What is the Good of Establishment?

An “established” Church of England affronts both secularists and Anglicans. But it offers the best protection for humanist liberalism

By the grace of God: The Coronation service signifies that the head of state must be authorised from above (Getty) 

What follows is an argument in favour of the establishment or public privileging of the Church of England. Since “establishment” can mean all manner of thing — as a survey of European, indeed British, arrangements would quickly reveal — let me make clear right at the beginning what I have in mind.

First there is the Coronation Service, in which the head of state, kneeling, receives authorisation from above, not from below. Contrary to the populist orthodoxy that prevails among us, the moral legitimacy of government issues primarily from its faithfulness to the given principles of justice, and not from its reflection of popular will — as the fate of the Weimar Republic in the early 1930s should have taught us. In an era that finds it hard to think of political legitimacy except in terms of popular election, and which is therefore inclined to collapse a healthily mixed constitution into its democratic element, the Coronation Service makes an important and dramatic cautionary statement — and in our circumstances, a prophetic one.

Second is the affirmation by the head of state of the established church through the monarch’s special association with it. While the disqualification of Roman Catholics from succession should be removed, the requirement of communion with the Church of England should remain. If the Roman Catholic church chooses to continue to prohibit members from such communion, then that is a problem for Rome.

Third comes the sitting of Anglican bishops in the Upper House of Parliament. An Upper House ought to give us an “aristocracy” of expertise, perchance wisdom, and not a mirror-image of the Lower House. Therefore, its composition ought to guarantee the representation of civil society in all its variety — including the Church of England. Since direct elections cannot guarantee such representation, appointments will be necessary. It is true that support in the House of Commons for the recommendation by the Wakeham Commission (2000) of a predominantly appointed — rather than elected — Upper House has waned; but, given what is at stake, I see no reason simply to go with the flow. It is also true that, if seats in the Upper House were opened up to representatives of non-Anglican religious communities, it might be difficult to agree on a formula for distribution that would keep everyone’s nose entirely in joint.  But since when in politics was there ever an agreement that made everyone entirely happy? Frustration is a routine feature of political life, and tolerating it is a definitive feature of liberal political mores.

The fourth thing that I have in mind when I talk about “establishment” is the Church of England’s privileged position in state education. 

This, therefore, is the establishment that I want to defend. Against it there are two main arguments, both of them moral, one emanating from secularists and the other from within the churches themselves. I shall deal with the latter first and briefly, since I do not think it cogent.

The main Christian objection to establishment is that it corrupts the Church, constraining its freedom to speak the truth to power. To this I would respond that “establishment” can mean all manner of thing. Maybe in the past certain forms of it have spelt the Babylonian — or the Constantinian — captivity of the Church, but I cannot see that it does so now. Establishment did not prevent the Church of England from making head-on criticism of the Thatcher Government in Faith in the City in 1985. Nor did it prevent the Archbishop of Canterbury from publicly dissenting from Prime Minister Blair’s decision to go to war against Iraq in 2003. Nor has it stopped him from warning the current Coalition Government against using the “Big Society” as a fig-leaf for dismantling welfare provision. 

Besides, the tying of its prophetic tongue is only one situation that the Church should strive to avoid. Another is following an uncharitable and moralistic media into a self-flattering cynicism about those who bear responsibility for governing. With regard to the latter, establishment in the form of episcopal participation in the work of the House of Lords helps to keep at least one major civil social body sensitive to the difficulties and complexities of the necessary tasks of government. And this is important when too many leaders in the churches are inclined by the liberal zeitgeist in general, and liberation theology in particular, to take a relentlessly critical view of the state, and to assume that a Christian voice has only one, prophetic register. Or, rather, to assume that prophecy always comes from the Left. 

So much for criticism of establishment from within the churches themselves. Much more considerable, in my opinion, is the secularist critique. In a nutshell, this is that since we now live in a liberal, plural society, it is unfair for any one religion to be privileged; and that public institutions and rituals should therefore be “neutral”  with regard to rival views of the world.  

