Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism

Establishment and the Church of England

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Yesterday I spent the day in Oxford for Affirming Catholicism’s The Established Church: Past, Present, Future conference. The speakers were Nigel Biggar (Oxford professor of moral and pastoral theology), Matthew Grimley (Oxford tutor in 20th-century British cultural and religious history), Mark Chapman (Oxford reader in modern theology), Judith Maltby (Oxford reader in church history), Elaine Graham (Manchester professor of social and pastoral theology) and William Whyte (Oxford lecturer in modern history).

Of these, only Biggar and Graham entered into explicit arguments in support of the establishment of the Church of England, and perhaps did so because they alone specifically dealt with the future of our establishment arrangements. Biggar presented a clear and concise argument for establishment based on political and moral philosophy, while Graham presented a compelling version of the sociological argument from localised social capital.

The main points of Biggar’s philosophical argument, as I scribbled them down, were first that the Church of England upholds a liberal humanism that creates an open environment in which all who uphold human dignity can take part. Secondly, he suggested that Anglicanism has proved its tolerance of those within and without the church. Finally, he understood the results of various polls to mean that there was ‘active support’ for Anglican establishment from a majority of the English.

I think this is the first time I have come across a full, philosophical argument for establishment. I believe it to be about as good as such an argument can get, which reveals the weaknesses of the position. There is a great problem with the description of the Church of England as an upholder of liberal humanism, however defined. I grant that a great deal of liberal humanism underpins the church’s decision making and its rationalisation of its tradition. However, I argued at the conference that this view of the church’s liberal humanism would be roundly applauded by every one of our women bishops and openly gay bishops! It may seem an extreme test, but until it is conceivable that a gay woman might be Archbishop of Canterbury it is difficult to argue that this institution embodies liberal-humanist principles.

On the point of out tolerance (in itself a negative virtue), it is part of this pervasive myth among Anglicans (communicant and nominal) that the church was ever thoughtfully considerate. The difficulty with this myth is the weight of historical evidence to bring it to book. Until 1829, the Church of England fought to render nonconformists and dissenters second-class subjects. True, the church was in the forefront of the abolition of slavery, but only after a century of tacit support for sugar planters and slave ships. The Anglican defence could be a more rhetorical version of the claim, “But we’re quite nice now!” However, I would take issue with that, seeing as the church has sought to exempt itself from modern legislation against employment-based discrimination on the grounds of sex and sexuality.

I do not wish to engage on the point about active popular support for establishment in an argumentum ex statistico, but wonder if this is truly what it seems: the placing of church establishment under direct democratic control, not just that of Parliament. After all, Biggar had begun his paper by defining the ‘accidences’ of establishment to include top-down moral authority bestowed on the monarch at her coronation and the reasons for retaining seats reserved for Anglican bishops in the House of Lords while not having equitable representation for other religious communities. If such active popular support is a necessary key to establishment, surely this should be put to a regular referendum.

Although, unconvinced by Biggar’s philosophical argument for establishment, and piqued to drive horse and cart through it, he brought some very good material to the debate. On understanding US religious liberty, Biggar employed Michael Perry’s description of the actuality of state-sanctioned ‘ecumenical monotheism’, and then described French state ‘atheist Kantianism’. These descriptions are attractive descriptions of religious functionalism: that each polity needs a kind of civic religion, or ethical philosophy, and thus overall neutrality is impossible. However, I disliked what I saw as his nitpicking critique of Martha Nussbaum’s secularism and her search to find a balance between these two preeminent models of the secular state. Biggar also looked at the argument that the US would be unlikely to elect an atheist or agnostic president, whereas a prime minister of such convictions would be easily possible in Britain. Of course, this is a category mistake — it is not to do with state-church relations but the electoral mechanics — direct election of the executive is about personality, which includes religious beliefs. By far the most interesting point Biggar made was that civic religion looses its ability to prophesy. Although the Church of England has retained some prophetic function, is it possible this is hampered by its establishment?

Matthew Grimley (on the Prayer Book Crisis of 1928) and Mark Chapman (under the Anglo-Catholic motto ‘A Free Church in a Free State’) presented a number of portraits of leading disestablishmentarians. One wonders whether the cause has not been best served by some of its advocates! Hensley Henson advocated disestablishment after the Prayer Book Crisis, but had previously voted against the Church Assembly Act in the House of Lords (i.e. employing his establishment legislative role against church self-government).  John Keble’s advocacy of disestablishment was clearly against the secular authority over the church, but the freedom he espoused was freedom to be under strict episcopal authority. Charles Gore followed a similar line, opposing the liberalising pluralism of state control, insisting that the church separate to be able to enforce its internal moral authority. Two proponents of disestablishment that I must read more of are Harold Laski (of whom I credit George Orwell for putting me off) and Valerie Pitt. After the fuzzy thinking I’ve encountered in the proestablishment argument, I believe we need more like them who will deinsulate the church from the expectations of the masses.

Elaine Graham spoke on the social capital of the Church of England and its role in multiculturalism and social cohesion. I think this is where most parochial clergy like to centre the debate. I am now left wondering though, whether Anglicans talk up our social capital more the less it becomes. Indeed, it soon becomes clear that national establishment is desirable only insofar as it enables local establishment in the leverage of social capital. Thus, the more national establishment becomes an end in itself, the less credible it is. However, Anglican exceptionalism seemed to dissolve when Graham spoke about New Labour’s policy in employing religious communities for social cohesion: this is interfaith social capital becoming more important. Like other arguments for the establishment, the argument from social capital fails to explain why it takes a parliamentary parent and legal requirement to make the church both universal and local in its ministry where there are good theological arguments that should be self-compelling.

In William Whyte’s summary, he pointed out that we’re really talking about establishment since 1829, when the Catholic Relief Act meant that there was no longer absolute continuity of religious ground between Church, Parliament and Crown. Ever since, we have seen what was effectively our state religion become gradually disestablished. In debate, this was likened to a goat on an ever lengthening tether.

Finally, in the open discussion, we came to the most real and practical excuse against disestablishment: that it’s too difficult. I would have wanted to point out that the church establishment is hardwired into our constitution, and cutting this Gordian knot might require us to reevaluate other constitutional arrangements, not least the House of Lords and the monarchy. However, the take on this argument was very much à la PCC: fabric and finance. We have before us the very real question of the Church of England’s state endowment, which cannot be decisively shown to be that of state or church separately. Disendowment is a very real question the debate needs to cover. Most Anglicans find the idea of Church of England disendowment to be scary, but it is not as if our present relationship with our buildings and financial arrangements is a comfortable one, or theologically satisfying.

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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