Dwindling: fewer and fewer people are attending weekly church services. Image: Kumar Sriskandan / Alamy Stock Photo

With the Church of England dying, how much longer can we justify having bishops in the House of Lords?

The Church of England could be extinct by the 2060s. That threatens to trigger a constitutional, as well as an existential, crisis
October 6, 2022

One has to start with the facts, and they are brutal. All Christian denominations in the northern hemisphere are continuing to experience numerical decline, according to best estimates. This now includes evangelicals and charismatics (whose numbers show distinct signs of falling into recession) and Pentecostals (stalling, though churches of the diaspora and global south continue to grow). Many churches have had to contend not only with fewer adherents, but also marked changes in intensity of belief and commitment.

For some decades, the outlook for religious belief in England has been a case of decidedly mixed weather, bordering on the bleak. Despite some sunny intervals, the chill winds of secularisation have impacted religious attendance and observance. A greater pluralisation of non-Christian religions has led to growing demands for less privilege for the Anglican church and more equality between belief systems. Within churches, there is fragmentation, turbo-charged by increasingly heated debates on sexuality, gender and ethnicity. Post-pandemic, the outlook has become bleaker still. Like a pre-Aslan Narnia, religion is entering a long, long winter, but with no sign of a Christmas respite.

There is a generational crisis brewing too. Those under the age of 35 are less likely to believe in God or belong to a church. Many self-define as “spiritual, but not religious”. We are in the midst of a shift in the cultural climate. Debates that once seemed settled—even with civil “agree-to-disagree” concordats (for example on abortion)—are now subject to heated exchanges, with others frozen out of dialogue.

Values may well be the new religion of the 21st century. They are formed out of a simple equation: ideologies + passions = values. By values I mean integrity, transparency, equality, justice, accountability, kindness and honesty. Institutions and organisations that fail to exemplify these are unlikely to be trusted by most under-35s. In my view the Church of England consistently fails all tests on this. Its failure to address sexism and homophobia, its systemic opacity, the lack of clear and accountable governance—well, you do the maths. Few will join. The emerging generation will get behind movements that address the political, ethical and global challenges that society faces. This excludes most churches.

Cultural climate change

The earliest written record of the King Canute myth comes from the 12th century: Canute, to illustrate his lack of kingly power to his fawning subjects, spoke to the rising tide, forbidding it to rise further. But the sea came up as usual and drenched the king’s legs.

Churches and denominations alike have been unable to stem the cultural tides of modernity. Forecasts of decline based on current data suggest that Welsh Presbyterianism, the Church in Wales and the United Reformed Church (the result originally of an amalgamation of English Presbyterians and Congregationalists in 1972) could become extinct by the 2030s. Scottish Episcopalians, Welsh Independents, Methodists and many Baptist congregations may be extinct by the 2040s.

Of course, such forecasts are not cast-iron predictions, and action yet to be taken could well slow or even reverse decline. Nonetheless, forecasts that suggest the virtual extinction on these shores of both the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England in the 2060s demonstrate the sheer scale of the problem—only the hardy Open Brethren may survive until the 2090s.

The 2021 census results for England and Wales are yet to be fully released, but given that many congregations are reporting significant declines in attendance post-Covid, it seems unlikely that these gathering clouds will have any silver linings. The scale of decline reported recently in the 2021 Australian census may be a relevant comparison. Answers to a voluntary question on religion saw a 93 per cent response rate and a near doubling of the proportion marking “no religion”, to 39 per cent. Fewer than half (44 per cent) identified as Christian, as opposed to the 61 per cent of 2011. Both Roman Catholic and Anglican numbers have declined steeply, to 20 and 10 per cent respectively (Roman Catholics have long been the larger group). Australian figures are in fact some way behind the British experience, where the most recent surveys suggest that more than 50 per cent are prepared to say they have no religion.

One of the great difficulties for all churches is that their decay is not the result of ideological hostility, but indifference. The forces at play work silently and unseen and, apart from organised secularism (whose importance churches wildly exaggerate), produce no evident enemies to rally against.