My response to this takes its cue from an unlikely quarter: namely, the thought of the pre-eminent theorist of liberal politics in recent times, the late John Rawls. Rawls’s later work is motivated by awareness that liberal values and the larger views that support them are not universally held, and that a liberal ethos is therefore contested and vulnerable. There will always be views that would suppress it — what he calls “unreasonable” comprehensive doctrines — and there is no guarantee that these will not prevail,  as they did in the case of the Weimar Republic. The virtues of tolerance, of being ready to meet others halfway, of reasonableness, and of fairness comprise political capital that can depreciate and that constantly needs to be renewed. Consequently, Rawls tells us, “the problem of stability has been on our minds from the outset”.  

So a liberal point of view is not neutral. It is not a view from nowhere. Liberal space is not indefinite. It is bounded by certain moral convictions, which are expressive of a certain understanding of human beings. Some worldviews will not support a liberal ethos; and some will actually corrode it. So if a liberal ethos is to survive, supportive views have to be fostered by public institutions, and corrosive ones (somehow) suppressed: “The principles of any reasonable political conception,” writes Rawls, “must impose restrictions on permissible comprehensive views, and the basic institutions those principles require inevitably encourage some ways of life and discourage others, or even exclude them altogether.” 

At this point I need to make clear that there are different kinds of liberalism, and different kinds of liberal ethos. Some, like Rawls’s, are humanist, in that they presuppose a high notion of objective human dignity. The libertarian version is not humanist, I think, in that its logic collapses dignity into individual autonomy and ends up affirming consensual cannibalism of the kind that Armin Meiwes and his willing victim practised ten years ago in Germany. 

Rawls believes that a liberal view of human beings and liberal values can find, and need to find, support in a limited plurality of larger worldviews — what he calls “reasonable” comprehensive doctrines. Among these are his own secular Kantianism, but also certain versions of Christianity and, indeed, of Islam. So unlike many British liberals — for example, Polly Toynbee — Rawls sees in certain kinds of religion, not enemies, but important allies.

Nevertheless, Rawls believes that public discourse — the discourse of parliament and the law courts, and perhaps also of public rituals — should not involve religious references, but should be conducted in terms of “public reason”. Public reason comprises the set of liberal moral values and such anthropological tenets as are necessary to make sense of it, upon which various “reasonable” comprehensive doctrines converge. That is to say, it comprises the “overlapping (moral and anthropological) consensus”, which he believes can be made to float free of the various larger theological and metaphysical views that sustain it.

Here I part company with Rawls. While Kantian humanists and Christian humanists and Muslim humanists all affirm the liberal humanist value of human dignity, they do so in ways that are sometimes significantly different. Their common affirmation of human dignity does not prevent disagreement over how human foetuses should be treated or whether human beings should be permitted to control their dying by committing suicide. And these disagreements, these differences in interpretation, can be traced back to their deeper religious and philosophical worldviews. Public reason, therefore, is not entirely common. It is not neutral. It does not float free of the larger comprehensive humanist doctrines that support it. On the contrary, these larger doctrines give rise to significant disagreements within the common terms of public reason. Rawls himself implicitly recognised this, at least on the margins of his thought, where he acknowledged that public reason involves radical controversy as well as consensus. Why else would we need to have recourse, as Rawls acknowledges we do, to decision by majority vote?

So, liberal humanist space is not indefinite. Nor should it be taken for granted; it is under threat from a variety of anti-humanisms. Liberal public institutions that would survive, then, cannot afford to take a neutral position on ethics and anthropology. Nor can they afford to be neutral with regard to which larger views of the world dominate public culture, since some of these are positively subversive of liberal ethics and anthropology. Liberal public institutions therefore need to foster worldviews that commend the virtues necessary for liberal public discourse to flourish. They need to do this because, as Rawls rightly observed, there are illiberal barbarians inside the gates; and within living memory their number has been known to grow to democratically dominant proportions. 

