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At worst, establishment flies the flag of Westminster Abbey, a royal peculiar, at half mast on government orders for the death of the king of Saudi Arabia, a country which beheads political opponents, mandates the death penalty for Christian converts (“apostates”), and murders journalists. So the Church has to accept compromise in return for these opportunities to serve. Bishops will deny it, but a measure of self-censorship is ingrained. No bishop joined the chorus of politicians complaining about the flag.

The relationship between elected politicians, Church and Crown has always been a delicate dance. However, newer voices have pressed the question of whether it should be re-choreographed, ignorant of the Church’s contributions to national life or hostile to the institution, arguing that popular culture and Church have diverged ever further.

Take this question in the Commons:

Many people in this country think that it is wrong to have an established Church and that it would be helpful if England followed the example of Scotland and Wales and disestablished its Church, recognising that we are a multicultural, multi-faith society and that no religion or Church should be given pre-eminence over others. Would it not be prudent for the Church Commissioners to do their sums now so that when that democratic day dawns, it will not be such a shock for them?

The year was 1999, the questioner Jeremy Corbyn. He has not publicly discussed establishment since becoming Labour leader. However, with Momentum’s tightening grip on his party, intent on their radical agenda, how likely is disestablishment were he ever to move into Downing Street?

Disestablishment is not a binary equation. There has long been a gradual erosion of the Church’s position. For example, when the Supreme Court was split from the House of Lords in 2009, two Lords Spiritual (Bishop Graham James and Bishop James Jones) offered to say prayers at the beginning of sittings of the new court, but their offer was declined. And it was not the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn who declared in  2003, “We don’t do God,” but Tony Blair's right-hand man, Alasdair Campbell. That said, the trajectory is not only downward. Weekly meetings between archbishops of Canterbury and prime ministers have become more common over the last 20 years: Theresa May, a vicar’s daughter and practising Anglican, regularly meets Justin Welby in an official capacity.

Corbyn appreciates the roles religion plays in the lives of his constituents, and acknowledges the churches’ contribution to running food banks. But would Labour nonetheless take more proactive steps to reduce the Church’s role in our national life? One way would be to remove an especially visible aspect of establishment — bishops in the House of Lords — through reform of the Upper House. Labour’s last three manifestos have pledged a slimmed-down, democratically elected and more regionally diverse second chamber, so bishops could find themselves homeless as a by-product of wider-ranging change.
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