The Church of England: Britain's State Church

An Alternative Way: The American Way

"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 American constitution is codified in one document which establishes and defines the manner, means and method under which popular government is exercised and the rights to which American citizens are entitled.

Prior to and after the Revolution of 1776, established churches had begun to appear along America's eastern seaboard. Nonetheless, many of its first European settlers being refugees from religious intolerance and persecution in Europe, the US was the first large nation to enshrine the Enlightenment-based principle of the secular state in law.

In accordance with the First Amendment, the US enjoys a strong constitutional tradition of a separation of the activities of Church and State, 'Church' in this instance representing the totality of US religious organisations. Government at all levels is carried out in a way that goes no further than supposing the existence of a supreme being ("In God We Trust" say the dollar bills). Neither religious instruction, excepting broad-based humanities curricula, nor compulsory prayer are permitted in US state schools. This part of the First Amendment has been confirmed by many decisions of the Supreme Court, which mean that just over two hundred years since the enactment of the Bill of Rights, in which the First Amendment is located, the tradition is entrenched.

The US constitution certainly is not perfect, is over two centuries old and is intentionally difficult to amend. However, most Americans can recite their constitutional rights and any literate American can easily locate where certain powers reside within the political system by studying the document itself. In addition to carrying the promise of each citizen's liberty, the US constitution is the focus of widespread patriotism. Britain has much to learn from it.

The defenders of the constitutional status quo in Britain (i.e. those against adopting a written constitution) suffer from what could best be described as an overriding sense of constitutional narcissism. Much of British constitutional tradition hails from the 'constitutional settlement' of the 'Glorious Revolution' of 1688. Much is from even earlier than that date. The dual-chamber Parliament was established under Edward III in 1377. Although the franchise was extended and the elected lower chamber was declared superior to the hereditary upper chamber earlier this century, that is still its basis.

The British constitution is still unwritten: there is not a single document. Only Israel and New Zealand are also governed in this highly unusual manner. This archaic constitution fails to define our nationhood, denigrates the notion of citizenship and is riddled with anomalies and contradictions. It is wholly irrelevant to a mature liberal democracy and to contemporary Britain in general. At its worse it is open to systematic abuse by a remote, secretive and unaccountable central government.

It is not surprising therefore, that a system which bears such little resemblance to America's codified system of government, which seeks to bring about liberty, accountability and a genuine participatory citizenship, does not attempt to separate church and state.

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