But there is a problem; because, as Rawls also rightly observed, there is more than one humanist worldview that supports a liberal ethos. Presumably, a single set of public institutions and rituals cannot simultaneously affirm a variety of worldviews without sounding impossibly dissonant and incoherent. Rawls’s solution was to argue that they should affirm only the “overlapping consensus” — whose content is mainly ethical and thinly anthropological — while keeping silent about any of the thicker metaphysical hinterlands. I have explained why I doubt that it is either possible or desirable for “public reason” to keep silence in this way. So if liberal public institutions and rituals cannot limit their affirmation simply to a common ethic, then they must choose one supportive humanist worldview to represent. I say that they must choose one, because I assume that a single national set of public institutions and rituals cannot simultaneously affirm rival doctrines.

So one must be chosen; but which? One candidate for public comprehensive doctrine is an atheist version of Kantianism, although it would need to become significantly more liberal and less dogmatically secularist than French republicanism. Or liberal institutions could choose an ecumenical monotheism, as the US Constitution permits and American governments have in fact chosen.  Or they could choose Trinitarian Christianity, as has the Republic of Ireland. Or they could choose Anglican Christianity, as in England.

As an expression of orthodox Christianity, Anglicanism is structurally humanist in its credal affirmation of the special dignity of human being made in the image of God — a dignity intensified by God’s assumption of human flesh in the Incarnation. According to this high vision, human beings are not merely the random result of the blind operation of physical forces, nor their activity simply determined by genes or chemistry, nor their asserted significance just so much desperate whistling in the enveloping cosmic dark. No, in Christian eyes humans are the creatures of a benevolent divine intelligence, which has striven through natural evolution to create individuals who flourish in freely understanding and investing themselves in the truth about the world’s good.

In such a vision, there is truth — be it sometimes complex and internally plural — to be understood: as the creation of the one wise God, the world possesses a given rationality that is there for rational beings to grasp. Since human beings are not only rational but finite and fallible, and since they are made to flourish in society, their reasoning needs to be social: they need to reason together. Conversation, therefore, is an important social endeavour. It is not properly an occasion for the egotistical display of wit, for the scoring of points, for the assertion of superior rhetorical power, or for the domination of the weak. It is rather about the common searching out of the truth, and common deference to its authority. 

Believing as it does in the (complex) unity and rationality of things, Christian humanism endows human conversation with a serious moral significance. It also has the resources to grace it with generous, “liberal” virtues: openness to being taught and corrected, since it sees humans as finite and fallible; readiness to confess conversational dishonesty, since it also sees them as sinners; respect for others as potential speakers of the truth, since it regards everyone as a potential medium of God’s Word; tolerance of strange and unwelcome views, since finitude and fallibility preclude the identity of the familiar and the true; patience with frustrations in understanding, since truth is as much self-revealing as grasped, and since faith sustains the hope that what is now seen through a glass darkly shall yet be seen face to face; and forgiveness as a reaction to conversational injustice, since all victims are perpetrators too. 

Surely, however, this account of Christianity and its Anglican expression is, as one critic of an early draft of this chapter put it, “a tad idealistic”. How does their vaunted liberal humanism square with Christianity’s actual history of authoritarianism and repression? And how does it square with the Church of England’s record of persecuting Roman Catholics and nonconformists, with its ownership of slaves in the West Indies, with its grudging admission of women to the priesthood and episcopacy, and with its persistent exclusion from these of practising homosexuals? 

The first thing to say in response is that no society can avoid asserting the authority of an orthodoxy against its heterodoxies, if necessary by means of coercive law. As we saw above, even John Rawls admitted as much of liberal societies; and as we shall see below, what Rawls admits, Martha Nussbaum unwittingly corroborates. “Liberal” is a relative term. Only totalitarian societies are simply illiberal; others are more or less liberal. Even medieval Christendom — now a secularist byword for violent, authoritarian repression — allowed public space for disagreement and tolerated the expression of controversial views. If that were not so, then there would have been no scholastic disputations in the universities. The difference between pre-modern Christian societies and contemporary liberal ones is a matter of degree, not kind. Modern liberal societies have their heretics too: sexists, racists, and homophobes, of course, but now also public critics of homosexual practice, as well as employees who express their religious faith in “secular” institutions. If such societies do not execute dissidents, then that is largely because they can take for granted a far greater degree of social peace, thanks to unprecedented wealth, health and political control. To be fair, it is also because Western societies have learned through gradual liberalisation that social cohesion can survive a greater measure of plurality than was previously supposed. Note, however, that the issues of social cohesion and national identity in the face of cultural and moral diversity are still very much with us; and while traditionally the preoccupation of conservatives, they now disturb the sleep of post-multiculturalist liberals.

