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The Church of England: Britain's State Church

The Church of Privilege

State Church logo

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


Seats in legislature: 26
Value of investment portfolio: £8.3bn (2018)
Return on assets: 17.1% (2016)
Annual investment income: £231m (2016)
Hedge fund investments: 10% of total assets (2011)
Private equity: 12% return on investments (2011)
Property, loans, short-term deposits: £1.8bn
Central land holdings: 112,000 acres
Local land holdings: 129,000 acres (Financial Times estimate)
Nominal members (UK): 9.84m (Population 65.64m)
Average weekly church attendance (UK): 1.1m
Average Sunday church attendance (UK): 944,000 (Average Catholic Church attendance 869,221)
Members worldwide: 70M
Church attenders worldwide: 25M

In April 2014 Prime Minister David Cameron called for a continuation of religious discrimination in Britain. That he was able to do so without fear of the consequences tells us as much about the degraded state of Britain's democracy as it does of religious privilege.

In response to a statement by his deputy Nick Clegg that the privileged status of the Anglican church should be ended, Cameron claimed that “Our arrangements work well. As I've said before, we're a Christian country, we have an established church”. Cameron is a member of that established church.

The Conservative leader was supported by another Conservative MP, Garry Street of Christians in Parliament. Streeter declared “It isn't really broke, so don't try and fix it”.

Although only about 15 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom are followers of the Church of England, also known as the Anglican Church, it has the status of state church. It is the “established” church and is allowed to appoint 26 legislators to seats in the House of Lords.

The Church of Scotland is the national church of Scotland but it is not a state church and cannot appoint legislators either to the UK or Scottish parliaments.

Like the so-called royal family and the lords, the Church of England is given indefensible privileges, though no longer can it compell citizens to attend its services.

The privileged role of the church in government dates from the fourteenth century. A limit was last placed on the power of the Anglican bishops in 1847. Then the Bishopric of Manchester Act restricted the number of clerical legislators to the current twenty six.

The archbishops of two diocese and the bishops of three other diocese automatically have a seat in the legislature. The other twenty one are the longest serving of the other bishops.

The justification given by the church for this privilege is that "is an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God's word and to lead people in prayer"

The Church's privileged status has allowed it to accumulate great wealth. In 2016 its land, property and stock market assets were worth £7.9bn. They generated £231m of the Church's income that year.

In contrast the Catholic Church in England and Wales, which has an almost equal number of church attendees (869,221), makes do with a revenue that amounts to only 25% of the Anglican.

Besides the Church of England there are 36 Anglican churches worldwide. But they are deeply divided, particularly on gay rights.

In response to this the leader of the British church, Justin Welby, said in 2015 that "A 21st century Anglican family must have space for deep disagreement and even mutual criticism so long as we are faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ".

So it seems that this organisation, as unprincipled as ever, believes that it is acceptable to be pro-gay rights and acceptable to be anti-gay rights, and that both attitudes are "faithful to the revelation of Jesus Christ", just as long as you wrap the whole thing up in fine words.

The Church Commissioners: Church & State United

Thirty-three Church Commissioners manage the property and stock market assets of the Church of England. Six of these commissioners, who have ex-officio status, hold state office. They include the prime minister and the sport & culture minister. All the commissioners are accountable to Parliament, to which they make an annual report, as well as to the General Synod of the Church of England.

The Church is represented directly in the House of Commons by the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who is also an MP with what may be conflicting duties towards constituents. This individual is appointed by the "Crown" on the advice of the Prime Minister. Only members of the Church of England are eligible to hold the position and when appointed she or he becomes an ex-officio member of the church's General Synod. The Commissioner is responsible for answering the questions of MPs about the state church. And, in the words of that church, "steers Church of England legislation through the House of Commons".

The Funding of the Faithful

In 2016 the return on the Church's investments, managed by 35 in-house investment professionals, was 17.1 per cent. That put it in what the Financial Times called "the top ranks of the world's best-performing endownment funds".

The global equities portfolio made a 32.9 per cent return for the Church in 2016. Thirty-two per cent of the money in the fund has at times been invested in property, much more than similar funds. The income pays for some pensions and missionary work, and is also used to support poorer dioceses. In 2016 the £231m it contributed paid for 15 per cent of these costs.

"The English Established Church will more readily pardon an attack on 38 of its 39 principles than on 1/39 of its income."
Karl Marx, Das Kapital

The investment fund has its origins in money accrued by hereditary head of state Henry VIII, which was given to the Anglicans in 1704 by the then head of state. In 1818 Parliament gave the Church £1m of the people's money. As a share of gross domestic product that is equivalent to a £4bn today.

Photo of Church Commissioners HQ with cooler water truck
Thirsty work: cooler water truck outside Church House in London

The year in which the state church benefited so highly from state generosity was the year in which the Representation of the People Act continued the disenfranchisement of women under 30. Six years later another £500,000 was given.

