NEW POLL: time to disestablish the Church of England?

by Stephen Tall on December 22, 2008

140 years after Gladstone helped reunite the Liberal Party around the issue of disestablishing the Anglican Church of Ireland, the issue of the link between Church and State has once again reared its head. The Telegraph yesterday reported that the Government is considering

a report being drawn up in Downing Street on ways to reform a key element of the established Church, the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars a Catholic from ascending to the throne. David Cairns, a former Roman Catholic priest who resigned as a minister at the Scotland Office two months ago in protest at Gordon Brown’s leadership, said … “It is simply untenable in this day and age that should the heir to the throne want to marry a Roman Catholic he would have to renounce his rights. It’s absurd.

“But you can’t just unpick that one thing. You have to think through the consequences. If Prince William married a Catholic what happens if their children are Catholic? You can’t have a Roman Catholic head of the Church of England. So you have to have some way of resolving the issue of the head of state being the titular head of the established Church. If the Archbishop [of Canterbury] himself is raising the prospect of disestablishment why not do something about it?”

I was brought up in the nonconformist Christian tradition, and it has always seemed to me utterly bizarre that the state should have any say over matters of personal faith; that the appointment of bishops and archbishops should be subject to government approval is the ultimate hubris (admittedly the Church of England’s founder was not known for his demure modesty). And that the Church, which presumably is in the position to appeal to the Highest Power of all, should seek instead to pray in aid man-made government suggests a worrying lack of self-confidence.

Of course, the reality is that church disestablishment is a minority interest; historical anachronism though it is, it’s hard to point to a particular malignancy, a social ill, that would be cured through the separation of church and state. I guess for me it’s more a case of “I wouldn’t start from here” – disestablishment is, in my view, the right thing to do, the neat thing to do. But it’s not going to get me impassioned.

The case for the continuing establishment of the Church of England was espoused by a Liberal Democrat very recently – Alan Beith, speaking last month at the Liberal Democrat Christian Forum’s inaugural Gladstone Lecture, put forward the view that:

… disestablishment is not a necessary feature of a diverse and multi-cultural society, and if the purpose of disestablishment were to make religion less significant in society, that would not justify it. Indeed, if that were to be the result, it would be most unwelcome to many of the groups in whose interest it is being pursued – I know of no evidence that significant numbers of Muslims, Jews, Hindus or Sikhs are at all interested in getting the Church of England disestablished, and it is no longer a popular view with nonconformists or Catholics as it was a century ago. … in current conditions disestablishment might pander to the view that religion in general needs to be banished from society, painted out like offensive graffiti by council workers, almost literally in some cases. It is that sort of view which produces “winterval” and “happy holidays” instead of Christmas, and takes down crosses in crematoria.

But what’s your view, dear reader? That’s what LDV is asking in our Christmas week poll: Do you think the time has now come for the Church of England to be disestablished?

Here are your options:

>> Yes, the link between state and church should be immediately ended
>> Yes, in principle, but it is a minor issue
>> No, it is important to retain the link between church and state
>> Don’t know / Other

As ever, feel free to argue more nuanced points in the comments thread below…