22 May 2009, Review by Theo Hobson
Evasion of disquieting truths
Church and State in 21st Century Britain: the future of Church Establishment
Palgrave Macmillan, £55
Tablet bookshop price £49.50 Tel 01420 592974
Imagine a line-up of 100 English people, of all ages and types. Only two or three of them are active members of the Church of England, which is England's official religion (establishment has a separate Scottish edition). What does establishment consist of? It's hard to say: what we now have is the vestige of a very intimate intertwining of Church and State, a vestige which, in practical political terms, seems negligible. But in terms of national symbolism it is very considerable: the fact that our head of state must pledge to defend this Church is of no small relevance to "national identity".
So is this still what we want? It's hard to say: Christians seem in favour, and the rest of the people in that line-up seem indifferent. Progressive opinion occasionally picks up the issue, as if it were some weird exhibit in a museum, and then shrugs and returns to something more pressing.
But events are forcing the issue on to the table: the House of Lords is being reformed, although at a speed that would bore a tortoise; and the heir to the throne is occasionally to be heard tinkering with his future religious role. And recently Gordon Brown renounced his right to appoint bishops, one of the last expressions of Parliament's theoretical supervision of the Church. The rise of Islam, of course, has also contributed to a new wariness of religion-in-politics, and the debate about faith schools remains intense. The case for disestablishment seems to be gathering force, but what might actually happen? Is partial reform possible, or is it all or nothing?
R.M. Morris, of London University's Constitution Unit, has written an excellent guide to these questions (there are a couple of chapters by others, but this is really Morris' book). It aims "to help inform current discussion about the future of the relationship between the two Established Churches in the United Kingdom and the State". So does it claim impartiality? Not quite: "It is the argument of this book that it is time to look again at the relationship between the state and established religion in the United Kingdom. While the forms of establishment in Scotland and England are very different, both represent past political solutions to issues of Church/State relations long overtaken by subsequent changes." Reform is needed, he argues, but it can be and should be gentle, incremental: we can modernise our constitution without scaring the corgis. And if such reform is not pursued, he warns, the constitution will lose credibility, and so is likely to have rougher change thrust upon it.
So is he, or is he not, advocating disestablishment? He resists the question, on the grounds that establishment is a complex web of relationships, not a simple link that could be severed. The Church is so involved in national life, through its property, its chaplaincies, its schools, and so on, that any talk of a total break with the State is unreal. Some might suspect him of being a bit cunning: of seeking to soft-sell radical reform to conservative minds by disavowing the word "disestablishment". For he certainly does advocate the key changes that most of us would associate with "disestablishment".
When he comes to consider the monarch's role as Supreme Governor he observes that it has already been emptied of meaning, for in practice the Church has become autonomous. So why not relieve the monarchy of this meaningless burden, which ties it to discrimination? The legal difficulty of reform is exaggerated by conservatives, he says, and carefully explains the best way of effecting change. But why would anyone bother initiating such a controversial and complex reform? "It has to be remembered that the weight of evidence about the state of religious belief and its plurality beyond Christianity render the surviving late seventeenth-century settlement in principle indefensible even if its increasingly emaciated formal remnant may stagger on. The problem is to how to identify the routes which do as little damage to existing institutions as possible."
Conservatives who say that the monarchy would be endangered by this change are missing the point: "While at first sight detaching the sovereign from the religious supremacy may seem revolutionary, it is but to recognise that the head of state's role changes when society changes and it is undesirable for it to be so intimately associated with one particular religious form whether in England or in Scotland."
Morris notes that the presence of bishops in the House of Lords is unsustainable, and that trying to balance bishops with other faith leaders would be full of problems: "in a situation where no other sovereign democratic legislature includes religious representatives, no overwhelming case appears yet to have been made for the principle in the United Kingdom".
But how will reform get going? Parliament is less than keen, and the Church is even less so. A couple of times Morris quietly implies that the Church is being culpably timid; instead of repeating the old rhetoric about defending Christian Britain, it should be leading the discussion, ensuring that the inevitable reform happens as smoothly as possible. He tentatively wonders whether its evasion of the issue is rooted in its fear that serious change will magnify its old internal division.
I would go further: in my opinion the Church's evasion of this issue has been shameful. The Church of England used to be notable for its many courageously honest voices, ready to speak inconvenient truths. It is now more notable for its chippy, defensive tone; it seems to lack the confidence to look this matter of great national importance in the eye.
This book will be widely read by canny politicians and policy wonks; its careful dissection of the issues will help to inform the choices that are coming. Bishops will probably complain that it is biased.
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