Crown, church and constitution

With a sharp decline in affiliation (of any kind) to the Church of England, and a rising tide of cultural disenchantment with its leaders, a constitutional crisis is now emerging. Over the past decades, the Church of England has invested significant effort in branding, marketing, mission and reorganisation. Evangelistic initiatives such as a “Call to the Nation” launched by the archbishop of Canterbury in 1975 and the Church’s “Decade of Evangelism” from 1990 onwards proved ineffective, even counterproductive. Every initiative has seen greater public distancing from the Church, and a steeper decline in attendance.

Rather like a political party that cannot step outside its own bubble, the Church does not seem credible or relevant to the public’s daily lives, much less have anything to offer in terms of hope. As an organisation, it has a poor record on equality and fairness. It continues to discriminate on grounds of sexuality and gender. It spends time and money trying ever-harder to recruit loyal members, and yet continues, every day, to alienate potential supporters. There is no appetite for a church that embodies privilege and the power to discriminate while lacking proper accountability or transparency.

The most direct challenge this now presents concerns the status of the Church of England in our constitutional monarchy. The UK’s hereditary head of state must satisfy certain religious tests. Monarchs cannot be Roman Catholics (although since 2015 they can be married to one), have to be “in communion” with the Church of England, swear an oath that they are faithful Protestants, and at coronation swear both to rule justly and to defend the rights and privileges of the Church.

As supreme governor of that Church, the monarch makes—on the advice of ministers—all the senior appointments. Twenty-six of the 40 diocesan bishops sit in the House of Lords. The only other country in the world where religious leaders sit in the legislature as of right is Iran.

Ever-more confident weather forecasts from the Church of England’s bishops cannot change the climate

The Gordian knot represented in these arrangements is normally referred to as “establishment”, reflecting an historically close partnership with the state, where originally there had been some degree of religious uniformity (not least because every citizen had to belong to the established Church and there was active persecution of Roman Catholics and other Christian minorities). During the last century the Church has become increasingly autonomous, to the extent that the current arrangements have been termed “weak establishment”. But the central core of establishment remains, in the Church’s continuing special relationships with the head of state, parliament and the government of the day. To the extent that the Church retains unique privileges in comparison with any other religious organisations, it can be said that the UK has religious freedom—but, embarrassingly, not religious equality.

This axis of inequality and privilege is problematic for the Church’s image. The House of Lords is one half of the parliament for the UK. But there are no Welsh, Irish or Scottish denominations represented in the upper chamber—all lords spiritual come from the Church of England. What can be the justification for this in a United Kingdom where power and governance are increasingly devolved?

On 15th June 2020, the House of Lords debated the government’s Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No 2) Regulations 2020, an important step for the provision of reproductive services in the region. The bishop of Carlisle, the lead bishop on health and social care in parliament, spoke in favour of an amendment negating the regulations. In the subsequent vote, he and several other male bishops voted against the legislation.

Who exactly was the bishop representing in these debates? Certainly not women from Northern Ireland, forced to travel across the Irish Sea if they needed a termination. Was his opinion in line with the Church of England’s position, which says abortion, though regrettable, can be justified? It is not clear to me that it was. Was he representing the views of the wider English population? No. Yet he spoke and voted as of right. Imagine some parallel universe, in which a Roman Catholic bishop was always entitled to sit as one of the nine justices on the US Supreme Court and vote on abortion rights, including Roe v Wade. The absurdity of the situation becomes clear.

The future of the Church

The institution of the Church could struggle to survive the incoming floods brought about by shifts in the cultural climate. On current form, it is hard to imagine the Church of England making it onto the proverbial passenger list for Noah’s Ark in time.

Most of our public institutions have understood this and have adapted. Churches, however, have been slower. Clinging to power and privilege by right—but no longer by reason or reputation—is a risky strategy. This is the ground on which the Church of England has pitched its tent. And that ground now looks increasingly shaky. What is the role of one established denomination, and of only one nation, set within a devolved Union? Can bishops in the House of Lords authentically represent the variety of opinions within their own denomination, let alone speak for the United Kingdom as a whole?