Second, insofar as Christendom was unjustly repressive, that can only be confessed and repudiated. Does such failure undermine Christianity’s claim to a certain liberal humanism? Not necessarily. No human institution of long standing can display a historical record that entirely consists with its anthropological and moral principles. Sin infects institutions — including churches — as well as individuals. Moreover, the fact that an institution from time to time betrays the principles that it daily affirms in its liturgy merely makes it inconsistent. It does not nullify its affirmation. Indeed, the institution deserves some credit for continuing to affirm the very principles by which its own conduct stands condemned. Inconsistency in virtue is surely better than consistency in vice. 

So, third, insofar as Anglican ownership of slaves involved a denial of their equal humanity, then such self-betrayal can only be lamented unreservedly. However, it was never the Church as a whole that owned them, but rather one of its missionary bodies, the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel (SPG). It is true that the Archbishop of Canterbury was the Society’s President; but then two leading British abolitionists, Granville Sharp and William Wilberforce, were also members. Further, in the judgment of one authority, the “blacks [on the SPG’s Codrington plantation] were treated with unusual humanity”. More generally, the leading historian of British abolition, Roger Anstey, ascribes to Anglican (latitudinarian) theology an important role in “producing a cast of mind prepared to contemplate reform”, propagating the ideas of benevolence and  progressive revelation. In the campaign for the abolition of the slave trade, Anglican clergy comprised the largest group of supporters after the Quakers. Moreover, according to Anstey, “[t]he record of the [Anglican] episcopal bench [in the House of Lords] … was in fact good”:  “the bench of bishops voted virtually en bloc for abolition when the motion came on [on March 23, 1807]”.

Fourth, the Anglican establishment did not penalise Roman Catholics or nonconformists because it doubted their equal humanity, but because it feared their political subversiveness. Likewise, it has not discriminated against women or gays because it doubted their equal status before God. In the case of women it has doubted that equality before God implies social equality or, more fastidiously, fitness for the role of priest or bishop; and in the case of gays it has doubted the morality of homosexual practice. Even liberal establishments countenance discrimination against classes of people on the grounds of their ill-suitedness to roles or their immoral behaviour, without calling into question their equal humanity.    

Finally, the Church of England was originally conceived as a relatively liberal space, and, despite parts of itself, it has maintained a continuous liberal strand ever since. Determined to avoid importing continental-style civil bloodshed, Queen Elizabeth I “settled” the Church as broadly Protestant. She refused Puritan pressure to make it strictly Calvinist, and she reluctantly ceded the active repression of English Roman Catholics only in the wake of military rebellion in 1569-70, and when it became clear that some read the Pope’s dissolving her subjects’ allegiance to her in 1750 as ground for plotting her assassination.

It is true, sadly, that in the following 12 decades the political persecution of Catholics and non-conformists was intermittently brutal. Nevertheless, even during that long period of sectarian hostility, civil war and government repression, the Church of England managed to generate and sustain a liberal tradition. I refer immediately to the intellectual community that the convivial Lucius Carey, Second Viscount Falkland, gathered around himself at his Oxfordshire home in the politically tense 1630s. Alarmed at the rising stridency of rival certainties and appalled by the ensuing violence, this “Great Tew Circle” championed the use of reason in matters of religion, followed Erasmus (and St Paul) in distinguishing between fundamenta and adiaphora, advocated tolerance on matters indifferent, and looked for the reunion of Christendom. The reasonable and pacific temper of this body of lay Anglicans is well expressed by Falkland himself in his discourse, Of the Infallibility of the Church of Rome

“[…] it is plaine, that he [the emperor Constantine] thought punishing for opinions to be a mark, which might serve to know false opinions by […] I am sure Christian Religions chiefest glory being, that it encreaseth by being            persecuted; and […] me thinks […]               everything is destroyed by the contrary to what settled and composed it… I desire recrimination may not be used; for though it be true, that Calvin had done it, and the Church of England, a little (which is a little too much) […], yet she (confessing she may erre) is not so chargeable with any fault, as those which pretend they cannot, and so will be sure never to mend it; […]

