Disestablish the Church of England

Take me seriously

The stinging attack on the coalition by Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, was one of the stories of the week. Writing in the New Statesman Williams claimed that “no one voted” for various coalition policies ranging from education, getting borrowing under control, the NHS and The Big Society.

This is obvious nonsense. At the last election no party gained enough seats to form a majority government making coalition inevitable, people did vote for it. Indeed, the two coalition parties together got 59% of the vote, a level of support not reached in either of the landslides of 1931 or 1945. It is also rather rich coming from a man who doggedly supports the right for his unelected Bishops to sit in the House of Lords.

It is, however, only to be expected. Since at least the time of Archbishop Ramsey (1961 – 1974), who seemed more interested in the legalisation of homosexuality and the evils of the Vietnam war than the salvation of man’s eternal soul, the Church of England, or its leadership at least, has been less the Conservative party at prayer and more a bunch of social democrats in full cry.

The Church of England finds its anti-Conservative voice at times, like now, when the Labour party is clueless. In 1985, with Labour indulged in another bout of navel gazing, the Church stepped forward to oppose Margaret Thatcher’s government with the publication of ‘Faith in the City’, a dreadfully out dated document even then which criticised her government and harked back to some mythical Keynesian Golden Age. Thatcher, a low church Methodist no more ready to be lectured by high churchmen than high Tories, loudly rubbished it.

Williams is, of course, entitled to his opinion, and the New Statesman is entitled to print it. But who does Williams actually represent? Weekly attendance at Anglican services in the UK has fallen from 1.6 million in 1968 to just over 900,000 last year, less than 1 in 60 of the population, fewer people than tune into Eggheads on BBC2. This is despite the fact that there are supposed to be 25 million Anglicans in Britain. This figure, however, includes everyone who has been baptised Anglican. Many of those people don’t set foot in church again until they marry and then don’t reappear until their death.

Indeed, as head of the established church in England it is Williams’ job to attend to the spiritual wellbeing of the nation. Yet rates of crime and family breakdown and declining religious belief generally suggest he isn’t doing much of a job.

But Williams isn’t solely to blame for the collapse of the Church of England. The truth is that nationalised religion works no better than nationalised anything else. Compared to the United States, for example, Britain is in a state of religious poverty. There, without an established Church to provide the pretence of faith, the religious market is a thriving, often rowdy place, where churches must actively seek members. The members themselves, without the religious kite mark of establishment to guide them, must take a more active interest in the churches. This situation encourages religiosity and all the while culture warriors prowl the boundaries of public life on the lookout for any sign of religious incursion.

It may well be that our comparative secularism is preferable to the occasionally fevered religiosity of American public life. But it is a secularism bought by using the Church of England to supply the minimum of religion; three visits a lifetime. And with the time on its hands other churches have to spend spreading their message the Church involves itself in politics, always from the left wing perspective of more top down government as befits an episcopal institution.

Throw in local factors such as a leadership which seems to spend a fair amount of its time telling you which bits of the Bible you shouldn’t believe in, from the creation story to the immaculate conception, and you have a recipe for irrelevance. It is also, as Williams demonstrated again this week, a recipe for continued left wing political action.

There was nothing original in Rowan Williams attack on the government; he was given the platform he was because he is head of the established church in England. However, it is the very nationalised nature of this institution which means that it cannot fulfil its primary task of promoting spiritual wellbeing and, instead, spends ever more of its time as a left wing campaign group. If this is what the Church wants to be then we should, of course, let it. But we should make it clear that the state will not continue to give its support to such a partisan political body. We should disestablish it.


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