George Austin wonders if everyone has forgotten about Magna Carta

RETIREMENT GIVES the freedom to do reading and research which the busy-ness of working life often makes impossible. Because one of my predecessors as Archdeacon of York, one Osbert de Baines, had in 1154 allegedly murdered his Archbishop, William Fitzherbert, (as archdeacons understandably do from time to time), I had been reading a little about church conflicts in the late 12th century. It is some measure of the tensions between church and state at that time that only sixteen years later, in 1170, Archbishop Thomas Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral.

Both these events must have been in the minds of the bishops and barons who in June 1215 forced King John to sign the Magna Carta, and it is therefore surely no accident that the very first clause of that charter of rights grants freedom to the church from state interference. The wording should give us pause for thought even some 900 years later:

In the first place (we) have granted to God, and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church (Ecclesia Anglicana) shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired.


‘Confirmed us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired ‘- it has a hollow ring in 2001 when so many of the church’s policies, decisions and general attitudes seem increasingly dependent upon a compliance with and subservience to the desires and wishes and moral imperatives of the secular state. And the recent survey by Robbie Low in New Directions on crown appointments shows clearly just how the Church is shackled by the State and deeply wounded in the process.

Another particular and different example comes to mind. The Sunday Times reported recently that in seven of the eight dioceses that have conducted a vote on the Scott-Joplin report on marriage and divorce, church representatives have expressed their support for the remarriage of divorcees in church by a wide margin – 100% in favour in one case.

So what is remarkable about that? one might ask. After all, as Nicolas Turner pointed out in his article in last month’s New Directions, the focus of Scott-Joplin ‘is on divorce rather than on marriage.’ Indeed, it must be a fair assumption that the intention of the writers of the report was to produce the final solution to the traditionalists’ continuing opposition to any change in the present Convocation prohibition to such remarriage. I use the word ‘final’ of course in the revisionists’ sense of ‘final – once we get our way on this’.

It is one more confirmation that church members – or at least those who are sufficiently activist to want to serve on deanery and diocesan synods – have completely taken on board the moral relativism of secular society, whose ethical basis is ‘If you like it, do it, and that is what is right.’ Those who have been through the pain of a broken marriage have a ‘right’ to be married in church. If the church has any responsibility to be compassionate to the spouses and children who have been left behind in the first marriage, whose hurt may be increased if they see the church effectively condoning with a blessing what they have been made to suffer, let us quietly forget about it lest we appear unwelcoming to the couple before us. The writers of the report would probably challenge that, but I refer not to good intentions but naked reality.


The Church of England appears to be so enmeshed in the secular society of which it is a part that decisions which are in fact judgements on theology and scripture depend on popular votes rather than on the proclamations of an authoritative magisterium. It is a curious aspect of our modern society that it is left to television soaps like Coronation Street and Emmerdale, rather than to the church of God, to show clearly and without equivocation the damage inflicted upon families, especially the children, when a marriage breaks down.

As I thought about The Sunday Times report, I began to feel that there was a more serious and fundamental issue beneath the surface, that there was something here about Church’s position within the state that needed addressing.

Now I know that in theory the passing of the Worship and Doctrine Measure in 1974 gave the Church of England the right to determine what it believed and how it chose to worship without recourse to or interference from the state. It was Archbishop Michael Ramsay who, on 7 November 1972 at the General Synod, introduced the report, ‘Church and State – Worship and Doctrine’. In his speech, he said this:

Two things seem certain. It seems certain that is a general wish within the Church that the partnership between Church and State should continue; at least we have no proposal before us for the ending of that partnership. It also seems certain that there is a general wish within the Church that the Church as represented in the General Synod should be the body which controls the Church’s doctrine and worship.

We need to ask now however whether or not that partnership between Church and State in fact inhibits the control which the church ought rightly to exercise over its doctrine and worship. Does it in reality encourage the church to allow itself to be too much influenced by the values of secular society rather than, as is often argued, providing the church with the opportunity to bring its own values to the society of which it is a part?

In any case, the Williamson Judgement (Rev. Paul S. Williamson vs. the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of York and the Church Commissioners 1994) suggests that the provisions of the Worship and Doctrine Measure were in effect little more than a palliative and a charade. It is difficult to interpret the statement by the judge in the case that ‘an established religion is subject to state control as regards doctrine, government and discipline’ in any other way than as a total rejection of the terms and purpose of the Measure.


Should we seeking to restore the freedom from state interference and influence, granted ‘for ever’ by Magna Carta, even though that influence is now albeit perhaps more subtle rather than overt, in order that the church may truly seek to bring about creation of society based uncompromisingly on Christian principles – principles that would in fact enjoy the support of other faith communities in Britain?

Of course it does have its dangers, and there is certainly no guarantee that a Church of England free from the State would be any more faithful to its Christian vocation that it is at present, and it would in any event take many years for its ingrained subservience to the state to be entirely eliminated. But the Church of England in its present state has drifted so far from vocation given to it by Jesus Christ that desperate measures are needed – and needed urgently.

We are only called to serve a Christ who throughout his ministry challenged the assumptions of the state and of the society around him, and it cost him hostility, ostracism and, in the end, his life.

George Austin is a retired Archdeacon. He is a member of the Council of Forward in Faith.