“I confess this opinion of damning so many, and this custome of burning so many, this breeding up those, who knew nothing else in any point of religion, yet to be in a readinesse to cry, to the fire with him, to hell with him […] These I say, in my opinion were chiefly the    causes which made so many, so suddenly leave the Church of Rome

“[…]If any man vouchsafe to think, either this [discourse], or the authour of it, of value enough to confute the one, and informe the other, I shall desire him to do it […] with that temper, which is fit to be used by men that are not so passionate, as to have the definition of reasonable creatures in vaine, remembering that truth in likelyhood is, where her author God was, in the still voice, and not the loud wind; […] 

And then again in Falkland’s remarkably gracious response to a Catholic critic:

“I am also to thank you[…]for not mixing gall with your inke; since I have ever thought that there should bee as little bitterness in a treatise of controversie, as in a love-letter, and that the contrary way was void both of Christian charity, and humane wisedome, as serving onely…to fright away the game, and make their adversarie unwilling to take instruction from him, from whom they have received injuries, and making themselves unabler to discover the truth (which Saint Au[gu]stine sayes is hard for him to find who is calme, but impossible for him that is angry).”

The Great Tew Circle was not an ephemeral anomaly. Rather, it stood self-consciously in the tradition of Christian humanism, among whose patriarchs it counted Richard Hooker, who argued in his classic apology for the Elizabethan settlement that “we must acknowledge even heretics themselves to be, though a maimed part, yet a part of the visible Church.” Yes, the Circle was scattered and, in part, consumed by the Civil War: Falkland himself was killed at the battle of Newbury and his more famous confrère, William Chillingworth, died as a prisoner-of-war. Nevertheless other members of the Circle survived, not least Gilbert Sheldon, who as Archbishop of Canterbury from 1663-77 helped to make the post-Restoration Anglican church “rational in method, ecumenical in its ultimate aims […] conciliatory, not authoritarian.” Moreover, Chillingworth’s work, especially The Religion of the Protestants (1638), “saw a renaissance following the Restoration,[…]became dominant following the [Glorious] Revolution […] and marked an epochal shift in English theology from dogmatic system to a greater emphasis on the role of reason.” Over two hundred years after the Restoration one eminent (Scottish) churchman judged that, while Falkland’s moderate party was apparently swallowed up by the Civil War:

“The principles with which it was identified, and the succession of illustrious men who belong to it, made a far more powerful impression on the national mind than has been commonly supposed. The clear evidence of this is the virtual triumph of these principles, rather than those of either of the extreme parties [Puritan and Laudian], at the Revolution of 1688 […] The same principles, both in Church and State, have never since ceased to influence our national thought and life. Their development constitutes one of the strongest, and — as it appears to me — one of the soundest and best strands, in the great thread of our national history.”

A few years later, the great Victorian critic, Matthew Arnold, chose to devote an essay to Falkland, writing of him as an early champion of the political liberty that was coming to prevail in his own time:

“Shall we blame him for his lucidity of mind and largeness of temper? Shall we even pity him? By no means. They are his great title to veneration. They are what make him ours; what link him with the nineteenth century. He and his friends, by their heroic and hopeless stand against the inadequate ideals dominant in their time, kept open their communications with the future, lived with the future. Their battle is ours too; and that we pursue it with fairer hopes of success than they did, we owe to their having waged it, and fallen.”

Thus far, the story is as follows: a liberal humanist ethos and its supporting humanist anthropology is a particular option, not a natural, default position; it is therefore subject to competition and vulnerable to being overwhelmed — as indeed it has been; accordingly public institutions that would stay liberal need actively to promote a liberal ethos, and the humanist view that makes sense of it; they also need to affirm larger worldviews that make sense of its humanist anthropology; there are various possibilities, not all of which can be affirmed simultaneously by the same institutions or in the same public rituals; one, thereforeneeds to be chosen; in England, Anglican Christianity is — notwithstanding the blemishes on its historical record — the sitting, and not unworthy, candidate.  

