Saturday, December 27, 2008

Disestablishment debate rumbles on

The debate about the disestablishment of the Church of England has continued over the Christmas period, with the Guardian newspaper joining those calling for an end to the church-crown connection.

The relationship of church and state came into focus recently when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, argued that the end of Establishment would "not be a disaster" - though he also made it clear that he sees more benefits than disadvantages at the moment, having abandoned his previous Welsh nonconformity since taking over as spiritual head of the Church of England.

On Christmas Eve, the Guardian proclaimed: "[T]he Church of England is a powerful force for good in many communities. It is an effective campaigning organisation (think Make Poverty History, or the London Living Wage campaign), it offers vital neighbourhood support in inner cities, and in rural areas it is often the last surviving local organisation. But while it has radically modernised and adapted its role in society, its relationship with the state is unchanged. The state religion is woven into the fabric of the laws. Even Prince Charles has long since recognised that, in a multi-faith country, this is not sustainable. Now that the government has put revision of the Act of Settlement on to the political agenda alongside the much delayed completion of the reform of the House of Lords - allowing, eventually, a Catholic monarch - it is no longer even constitutionally viable, for it would be extraordinary to have, however nominally, a Catholic as head of the Anglican church.

Disestablishment would ... be the mark of a serious, radical government, prepared to challenge tradition without destroying what is valuable within it. To be a secular state will on the face of it make little difference. It would not stop the church commenting on parliamentary activities, or even trying to sway its own members - any more than the Catholic church feels inhibited from leaning on MPs who are also Catholics. But as the Lords is democratised, the anomaly that leaves 26 bishops automatically seated in the chamber must be completely removed - and so must that lingering whisper of a sense, promoted by the prayers that precede each day's sitting, that the state has a particular relationship not with the people but with the Almighty.

"It would also help the church. If it led, as it could, to the end of the formal structures of the Lambeth conference that places Canterbury at the head of world Anglicanism, it might free the English version to reflect the outlook of most of its own membership rather than trying vainly to balance the demands of misogynist, anti-gay bishops, mainly from Africa, and tolerant liberals, mainly from America. It would be free to engage on equal terms not only with other Christian churches but with Islam. These are all concerns of which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, often talks. He admits disestablishment would not be disastrous. Yet while acknowledging from his own experience its liberating impact on the Church in Wales, he has set his face against it. He believes that without the support of the state, religion might be sidelined from public life."

Others, such as the religion and society think tank Ekklesia, have argued that far from sidelining religion in public life, the end of privilege and ties to the crown and state would enable the Church of England and other churches to rediscover a more creative role in society.

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Sotto Voce

(Source: Ekklesia)