; mine has sat in on many discussions of the matter. These have shown that the only view that supports the current system is the one that brought it into being, which claims that the State and the Church are two halves of national body politic in which the head of the first is by the same token head of the second. It is on the basis of this idea that the Church of England is governed: on this basis that the Prime Minister appoints bishops and on this basis that the General Synod has only as much authority as Parliament is prepared to give it.

This is all very well so long as this idea — Erastianism — is believed to be God’s will for his Church, yet how many would now subscribe to it? Surely only a negligible proportion of the General Synod believe that Robert Mugabe is head of the Church in Zimbabwe, which is the conclusion dictated by the logic of the system they work in.

Authority in the Church

As far as the British constitution is concerned, it does not really matter if institutions are not logically justifiable: the Monarchy, the House of Lords and even the House of Commons owe what authority they have to the mere fact that they have come to be, but in the Church authority comes not from precedent but a Person. Does the current government of the Church of England fulfil the will of Christ for his Church? My own view is that the lack of a theologically credible system of authority in the Church of England is caused by the State’s control over it, and is responsible for much of its current malaise.

Doctrinal orthodoxy

Take doctrine, for example. Because of the Church of England’s relationship to the State, the final arbiter of orthodoxy was the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council before its functions were given to the Court of Ecclesiastical Causes Reserved in 1963. In the fifty years that have elapsed since then, this court has sat only twice: in 1985 to deliver judgment on a candle that lacked a faculty and in 1987 to decide whether Mass could be said on a Henry Moore sculpture. Had the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith been as inactive it is likely Hans Kung would now be a Cardinal and contraception would be permitted to Catholics in Germany but not Poland.

The point’ am trying to make is not that the parts of the Church—State relationship that exist for the good of the State — the Coronation Service, bishops in the House of Lords, prayers each day in Parliament — should be abolished; they could continue even if the Church were independent. My argument is that that part of the relationship which is there for the good of the Church — political control over its government — has prevented the Church of England from deciding where the authority for distinguishing truth from error lies, and applying it to contested issues.

Newman’s question

The Oxford Movement asserted the autonomy of the Church from political control. The continuation of that control, now exerted at arm’s length through the Synod, has prevented the Church of England from answering the question posed in the first Tract for the Times: `on what are we to rest our authority, when the State deserts us?’ The end of State control would mean an answer to Newman’s question could be deferred no longer. Anglo-Catholics can be consoled by the fact that, alone in the Church of England, they have one ready.

Stranger things have happened than Nick Clegg becoming a hero of the Catholic Movement. In time some future Administrator might name a room after him at Walsingham. Something small near the Orangery is my suggestion, for what it is worth.