One immediate retort to this would be that, while Anglicanism may be the sitting candidate, there is a better one standing. But is there? There are, of course, other, non-religious liberal humanisms. However, the extent to which these are intellectually viable apart from a theological basis is controversial; and it is controversial not only from the point of view of religious believers, but also in the eyes of some agnostic or atheist philosophers. Jürgen Habermas, for example, has admitted that religious traditions “have the distinction of a superior capacity for articulating our [liberal, humanist] moral sensibility”;  and Raymond Gaita thinks that secular philosophical talk about inalienable human dignity and rights is just so much “whistling in the dark”, such notions having no secure home outside religious traditions. 

Nevertheless, it is conceivable that England could become sufficiently confident in some secular version of liberal humanism to opt for its establishment instead of that of Anglican Christianity. It could develop secularist public ceremonies to replace Christian ones — as has republican France. It could set about fostering liberal humanist virtues through secular equivalents of churches, liturgies and Bible-study groups. This could happen, but there is little sign of a collective will to make it happen. What Edward Norman wrote in 2003 still seems true now: “There is no widely accepted theoretical or symbolical alternative to the Christian religion as the justification of public moral consciousness.” There is no obvious challenger to the sitting candidate. 

Another obvious question my argument raises is this: can the public privileging of a particular religion be compatible with the liberal right to religious freedom? Yes, it can; and in England it is. In the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, the penalties for religious nonconformity in England were gradually lifted, and non-Anglicans were permitted entry to universities, the armed services, and public office. There is now no public office in England that determines either law or public policy, which may not be filled with non-Anglicans, or non-Christians, or unbelievers. Indeed, given a recent finding that 63 per cent of Americans would be less likely to vote for a candidate who does not believe in God, an agnostic or atheist today has a greater chance of becoming prime minister of the UK than president of the USA. Except on the point of a formal, institutional separation of Church and State, contemporary England meets Nicholas Wolterstorff’s criteria for a liberal democratic polity: namely, that “the State must not differentiate in its treatment of citizens on account of their religion or lack thereof, and there must be no differentiation among citizens in their right to voice in the conduct and personnel of the State on account of their religion or lack thereof.”

Prima facie evidence that the Anglican establishment is compatible with religious freedom is furnished by the support that many members of minority faiths give it. Tariq Modood claimed in 1994 that it is “a brute fact” that not a single article or speech by any non-Christian faith in favour of disestablishment can be found;  and he wrote that “the minimal nature of the Anglican establishment, its proven openness to other denominations and faiths seeking public space, and the fact that its very existence is an ongoing acknowledgement of the public character of religion, are all reasons why it may be far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphal secularism.”

In his polemic, Against Establishment, Theo Hobson argues against this, claiming that “[t]he Wakeham Commission [into the reform of the House of Lords] canvassed the views of 30 faith communities on the question of religious representation in the Lords, and all who responded were opposed to the status quo—all except the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church.”  I have searched the Wakeham report for this datum, but in vain. Still, let us grant that it is there, or that the Commission chose not to report it. What Hobson does not tell us is whether the faith communities canvassed were objecting to the presence of Church of England bishops in the House of Lords as such, or whether they merely wanted non-Anglicans to be added to them. Given what Modood and others  have written, there is good reason to assume the latter. And that, of course, does not amount to an objection to establishment per se at all.

The claim that the establishment of the Church of England is compatible with the exercise of religious freedom, receives prima facie corroboration from the support given it by adherents of minority faiths.  According to Rex Ahdar, Professor of Law at the University of Otago, and Ian Leigh, Professor of Law at Durham University, it is also corroborated by international legal conventions and the case law of the European Convention on Human Rights. US First Amendment case law, which holds that the free exercise of religion can never be complete until Church and State are separated, is the global exception, not the rule.  At least two eminent American scholars of law, Michael Perry and John Witte, agree. Witte writes of the “conspicuous absen[ce]” in international legal norms of the more radical demands for separationism reified in the American metaphor of a wall of separation.  

