The marriage of church and state has lasted five centuries, but is it now time for a divorce?by Linda Woodhead , Lucy Winkett / March 24, 2016 / Leave a comment
Should the church on England be disestablished?
Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University
I never imagined I’d find myself arguing for the Church of England to be disestablished. I’m a committed member of the C of E and a champion of state churches. But I am also a realist: disestablishment has been happening for decades. It’s a process and in all essential respects the Church has already been disestablished. It’s time we woke up to the fact.
When establishment used to work, parliament was actively involved in Church affairs. Legislation was informed by Christian morality, and ordinary people had a say via their elected parliamentary representatives.
This relationship was gradually dismantled throughout the 20th century, with grisly consequences. The Church has drifted towards self-righteous clerical irrelevance, and its membership has plummeted—only 1.5 per cent of the population now attend church on an average Sunday and only 12 per cent of infants are baptised.
The most important step in disestablishment was replacing the steadying hand of parliament with the General Synod in 1970. This strange instrument of self-governance makes no pretence of representing ordinary Anglicans. Two-thirds of its members are clergy and the rest are lay people who enjoy long meetings with clergy. It serves as a grandstanding platform for the Church’s most extreme and unattractive elements.
Gordon Brown’s contribution to disestablishment was to end parliamentary involvement in the appointment of senior clergy. The quality of bishops plummeted. Gone are the days of interesting bishops like Robert Runcie, David Jenkins and Richard Harries who had a vision for the whole of society. Middle managers of the church are now the best we can hope for.
In this context, retaining the vestigial right of 26 bishops to sit in the House of Lords is worse than useless. Their main achievements have been to win legal exemptions which allow the Church to discriminate against women and gay people and evade the duties that bind other public bodies.
Parliament has turned its back while the Church has drifted into irrelevance. It should face the consequences with greater honesty.
The Reverend Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London
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