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Should the Church of England be disestablished?

Should the Church of England be disestablished?

By Frank Cranmer
June 8, 2022

In a guest post, Jonathan Chaplin, a member of the Centre for Faith and Public Life at Wesley House, Cambridge and author of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021), looks critically at the Establishment of the Church of England.

The national service of thanksgiving for the Queen's Platinum Jubilee at St Paul's Cathedral on 3 June reminds us of the powerful and intimate bonds still tying the British state to the Church of England. The Church again stepped forward to perform its well-rehearsed 'chaplaincy' function to the nation at a poignant moment of collective national celebration. Few noticed this, but the Church was not only celebrating the 70-year reign of the British monarch but also that of its longest-serving 'Supreme Governor', a constitutional status right at the heart of its established role.

The weekend's joyous celebrations were hardly the moment to focus on the merits or demerits of Establishment. The question was entirely bypassed by most commentators, amounting to at least tacit endorsement. The Church Times's Platinum Jubilee double issue gave pride of place to a robust defence of Establishment by a leading cleric but allowed not a peep of dissent on the matter across its entire 64 pages.

The question of the legitimacy of Establishment will, however, not go away any time soon. On the contrary, the cumulative impact of a series of extant or looming challenges will only place it under a sharper spotlight. These include: the inevitability of another Coronation in the near future and the need to revise the coronation and accession oaths; recurring demands for a reform of the House of Lords, including the presence of the Lord Spiritual; the ongoing clashes between the religious freedom claims of religious organisations and the imperatives of equality and non-discrimination law; the likelihood that surveys will soon confirm that fewer than 50% of British people self-identify as "Christian", never mind "Church of England"; the declining capacity of the Church to maintain a genuine "presence in every community" in England (as its strapline puts it); the deepening religious pluralism of Britain; and more.

One would have thought that such challenges would ensure that Establishment was a subject of ongoing and lively debate, at least in the Church itself -- that it might have elicited from the Church a substantial defence. But, although examined episodically in specialist law and religion journals, Establishment has routinely been relegated to the periphery of the Church's field of vision, elbowed aside by what are always seen as more urgent internal questions of the moment (of which there are plenty absorbing the Church's attention today). For much of the last century, the case for disestablishment has only ever won the support of a handful of outliers, rendering it, as one historian puts it, 'the dog that didn't bark'.[i]

The last extended treatment intended for the wider Church was a 2011 collection written mostly by academic historians, almost all of whom defended Establishment or were neutral on the question. The last book-length defence of disestablishment was Theo Hobson's Against Establishment (2003), which, however, amply lived up to its subtitle, 'An Anglican Polemic'.

On the rare occasions when representatives of the Church of England's leadership address the matter, they mostly wheel out pragmatic defences of the advantages of the status quo or voice inchoate anxieties about the likely "secularising" impact of disestablishment. The debilitating result is that today, the national Church currently has no official theology of how it should relate to the national state. Indeed it has not put its official mind to the question since the wholly untheological Chadwick Report of 1970.[ii]

Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022) attempts to inject new energy -- and some theological substance -- into this debate. It argues that Establishment continues to be theologically problematic for the Church, impeding its autonomy and mission in tangible ways, and that the Church should itself take the initiative towards terminating it. The book is an argument from political theology aimed principally at the Church itself. It is not written primarily for ecclesiastical lawyers but it does address many of the central constitutional questions implicated in Establishment and shows how legal considerations might take their place within larger theological, political and cultural arguments.

The first chapter attempts to define Establishment and clarify confusions impeding constructive debate about it. It adopts Robert Morris's definition of "disestablishment" as 'the abolition of all privileged links between the Church of England and the British state to place [it] in the same position as any other religious body in the UK'.[iii] This is a call for an end to "high Establishment", the constitutional architecture of the system. It also recognises another usage, 'earthed establishment', referring to the organic presence of the Church in local parishes and communities. The book later defends the importance of "earthed establishment" but argues that almost all of what is valuable in it would remain unaffected by termination of "high Establishment".

The second chapter presents the fundamental normative argument of the book -- a "theology of disestablishment". It argues that Establishment has always been theologically unjustifiable and remains so today, even in its much-attenuated ("weak") contemporary form. Establishment continues to compromise the spiritual autonomy of the Church and to breach the principle of the religiously impartial state. I offer theological justifications of these principles, by way of a critique of the notions of a "Christian nation" and "Christian state" and an examination of a New Testament ecclesiology. As an alternative starting-point for a better theology of church-state relations, it proposes articles IV-VI of the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual, appended to the Church of Scotland Act 1921.

The third and fourth chapters "deconstruct" Establishment, showing how each of its components compromises the principles of Church autonomy and state impartiality in non-trivial ways. Chapter 3 explores Church, Crown and government, explaining why Royal Supremacy, Protestant succession, the Coronation and Accession oaths and Crown appointments breach those principles. Chapter 4 addresses the relationship between Church and Parliament. It exposes the Church's continuing, and potentially damaging, dependence on parliamentary approval of its own legislation, assesses the problematic role of bishops in the House of Lords, and calls for an end to parliamentary supervision of the Church Commissioners.

The fifth and sixth chapters "dispute" Establishment by exposing the flaws in three surprisingly persistent attempts to defend it. The first is the "concession to secularism" defence: disestablishment would "send the wrong signal" to society by suggesting a public retreat of faith from the public square. I argue that the Church should willingly make a "concession" to what Rowan Williams calls "procedural secularism", while confidently resisting what he terms "programmatic secularism". The second is the "anti-neutrality" defence: given that states cannot be religiously neutral, disestablishment would open the field to some other privileged public confession such as "secular liberalism". I argue that this need not at all follow from the religious impartiality of the state.

The third is the "national mission" defence: disestablishment would amount to the abandonment by the Church of its sense of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the nation as a whole. This third defence comes in two parts. One argues that disestablishment would mean relinquishing the Church's pastoral openness to all comers and cause it to lapse into "congregationalism" and "sectarianism". I argue that the Church should not lean on links to the state to keep it from losing its openness to all who seek its ministry. The other holds that disestablishment would signal the Church's retreat from national political engagement. I argue that nothing of the sort would follow from the termination of "high Establishment": the Church would remain as free as any non-established church to take up whatever political issues it wished, although it would have to earn its right to be heard and no longer profit illicitly from privileged access to power.

Disestablishment could also free it up to adopt more critical, 'prophetic' public stances towards nation and state, if it wished.

The book closes with a proposed trajectory towards disestablishment, identifying a series of key legal and other steps towards that goal. It suggests a 10-year process commencing in 2024 and culminating in 2034, the 500th anniversary of the first Act of Supremacy -- sending a truly "pregnant" signal of renewed self-confidence to a nation it still wished to serve.

Jonathan Chaplin

[i] Matthew Grimley, 'The Dog that Didn't Bark: The Failure of Disestablishment Since 1927', in Mark Chapman, Judith Maltby and William Whyte, eds, The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 39--55.

[ii] As Jeremy Morris puts it: "contemporary support for Establishment lacks confidence in the authenticity of the Anglican Church's apprehension of its truth, resting its case finally on pragmatism". ('The Future of Church and State', in Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick, eds, Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum, 2003), 176--7). An exception is Malcolm Brown, 'Establishment: Some Theological Considerations', Ecclesiastical Law Journal 21 (2019).

[iii] R. M. Morris, ed., Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 193.


Cite this article as: Jonathan Chaplin, "Should the Church of England be disestablished?" in Law & Religion UK, 8 June 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/06/08/should-the-church-of-england-be-disestablished/

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