Most US commentators, however, regard the establishment of a particular religion as entailing a necessary offence against the equal dignity of nonconformists.  It implies a condescending tolerance, a “symbolic ostracism”. I myself do not find this point cogent. I can understand why public Christian theological affirmation might somewhat disturb non-Christian or non-theistic citizens. It might confront them with views with which they do not agree. It might contradict them. Yes, it might require them to tolerate a certain element of difference and foreignness in public institutions and rituals; but encounter with difference is a normal feature of social life, and tolerance is, after all, a classic liberal virtue. So why would it — as such and absent any restriction of civil or political liberties — offend their dignity as equal citizens? 

As I see it, there can be no such thing as a public order that is morally, anthropologically and metaphysically neutral. It must commit itself one way or another. In which case, it is inevitable that some members of any plural society will find themselves in a public order that affirms a worldview that is more or less different to their own; and will feel somewhat irritated by it. Secularist public institutions that refuse to make any theological affirmation need not be intentionally atheist; yet they are still not neutral. They cannot avoid implying that theological affirmation is unimportant for social health. Many theistic citizens — not least Muslims — will disagree strongly with this, and feel somewhat disturbed by the studiously agnostic silence of public space. This alone, however, does not give them sufficient reason to feel that their dignity as equal citizens is being affronted. Not all contradiction amounts to objective offence.

But what of the fact that one worldview is privileged with establishment, and that others are therefore not quite equal? Well, unequal treatment need not imply lack of due respect. As Ahdar and Leigh argue, a historic religion that is supported more or less actively by a majority of citizens, and which performs valuable social, educational and cultural functions, might deserve certain privileges. Unequal treatment may have   cogent reasons that do not amount to an offence against the equal human dignity of citizens. Inequality can still be equitable. 

Although she is a proudly American opponent of religious establishment, Martha Nussbaum inadvertently corroborates this argument. On the one hand, she holds that, in affirming a particular religion as orthodox, a state necessarily reduces dissenters to second-class citizens, denying their basic equality and sanctioning “dignitary affronts in the symbolic realm”.  “Our [American] ‘fixed star'”, she tells us, “is that no…[religious] orthodoxies are admissible.” Her solution is essentially Rawlsian: “The hope is that public institutions can be founded on principles that all can share, no matter what their religion. Of course these institutions will have an ethical content, prominently including the idea of equal respect itself. But they should not have a religious content.” This amounts to Rawls’s “overlapping consensus”, comprising a set of “free-standing” moral principles endorsed by a variety of comprehensive doctrines.  

On the other hand, and without any visible embarrassment, Nussbaum admits that respect for individual conscience does not mean that every religion and worldview must be equally respected by government. “Extreme views, which contradict or threaten the very foundations of the liberal constitutional order and the equality of citizens within it, must be resisted — certainly if they seek to find practical embodiment, but even if their mere verbal expression becomes a threat. Such views “will not…be able to present their ideas in the political sphere on an equal basis with other ideas”. Nevertheless, Nussbaum herself believes that in such a situation,”people [as distinct from their menacing deeds and words] are all respected as equals”.   

What Nussbaum fails to notice is that her preferred liberal polity would itself establish an orthodoxy from which dissenters — be they sexists or racists or xenophobes or simply religious believers who hold that the public acknowledgement of God is basic to political health — will feel alienated. Some of them might even feel that their dignity is being affronted. According to Nussbaum, however, they need not. Ironically, she confirms that an established orthodoxy of some sort is actually inevitable; that some are bound to find themselves more or less on the wrong side of it; and that contradiction, even suppression, of dissent need not amount to an offence against equal dignity.    

The justification for endowing the Church of England with the privilege of establishment, which I have so far advanced, is three-fold: first, that it represents a worldview that is supportive of a liberal humanist ethos; second, that its particular form of establishment has not involved civil and political penalties for non-Anglicans for well over a century;  and third, that its public orthodoxy can contradict the worldviews of some citizens without offending against their equal dignity. A fourth ground, which I add now, is that the Anglican establishment is supported more or less actively by a majority of citizens. I add this simply because it would be politically difficult (although neither impossible nor irrational) to maintain establishment in the face of an actively hostile democratic majority.   

