Disestablish the C of E? Ask Corbyn

The Labour leader wants to separate Church and State. How could Justin Welby lead Anglicans under an anticlerical government?

Theresa May with Justin Welby: The Prime Minister, a practising Anglican, regularly meets the Archbishop. Would Jeremy Corbyn do so? (© REX/SHUTTERSTOCK)

The fictional Jim Hacker defended his role in selecting a bishop in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister saying: “But I’m the prime minister. Religion has nothing to do with it; [bishops] are just managers in fancy dress.”

Church and State are joined at the hip in England. When a name is put forward to succeed John Sentamu at the helm of the see of York and the Church of England’s northern province, he or she will be recommended to the sovereign by a prime minister who may not be Anglican, or even believe in God. Technically, the PM could reject a candidate.

But while the state can shape the Church’s senior leadership, the hierarchy of influence is reversed at a coronation. It centres on a service of Holy Communion during which the new monarch is anointed with oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury and swears to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant reformed religion established by law” and “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England”.

There are those who want to pull this delicate and complex design apart. Particularly at a time of fragmentation in national life, they should be careful what they wish for. Now is not the time to kick at an institution that aims to benefit our whole divided country and preserve values of service and compassion at the highest levels of power.

Establishment is a fluid series of relationships and roles. At the grassroots, it entitles every resident of England to marry or be buried in their parish; the parish network in places struggles against the odds to serve the needs of local people whose other community structures collapsed years ago. Not surprising then that in 2011 a survey found over that half of Britons — and a slightly higher proportion of English respondents — believed the CofE should keep its status as the official established Church in England, and a further fifth were neutral. At a constitutional level establishment means the monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, that bishops swear an oath of allegiance to her or him, that 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords, that an Anglican cleric says prayers at the start of parliamentary business each day, and that decisions taken by General Synod require parliamentary approval.

At best, establishment puts a supremely pastoral figure to work with bereaved and angry families in cases of national disasters. It is unlikely that Bishop James Jones, then of Liverpool, would have been asked to chair the Hillsborough Panel and commanded the respect of ministers, peers and MPs had he not already been on their radar through being in the Lords. His learning from that experience is now helping Bishop Graham Tomlin of Kensington, as he supports the survivors of the Grenfell fire. Many who broadly support establishment say the bishops in the Lords represent the whole nation, not just members of the CofE; that fellow peers value their interventions on social issues because they include testimony from the “front line”; that followers of other religions feel represented by them, and that they bring non-partisan pastoral concern to the cold corridors of power.

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.

Ordinarily, you might expect constitutional reform to be a second-term issue, after a first spent — in the case of a Corbyn government — making good on promises such as renationalisation. And after Brexit, the public might need some convincing of the need for another fiddly, time-consuming extraction process as the country sought to steady itself. But some believe that change may be forced more immediately by the cocktail of tensions already being shaken up by Brexit — the Northern Irish border, the stand-off between Westminster and Holyrood, resentments over the £1 billion cost of DUP support, and the polarisation of political life. If Brexit negotiations resulted in a no-confidence vote and a subsequent general election produced a hung parliament, a constitutional crisis could ensue, it is argued, from which an elected second chamber could emerge with the bishops excluded — collateral damage.

Is that far-fetched? An Act of Union bill, a private member’s bill with some cross-party backing, was introduced to the House of Lords on October 9, intended to pre-empt the prospect of a constitutional crisis and bang the drum for a rethinking of the union. It proposes devolution on a radical scale, the abolition or replacement of the Lords, and the option for voters in England of some kind of English parliament. Some Anglican bishops might be allowed back to join the largely elected members of the new Lords alongside some other religious leaders, but that would be the extent of it.

Yet establishment also faces challenges from within the Church. For example, some conservatives feel that the establishment compromise is becoming untenable, especially as the Church considers requests from liberal clergy to bless same-sex relationships or celebrate gay marriage. They talk of “alternative structures” and “visible differentiation” rather than breaking away. But how tenable is a two-tier Church? And if clergy or dioceses did form an alternative structure, as happened among Anglicans in North America, where would that leave the parish model if some parishes belonged to another Church?