The Church has also benefited from bequests of land and buildings from wealthy benefactors. Today it is given tax breaks on major repairs to its buildings as well as grants from the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England (English Heritage) and the national lottery.

As a result the state church is one of Britain's biggest landowners, with 112,000 acres. This is mostly farmland but includes the Hyde Park Estate in London where the Royal Lancaster Hotel is one of its properties, as well as property in Kingston upon Thames, Throgmorton Street in the City of London and West Drayton.

Regional Church organisations own more land. The Diocese of Oxford has 6,000 acres in its portfolio. Its investment funds totaled £46m in 2015.

The Church does not file centralised accounts so we do not know land is owned nation-wide.

However, in 2005 the Church compiled illustrative figures that suggest that its annual revenue the previous year was £1bn. Forty seven per cent was from voluntary giving. The rest was broken down as follows:

  • Investments 22%
  • Trading and fees 14%
  • Grants 9%
  • Fund-raising 4%
  • Land sales 3%

Godly Assets

In 2009 the Financial Times reported that the Church's two biggest reported share holdings were in oil companies Royal Dutch Shell and BP. It also held shares in BG Group, BHP Bilton, Anglo-American, Exxon-Mobile, Rio Tinto, Chevron, Petrobas and Eni.

Although Church officials have strongly criticised short-selling and debt trading it has invested its own funds in ways that facilitate such practices. In 2008 the Financial Times reported that the church had invested £13m in Man Group, the biggest hedge fund manager. The previous year it also sold a £135m mortgage portfolio, despite condemnation by church archbishop Rowan Williams of those who trade debts for profit.

In 2012 the Financial Times reported that the state church had benefited from diversification into hedge funds, private equity and Scottish and American forests. The investment in forests was giving the Anglicans an annual return of as much as 18%. The report said it had recently doubled its investment in hedge funnds

This same year it started lending non-British and American stock through global financial services firm JPMorgan Chase.

Asset allocation 2007

  • Equities 62%
  • Alternative securities 1%
  • Bonds and cash 5%
  • Urban property 16%
  • Rural let land 6%
  • Strategic land 3%
  • Global indirect property holdings 7%

Photo of church with estate agent's sign outside
Estate agent's sign outside Anglican church

The church's pension board has invested in an Auriel Capital hedge fund intended to profit from currency trading, including the short selling of currencies. The Financial Times characterised this as "a practice that could be described as shorting entire countries".

Church Commissioner Andreas Wittam-Smith was reported to have responded to criticism of these practices that the church's ethical advisory group had approved the lending of stock that could be used for short-selling. Andrew Brown, secretary to the church commissioners said that the church invested in Man Group shares, not its products. He claimed that the church's stocks had not been used in short-selling against “financially vulnerable institutions in the US and UK”. The church also says that none of the managers it uses sell short. The policy of the church pension board is not to lend out stock.

Archbishop Williams has supported a ban on short-selling. Another archbishop, John Sentamu, described traders who benefit from falling prices as “bank robbers and asset strippers”.

In 2009 the Anglicans joined a number of charitable foundations in making representations to the House of Lords select committee on the European Union. According to the Financial Times their letter expressed "serious concerns" about EU plans to regulate hedge funds. It said that "maximising the returns on our investment portfolios is an essential part of delivering our foundations’ missions."

Cash Before Christian Principle

The state church likes to make its money in small as well as big ways, and it shows few moral scruples about how it does it.

Slaves to the Church

In the eighteenth century slaves on the Codrington Plantations in Barbados were for many years branded with the word "Society" by means of a hot iron. The society concerned was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG).

The plantations had been bequeathed to the SPG by their former owners. When the Society took over, management of the plantations was overseen by a board of trustees. That board was headed by the Church of England's Archbishop of Canterbury and a committee of other state church bishops.

Britain's state church only gave up its Barbados slaveholdings after the Slavery Abolition Act of 1883 was passed. It was paid £8,823 in compensation, which was given to Codrington College, established to educate slaves.

Feudal Privilege, Not Human Right

In modern times one unfortunate couple found out unscrupulous the church can be when the Anglicans decided to use a feudal law to extract £230,00 from them to repair one of its churches.

Gail and Andrew Wallbank also lost £250,000 in legal expenses as the Anglicans fought for the money all the way to the supreme court.

Gail Wallbank inherited Glebe Farm in the 1980s. In 1990 the Parochial Church Council wrote to them demanding that they pay for the repair of a part of the local church building known as a chancel.

The Church could make this demand because a medieval law that required local people to contribute to the upkeep of the church. The Wallbanks’ farm included 7 acres of land that still had that requirement attached to it. It has been estimated that there are 3.5m more acres that are covered by similar requirements that the state church could enforce to boost its finances

The couple believed that if they paid the Church of England it would come back year after year for more. So instead of playing the part of serfs, as the feudal Church demanded, they fought all the way in the courts.

