The established status of the CofE is unhelpful and dangerous, writes Edward Morrison
When I volunteered to write this article, I was astonished by the hostile reaction of some to me even broaching this subject. However, the accusations of extremism and even borderline mental illness I encountered have made me more convinced than ever that the established status of the Church of England is both unhelpful and dangerous. Such irrational reactions are the result of fear, a state of being unfitting for Christians and damaging to the Church. Thomas Aquinas tells us, Tear is born of love, since man fears the loss of what he loves. Hence worldly fear is that which arises from worldly love — as from an evil root — for which reason worldly fear is always evil: Fear of disestablishment therefore comes from a love of establishment. Establishment for some has become a safety blanket. It protects us, shelters us, gives us a platform’ as, no doubt, you will have heard its advocates claim. This sort of sentiment is not befitting of Christians because it cleaves to the world rather than to the cross and to Christ. Christians should always have confidence in the Lord, since we are heirs to his faithful promises.
Lack of confidence
The fear of much of the Church of England hierarchy is borne out of the stake they have in establishment. Now fear is not always born from bad motives,
indeed quite the reverse, but I do suggest that an underlying lack of confidence maybe its source. I do not pretend to be ignorant as to why some of us might lack such confidence in this present time — it is perfectly understandable on one level. Church attendance has halved since the Sixties and continues to fall, and the recent census demonstrated a steep decline in Christian affiliation from 71% to 59% over ten years. Would the disestablishment of the Church of England thus be another page in the decline and fall of Christianity in Britain? Surely then as Anglicans is it not our duty to protect the privileges of the Church in this land? Plausible as this reasoning may seem on the surface, it is nonetheless a fallacy.
At one time Parliament and the Church were of one mind in fundamental matters of faith and ethics. MPs and Peers were, by and large, practising Christians; bishops were more likely to defend the faith rather than seek the world’s approval — though not by any means all Catholics, most had a sound Catholic understanding of the Church as rooted in Christ and the tradition of its forebears.
This is manifestly no longer the case. Since the Sixties the state has changed from being at least a nominally Christian edifice to one completely indifferent to Christianity; and which therefore finds itself increasingly at odds with the Church. Those with whom I have discussed the issue of disestablishment have regularly claimed that the presence of our bishops in the House of Lords has done much to promote the Christian faith at the heart of our national life. Yet the results of this presence do not testify to such an assertion.
The 19G7 Abortion Act and the 1969 Divorce Reform Act were both passed in the face of such a Christian presence and have done great damage to family life in this country: 180,000 unborn children are killed every year; nearly half of children are born out of wedlock, and over 40% of marriages now end in divorce. The state secondary school, once invariably an institution with a sound Christian basis, has been radically secularized. Hymns, prayers and the Bible have all vanished from this public domain where they were once bread and butter. We have vast swathes of the younger generation whose understanding of Islam is more sophisticated than that of Christianity — testament to the confidence and vitality of the Muslim faith in Britain. Where were our established bishops during this process? What did establishment do for our faith in the public sphere when this happened?
One might argue that whatever the rights and wrongs of this secularization process, regrettable though it is, it has happened and as such disestablishment would be both simply reactionary and illogical — a tantrum akin to Enoch Powell’s zeal for full-scale decolonization after Indian independence. But the collapse of Christianity as the national religion does not in itself demonstrate the need for disestablishment. It does, however, highlight the absurdity of `establishment’ acting as a vanguard against the forces of secularization.
A hindrance to mission
The two recent political issues of women bishops and same-sex marriage have, however, demonstrated clearly that the established status of the Church of England is a hindrance to its mission and witness in this country and should be abolished. Same-sex marriage in particular has highlighted the logical perversity of our head of state functioning as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Churchmen across the land should look on with astonishment that a bill which was so clearly and manifestly opposed to the teachings of the Church, and publicly deplored by the Lords Spiritual (at least officially) should be signed into law by the Supreme Governor. Such a situation makes a mockery of the Church of England as an ecclesial body, and is a clear example of how inappropriate the formal relationship between Church and state now is.
It was rumoured that bishops in the House of Lords equivocated on whether to vote on same-sex marriage legislation at all. John Bingham reported for the Daily Telegraph on 2 June 2013 that bishops ‘feared a large bloc of clerics turning up to vote down the bill could rebound on the Church, reopening questions over the right ofbishops to sit in the Lords and even raise the prospect of disestablishment: It would seem the Vicar of Bray has been empurpled. Such secular and grubbily political reasoning surely exposes the pernicious effect establishment has on some of our bishops, so far have they strayed from the historic role of bishops in Parliament.