As for bishops, they display varying shades of ambivalence towards establishment, for a variety of reasons. Archbishop Welby has said it would not be a “disaster”, though it would be legally complicated and should be “a decision for parliament and people”. His predecessor Rowan Williams agreed that it would not be the end of the world, but the issue arouses in him a rare “bloody-mindedness” to oppose secularists bent on keeping religion out of the public sphere. For Bishop James Jones, establishment, particularly the coronation oath, is a source of accountability and a repository for symbol and ritual at the core of British identity.

But are we looking in the wrong direction? Both parliament and the crown have lost power since establishment was forged in the fires of the Reformation, to an actor whose power continues to grow: global markets. As Bishop Peter Selby, former bishop of Worcester, argued in a 2012 lecture, since so much power now rests with big business perhaps the Church needs to pay more attention to the kings of the globalised financial marketplace. Six years on, the point has become even more urgent with the growth of the internet giants that increasingly control our data and communications. But given the challenges governments have encountered in dealing with the likes of Facebook and Google, what hope is there for a supposedly “Old World” institution such as the Church?

Archbishop Welby is not one to duck a challenge. For example, his recent address to the TUC conference criticised Amazon for paying low tax and wages. It may be fanciful to imagine that an archbishop’s comments had an impact on the decision by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos — the world’s richest man — to raise pay rates in the US and the UK, but staff in other countries have protested over pay and not received a rise. Welby’s widely reported interventions on finance have shown him to be a critical friend of business, with a nuanced position on the role of money. In 2013 he spoke of the “possibility of wealth as life-giving water”. But the TUC speech, delivered six days after the publication of an Institute for Public Policy Research report in which he called for measures to combat “destabilising” inequality, suggests that he has grown impatient.

While the Church grapples with social and economic change, one element in the triangular constitutional dance has repositioned itself rather well. When Prince Charles suggested in 1994 that as monarch he would reject the centuries-old title Defender of the Faith in favour of the more general “defender of faith”, concern rippled among Christians. However, the Queen appears to have drawn on her son’s idea: in a 2012 speech at Lambeth Palace she argued that the C of E’s place in society had been “occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated”. In a formula that would have been unrecognisable to the first Elizabethans, she continued: “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” (Charles has since reinforced this reframing, arguing that “at the same time as being Defender of the Faith you can also be protector of faiths”.) Thus the Queen rebuffed critics of the CofE’s preferential status and those who question its place in a multifaith society — in effect, defending the Anglican Church as a trustee of a place in which all can flourish.

Archbishop Welby’s TUC speech was trying to achieve something similar in the economic realm. He made clear that he was being political, not party political. It was not about “Right” or “Left”: it was about realising the common good; here, economic good as it contributes to a broader good, an aspiration ingrained in Christian thought and practice. What he said should demonstrate to anticlerical Labour members the values the Church shares with them, while continuing to alert hard-right Tory policymakers to the corrosiveness of unbridled individualism.

History rarely goes in straight lines. Although church attendance is still falling (by between 10 and 15 per cent between 2006 and 2016), engagement with churches — through schools, foodbanks and so on — remains high and the Church is investing £27 million in more than 100 new churches on housing estates and other deprived areas. In 11 per cent of parishes the decline in attendance is being reversed. Graham James, chaplain to Archbishops Robert Runcie and George Carey, and Bishop of Norwich since 1999, told Standpoint he believed bishops are more active in the Lords than 30 years ago, when the upper chamber bore a greater resemblance to “a gentlemen’s club”.

And while for decades sexual ethics have driven a wedge between the Church and popular opinion, some assumptions are being revisited. The power dynamics around personal freedoms are being challenged like never before, through #MeToo and the mental health crisis among British teens. Economically, the crisis of 2008 and its aftermath have cast a long shadow. There is a dissatisfaction with what we have become.

A wise Church will step carefully but confidently into both debates, using the language of respect, fairness and human flourishing. That is where it has a deeply needed and potentially powerful role, power based not on political structure, but on the core of its message.  

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