After 18 years of litigation the feudal Church beat the Wallbanks in another feudal institution, the House of Lords. Until 2009 the supreme court was a part of that legislative chamber.

The “ Law Lords” overruled an Appeal Court decision that the Church had breached the Wallbanks’ human rights with its unreasonable demands for money. Because Parochial Church Councils, although part of a state church, are not considered to be public bodies they are exempt from human rights guarantees said the highest court of appeal.

When they lost the Wallbanks had to sell their home to meet pay the Church and their legal fees

Gail Wallbank told the Daily Express that what the Anglicans had done was “completely against Christian principles”.

No Profit, No Church

In 2010 the state church that likes to lecture citizens on their moral failings and the evils of capitalism walked away from a £40m property investment in New York City when the plan to profit from gentrification fell apart.

The Church of England put £40m into a $5.4bn highly debt-leveraged deal to buy the Stuyvesant Town Peter Copper Village apartments on Manhattan's East River. The purchase was led by Tishman Speyer, a property company, and the BlackRock asset management group. The plan was to increase rents to levels unaffordable by the long-term tenants in order to take the apartment upmarket and profitable.

The Church's plan came unstuck when the New York supreme court ruled that rent increases on 3,000 “rent-stabilisied” apartments were illegal. Tenants are to get back $200m excess rents that were increased by as much as 30 per cent. They had complained that their electricity supply became unreliable, communal washing machines did not work properly and their rubbish was not picked up.

The bursting of the property bubble made things worse for the speculators. The market price of the complex has fallen to $1.8bn. When they found that the expected profits were not to be had the investors, including the Church of England, handed back the keys to their bankers and walked away, leaving the tenants to fend for themselves.

Crimes Against the Church

The privileges granted to the Church by law go beyond the financial.

In July 2008 the common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel were abolished. But from 1838 they gave privileged protection to the "tenets and beliefs of the Church of England" only. Even in 2008 the state church was divided on the legislation that ended this privilege. According to the National Secular Society some bishop-legislators said “that the abolition was unnecessary and undesirable and others (said) that it was inevitable and that the Church should therefore concede”.

The Church continues to benefit from the Ecclesiastical Courts Jurisdiction Act of 1860. This makes it an offence in England for a person to be riotous, violent or guilty of indecent behaviour (includes interrupting, shouting and creating a disturbance) in any church, cathedral or chapel of the Church of England.

The head of state is required to be a member of that church and not marry a Catholic. The head of state is indeed the titular head of the Church of England.

She or he has the right, which is exercised through the Prime Minister, to appoint the head of the Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and other senior officers of the church. When a new Archbishop is required a Crown Appointments Commission sends two names to the Prime Minister at the end of a secretive process. The Prime Minister then forwards one to the queen for appointment as chief bishop, or refers both back to the Commission. In 2002 a High Court judge was chosen to head the commission in its search for a new archbishop.

Church Faculty Has Medieval Powers

Little that is unfair or undemocratic in the British kingdom should cause surprise. And yet it is extraordinary that if you want to act as a notary in England and Wales you need the approval of the state church, the Church of England.

The democratic principle of separation of state and church is treated with contempt.

The more than 760 notaries in those two jurisdictions are regulated by the Faculty Office of the state church. So if you are an atheist, Catholic, Muslim, Methodist or of any other belief, you must seek permission from the Anglican Church before you may pursue this vocation.

This power has its origin in the Ecclesiastical Licences Act 1533. According to the Faculty Office this Act transferred to the Archbishop of Canterbury the power to grant "all namer licences, dispensacions, faculties, composicions, delegacies, rescriptes, instrumentes or wrytynges have byn accustomed to be had at the see of Rome".

Disgracefully this feudal privilege has not been tossed aside. Instead it was confirmed by the Courts and Legal Services Act of 1990 and the Legal Services Act 2007.

The Church Commissioners: Church & State United

Thirty-three Church Commissioners manage the property and stock market assets of the Church of England. Six of these commissioners who have ex officio membership hold state office. They include the prime minister and the sport & culture minister. All the commissioners are accountable to Parliament, to which they make an annual report, as well as to the General Synod of the Church of England.

The 26 most senior bishops of the Church of England have by right a seat and a vote in the national legislature, as 'Lords Spiritual' representing 'the episcopate' in the House of Lords. This affront to democracy was ended briefly in the revolutionary upheavals of the seventeenth century. But the bishops returned and for another 350 years have stood in the way of properly democratic government. Until recently, however, Anglican clergy were barred by law from sitting in the democratically elected House of Commons.

2 The case for disestablishment.
3 Who's for and who's against.
4 An alternative way: the American way.
5 The road to privilege - a short history of the Church of England.

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