Now some within the Church do not oppose this change in the status of marriage, but the argument does not necessarily depend on that particular issue. Those in favour of same-sex marriage might instead ponder their reaction to the legalization of assisted suicide, which, without doubt, will happen in the not too distant future. The trajectory of the political establishment of this country tells us one thing — we as a Church cannot with any integrity be joined with it. We must be free to proclaim the Gospel vigorously on these issues without fearing the potential loss of the safety blanket of established status.
The issue of women bishops does not quite fit into the same category as the two other examples mentioned, since it comes not from Parliament but from the Church of England itself. However, even here the inappropriateness of established status brought itself to bear in the reaction to the defeat of the legislation in November 2012. Readers of this publication will remember the toxicity of the vitriol poured onto the Church in the days following that vote, and the rather disgraceful failure of the bishops to come to her defence. The Prime Minister told us to get with the programme,’ whatever that means, and the threat to abolish our established position was bandied about with such finger-wagging ferocity that the outside observer would be forgiven for thinking its preservation was the singular duty of all Christian men and women.
Lack of understanding
Comments from certain MPs were startling in their lack of understanding as to what the Church is. All thoughts that the Church of England had moved on from being the Department for Spiritual Affairs, as it had become in the eighteenth century, were dashed. Ben Bradshaw, the former Culture Secretary, made the astonishing remark that, ‘Because the Church of England is established, it is actually answerable to Parliament: This, from the mouth of a professed Christian! Mr Bradshaw’s amazing presumptuousness went on, And if the Church of England Synod is not able to save itself on this issue, then I think Parliament does have a role:
His remarks were supported by many MPs. Suggestions were made that all episcopal appointments be put into moratorium until women bishops legislation was passed, the Lords Spiritual should be thrown out, Parliament should legislate over the head of the Church itself. Our advocate in the House of Commons, Second Church Estates Commissioner Tony Baldry, lectured that If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation: In a way, Sir Tony was right, if by ‘national church’ he meant `established church: And this is the point. The Church is being held to ransom. But the Church should not feel threatened; it is a holy institution, beholden not to Parliament, nor to notions of worldly status. Indeed the Apostle Paul tells us, We have become the scum of the earth: Perhaps before we can grow again we must, in the words of Giles Fraser, be free to be the Church’?
In his Assize Sermon in 1833 John Keble asked, ‘How may a man best reconcile his allegiance to God and his Church with his duty to his country; that country which is fast becoming hostile to the Church, and cannot therefore long be the friend of God?’ This question is more pressing for Anglicans in Britain than it ever has been. We are now fundamentally compromised by our position as an established part of the state, a state that is gradually and benignly dismantling the Christian foundations of our nation. I say ‘benignly’ because it is not done out of malice, but ignorance. The absurdity of Mr Cameron’s recent remark that Britain is a ‘Christian country’ has been shown by his own legislative programme. Britain is not a Christian country. Our Parliament is not a Christian Parliament. We must ask ourselves whether it is appropriate for us to continue to collude with what, in the words of John Keble, is effectively National Apostasy.
Disestablishment would undoubtedly cause the Queen to break her coronation oath to preserve all such rights and privileges’ pertaining to the Established Church. Yet, I would ask whether in the face of recent events that oath remains intact? `Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?’ Does Parliament permit Her Majesty to keep this promise? Is she allowed to uphold the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government’ of the Church of England? I would answer that she is not, for the reason that in truth the UK no longer sees the sentiments of such oaths as the basis of public conduct. As such the qaeen is irreconcilably torn between her role as Supreme Governor of the Church and her role as a constitutional monarch of a secular state. Such a situation is sad, but a reflection of the change in this country over the past fifty years. But establishment has become to some of our bishops a golden calf. `No one can serve two masters,’ Jesus said, and as a Church we must ask whether we are living by this teaching while we are established.
Trust in Christ
We must, therefore, trust in Christ alone. Our boast is not in our established status, nor in great state occasions, but in the resurrected Lord. In him alone we find our self-worth, and where we are compromised in his proclamation we have no place. What has establishment done to strengthen Christianity in our nation? Has it truly given our bishops the courage and platform to stand up for the faith? I would answer No on both counts. Rather, it leads them unintentionally to idolize that position of status and to justify it against clear evidence that such a position undermines their true vocation. All the while they are party to the creeping erosion of our remaining Christian values, persuading themselves that they can still influence things from the inside. Alas, that opportunity passed a long time ago. Our bishops watch powerlessly as our faith is undermined by the state. They must have the confidence to say, `We will have no more part in this: