Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Church disestablishment and freedom

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Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham in my former diocese, has written a blog post (supposedly based on Andrew Brown’s post about slavery/freedom, atheism/religion, which reads like a lesson on how to perform keyhole surgery with a monster truck) about how Denmark is a wonderfully free country with an incredibly established state church, and this makes church establishment good for the rest of us. He even includes a picture of Fred Phelps of the infamous Westboro Baptist Church, holding up his God hates fags placard, to show us what religion looks like when it’s privatised!

The perfect societies of Scandinavia is a popular meme in British discussion on social and political issues. The fire behind this smokescreen is that Scandinavian countries have managed their natural resources fairly well, remained relatively homogeneous and retained moderately successful social democratic systems. The two latter reasons mean that the real wealth from natural resources is fairly well distributed. This is a Good Thing, but one cannot take the close church-state relationship in Denmark, transplant it elsewhere and make elsewhere look like Denmark.

Alan Wilson’s first point is that we should consider there to be a third way between ‘coercive theocracy’ and ‘privatised religion’. As a British socialist, this kind of talk makes all manner of anti-Blairite alarm bells ring. However, his use of the word ‘privatisation’ to describe the separation of church and state in the United States is interesting. Socialism advocates the ownership of institutions and property by those who have a participatory interest in them. If one has total common membership of a church, it makes sense for it to be publicly run. If the church has limited, optional participation, then it should be run by its members. It’s no wonder that so many members of trades unions and socialist groups in British history were also members of congregationalist or connexion churches, run more as cooperative societies than feudal domains. I don’t think anyone would truly think of Methodism or the Church in Wales as privatised religion. What Alan Wilson is doing is putting up a strawman called privatised religion, being the effect of disestablishment. The strawman is dressed up with ideas about big-business Christianity in the US, and that picture of Phelps, so that we all want to hate the strawman, and advocate antidisestablishmentarianism (yes, I said it!). I know of a good number of religious US citizens who would take extreme exception to this picture of their country’s religions: this doesn’t reflect the Catholics in Chicago, the Jews in Brooklyn, the Mormons in Utah and the Buddhists in California, who practise their faith freely and openly. Yes, there are issues about the integration of capitalist ideals into ecclesiology, but this isn’t the default route for disestablished churches. Using a picture of Phelps to illustrate US freedom of religion is ignorant spin.

His second point is that ‘establishment nobbles the internal dynamics of a church’.  It appears that he thinks ‘internal dynamics’ is a nasty, political creature that inhabits disestablished churches, and that letting people outside of the church structure who are nasty and political (e.g. lawyers and politicians) do the dynamics, the clergy can get on with being steady-state George Herberts. This makes me want to break into a bad cover of a Skunk Anansie song about what is political! There are many who complain about the church being ‘political’. In fact, what they’re griping about is that the church is full of people with gripes. If we were truly political, wouldn’t we have a truer voice and truer action? ‘Illogical, but I’ve seen it done.’

The third point is that establishment prevents paranoia. Whereas the truth is that the Church of England is a pretty paranoid institution, trying to please everyone, while trying to be authentic to something half-forgotten. This can be demonstrated by the silly, little press release by Alan Wilson’s fellow suffragan that Jesus wouldn’t have shopped at Marks & Spencers. I wholly expect the Bishop of Reading to be hanging out with hoodies in an Asda car park next in order to raise the credibility of his posse! If God’s truth can be trusted to get on with itself, with which I agree, then establishment is at least unnecessary, and at worst a constraint on God’s truth. The angst-ridden Church of England has oppressed by its temporal power those who dissent through history, but Alan Wilson still thinks that an established church is something that atheists should applaud. Just mentioning that Elizabeth Windsor is Anglican in England, Presbyterian in Scotland and non-committal elsewhere shows what a mockery monarchy and establishment make of Christian faith.

The next step in unreason is that the monarchy and church are somehow ‘non-imperialistic’, and managed a controlled retreat from empire, whereas the US Empire’s collapse creates a shrill US religious current. This is just nuts. US imperialism, very real though it is, is a far different beast to the Old Pink Bits on the Map. In fact, if we understand imperialism as global manipulative power, the UK still has it in awful shed loads. I wonder if the bishop has failed to notice the problems that have been brewing in the Church of England’s ‘post-imperial’ world over the last few years.

All this is summarised by stating that he feels ‘queasy’ about the Church of England as the religious equivalent of Tesco’s. And rightly so, because it’s a silly conceit. So, then we’re offered the choice of whether we want England to be more like Denmark or Texas/Iran (Texran anybody?). And that, in no conceivable way, is a silly conceit.

Author: Gareth Hughes

A priest of the Church of England, who is Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford, and doing Syriac research at Oxford University.

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