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The Church of England: Britain's State Church


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

Former Archbishop of Canterbury Randall Davidson once asked: "What good will disestablishment do?"The objections to the mere principle of a legally enshrined national religion and established church are clear. The most salient is that it privileges one part of the population, one institution and one set of beliefs. In denying equal rights to Britons of other beliefs this system of privilege is a denial of civil liberty. In privileging one belief and one religious institution it undermines the idea and practice of pluralism. To say the least this does not fit well in a modern and mature liberal democracy.

"I expect the Church of England one day to be disestablished."
George Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury, 2000

It is claimed by those who defend the established church, found most often, but not exclusively, on the political right, that it is one of the "three great pillars of British ", the other two being the monarchy and Parliament. This line of argument can only serve to strengthen the appeal of disestablishment to democrats, especially when another pro-establishment argument, offered by a former Bishop of London Mandell Creighton, is based upon the premise that a national religion constitutes "...a recognition of the supreme law of God. Without the National Church there cannot be that."

No Atheists Here!

In 1880 Charles Bradlaugh, an atheist elected to the House of Commons, was not allowed to take his seat in Parliament because he refused to swear his loyalty to the Queen by "Almighty God." He was elected again in 1883. Parliament again would not allow him to affirm his loyalty and he was barred from the legislature.Eight years passed before conservative resistance was overcome. Then liberal Prime Minister William Gladstone, a man of deep religious faith, explained his support for civil rights for atheists with the declaration that "I have no fear of Atheism in the House."

The arguments against the presence of the hereditary 'Lords Temporal' in the House of Lords, have equal validity in regard to the 26 'Lords Spiritual' who also sit in that House. There is no case for their place in the legislature. They have no more democratic legitimacy than the other Lords and are no more democratically accountable.

The case for ending the status of the Church of England as a national church is strengthened by the differences in the jurisdictions of the British state and the Church of England. The state, as expressed in the monarch and the government of Britain, has jurisdiction over the entire United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). Yet the Church of England is confined to England, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The anglican Church in Wales is entirely separate from the state. In Scotland the Presbyterian Church of Scotland is the established Church, not the smaller anglican Episcopal Church of Scotland. The anglican Church of Ireland covers both the six counties of Northern Ireland and the rest of the island of Ireland. It has been divorced from the British state since 1869.

Only 15 per cent of the people of the UK are Anglicans and only 1.1m Britons regularly attend its services each week. It can be argued that the continued decline in the Church's attendance rates has been fostered in part by the nature of its relationship with the state. This has perhaps prevented it from appearing modern and in touch with the spiritual needs of the twenty-first century. Weight is given to this by the high attendance rates of church services in the US, a country where church and state are separate. Indeed radical figures in the Church itself, such as Colin Buchanan, former Bishop of Woolwich, and David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham seem to have recognised it. So even setting aside the religious or constitutional objections to an established church and a 'national religion' of any kind, the case for disestablishment on this premise alone is as valid as it was a century ago.

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