The Church of England: Britain's State Church

For and Against

"I accept Your Majesty as the sole source of ecclesiastical, spiritual and temporal power."
The oath of loyalty sworn by Church of England bishops

The privileged position enjoyed by the Church of England and the way in which this infringed the religious liberty of non-anglicans, caused the established church to come under attack from early radicals such as Tom Paine, whose works undoubtedly influenced the architects of the American Revolution and the drafters of the US constitution. By the mid-nineteenth century the cause of disestablishment was on the agenda of the reformist Chartist movement and also that of the 'Radical Programme' of Liberal Party members. The spread of non-conformist churches throughout Britain helped popularise the idea. And prominent Liberal figures of both periods such as J. S. Mill and Herbert Spencer also advocated disestablishing the Church. So prominent was the cause during this era of political agitation and reform, that in 1869 the Liberal government under Gladstone's ministry disestablished the Church of Ireland. The issue was still salient in the demands of early twentieth century reformers. In 1920 the Liberal government of Lloyd George disestablished the Church of Wales. It also granted virtual self-government to the Church of England by creating a Church Assembly, the predecessor to today's General Synod which is still subject to Parliamentary veto of its decisions. This was effective in burying the issue.

The position of the Thatcher government in the mid-eighties was that Parliament would not disestablish the Church of England until it received a call to do so from the Church's General Synod. And that is the consensus amongst the mainstream political actors today. Even Charter 88, which campaigns for the removal of hereditary peers from the House of Lords, is not committed to the removal of the 26 bishops who have seats in the legislature.

The call for disestablishment has been raised by some prominent Labour and Conservative party figures. They include former MP Tony Benn. In 1988 and again in 1991 he proposed legislation that would have disestablished the Church. Norman Tebbit, who was a minister in the government of Margaret Thatcher and now a legislator-for-life, also favours disestablishment, on the basis of a libertarian New Right critique of the state. Disestablishment is supported by most British religious leaders outside of the Church of England, the Libertarian Alliance and even by the Christian Socialist Movement, of which former Prime Minister Tony Blair is a prominent member. However, the only active campaigning that has been undertaken on the issue has been that of organisations such as the National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association.


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