But is the Church of England in fact supported by a majority of English citizens? Surely Britain is a “secular” country? Indeed, surely Britain is one of the most “secular” European countries, since so few of its population attend places of worship? A Tearfund survey of seven thousand adults throughout the United Kingdom in 2006 revealed that only 15 per cent attend a Christian church of any kind at least once a month, with a further 10 per cent attending somewhere between once a month and once a year. Churchgoing is therefore the sport of a minority — sizeable, perhaps, but still a clear minority. And Church-of-England-going is the sport of an even smaller minority. 

On the other hand, 53 per cent of those polled claimed affiliation with Christianity and there is reason to suppose that such claims express more than a merely nominal association. The UK Government’s Census of April 2001 returned 71.6 per cent identifying themselves as Christian, which is a substantially larger proportion than that recorded by Tearfund. Why the discrepancy? The Tearfund report offers the following explanation. The Census asked “What is your religion?”, while Tearfund asked, “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion?” Affirmative answers to the former included some from people who would have baulked at confessing that they “belonged” to a religion, and whose affirmation was therefore simply nominal. What this implies is that affirmative answers to Tearfund’s question were expressive of a more substantial commitment.  

More recently, 50 per cent of respondents to a British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey of 2008 identified themselves as “belonging” to the Christian religion; and 67 per cent of respondents were classified as either “religious” (i.e., identifying with a religion, believing in God, and attending religious services) or “fuzzy faithful” (i.e., doing two out of those three). 

Moreover, there are empirical grounds for not assuming that non-churchgoers are completely lacking in sympathy for religious beliefs and practice. Of those Britons who reported to the 2001 Opinion Business Research poll that they did not go to church, 41 per cent nevertheless admitted to praying. Further still, of the one third of respondents classified as “unreligious” by the 2008 BSA survey, 49 per cent agreed that religion is beneficial in helping people find inner peace or happiness, 42 per cent scored three to four on a 14-point scale of religiosity, and only three per cent scored zero.  

It seems that it cannot be presumed that a democratic majority of British people is currently impervious or hostile to religious beliefs, symbols and practices, and unappreciative of their public affirmation; and since Christianity is the religion with which the vast majority of Britons is familiar, it cannot be presumed that a democratic majority is completely alienated from it. 

It is true, as R. M. Morris has argued, that, if current trends continue, remaining sympathy for religion will probably diminish. Yet since trends run more on indifference than anti-clericalism (as Morris himself notes), there is reason to hope that they could be reversed by alerting people to the fragility of liberal humanist culture and to the importance of the Christian church to its prosperity. A commitment to humanity is one good reason for believing in God.

British people who identify themselves as Christian or who are sympathetically disposed, of course, might still object to the public, institutional affirmation of any religion. There is evidence, however, that they do not object. In a BBC poll in February 2009, almost two-thirds (63 per cent) of those questioned — and more or less equally across age-groups — said that the law “should respect and be influenced by UK religious values”. A similar proportion (62 per cent) agreed that “religion has an important role to play in public life”, although here support was actually higher among the young than among the middle-aged and elderly. Moreover, 79 per cent of Muslims polled, and almost as many Hindus (74 per cent) and Sikhs (74 per cent), affirmed the shaping of law by “UK religious values”. 

Now, support for the shaping of law by “UK religious values” does not quite add up to support for the establishment of Anglican Christianity. However, given that most of those describing themselves as Christian would tick the “Church of England” box, and given what we know about the predominantly supportive views of minority faith communities, of Roman Catholics, and of Protestant nonconformists, it is reasonable to infer support for establishment.

The establishment of the Church of England serves as a public affirmation of one worldview that sustains a humanist anthropology and a liberal ethos, when humanist liberalism is under threat and in need of defence and promotion. Such an establishment is compatible with the free exercise of religion and the equal dignity of all citizens in a plural society. The secularist argument that liberty, equality and fairness in a plural society require, and are best served by, disestablishment is not cogent. I rest my case.

Underrated: Abroad

The ravenous longing for the infinite possibilities of “otherwhere”

The king of cakes

"Yuletide revels were designed to see you through the dark days — and how dark they seem today"