Locally grounded ministry in parishes and chaplaincies continues to be cherished. But valued, locally engaged service—spiritual, pastoral and civic—does not require the trappings and trimmings of establishment. Yet somehow the current leadership of the Church of England assumes that establishment is an all-or-nothing equation. In fact, although there are other examples of national churches that serve their people, if one casts an eye over the rest of Europe, none require preferment and privilege to the extent that the Church of England currently enjoys.

Reading the signs of the times requires realism. Alas, the opposite currently reigns in the Church of England, with the senior leadership entirely besotted with a blend of management-speak, spiritual-lite sentiment and missional-hyperbole, masquerading as visionary insight.

Recently, a friend and colleague of mine—a senior cleric in a diocese that has a lengthy coastline—was surprised to be invited to a presentation given by a newly formed group called the “Mission Enabling Team”. Maps, charts, vision statements and action plans were unfurled with great fanfare. Apparently, by 2035, the old rural deaneries were to be replaced with missional hubs. Parishes would be merged, resources consolidated. The entire diocese was now to be put on alert—a “numerically-driven-growth-footing”(!)—in which everybody would become an “equipped disciple enabling transformation.”

My friend was interested in the future maps on display, which showed where the new hubs would be. This friend asked, not unreasonably, if the Mission Enabling Team had considered the projected climate change map of the diocese for 2035, which showed fields, rail links, ports, roads and villages under several feet of sea water? Had the Mission Enabling Team thought at all about what kind of world we might be living in 15 years from now? Apparently not.

Recent debates at General Synod, the national assembly of the Church of England, demonstrate a church completely out of touch, talking as though its finger was on the pulse. Motions “urge Synod” to do more on climate change and condemn the invasion of Ukraine. Synod has no authority to determine the outcome of such global events. These internal proceedings merit little mention in the secular press—nor, for that matter, do they make any impact on the people in the pews worried about whether they will have a vicar in five years’ time or how to afford the roof repairs for their listed medieval church, not to mention ever-rising demands for diocesan contributions.

The Church of England seems to be in denial. Already drowning in its own irrelevance, it cannot withstand the rising cultural tide-changes. That’s why whenever I hear bishops speak these days, I am instantly taken back to Michael Fish’s weather report for the BBC on 15th October 1987, just before the Great Storm: “Earlier on today… a woman rang the BBC and said she heard there was a hurricane on the way; well, if you’re watching, don’t worry, there isn’t… most of the strong winds… will be down over Spain and across into France.”

In other words, the wind blows where it will. Ever-more confident weather forecasts from the Church of England’s bishops cannot change the climate.

The future of establishment

Whether and how establishment should continue has long been controversial. During the 19th century, the focus of that discussion turned first on issues of religious freedom. Landmarks were Roman Catholic emancipation in 1829, the Jews Relief Act in 1858, the church rate tax being made voluntary in 1868, the final removal of religious tests at Oxford and Cambridge in 1871, the removal of religious tests for burial in parish churchyards in 1880 and those swearing official oaths being permitted a non-religious affirmation from 1888. Disestablishment in Ireland in 1871 and in Wales from 1914 were responses to particular regional circumstances, the latter unfeasible until the removal of the House of Lords legislative veto in 1911.

Modern arguments about disestablishment have centred more on issues of religious equality, but have also arisen from internal Church consideration of the best strategies for survival in an increasingly secular society. Governments themselves have abstained from active participation in public discussion, though their general view is thought to be that these are matters in the first instance for the Church itself to decide.

Although such questions were capable of engaging fierce partisan passions in the 19th century, the removal of most of the grievances that animated them and the decline of Christian religious affiliation in the 20th century eventually led to the current situation, where they are now little discussed. In a 1991 study of public attitudes towards establishment, no interviewee spontaneously mentioned the nature of the late Queen’s relationship with the Church. Survey evidence from 2012 suggested that a bare majority of the public favoured retaining establishment—with over a fifth having no view. Ten years on, pro-establishment advocates are far fewer.

Stronger views have, however, been found over whether bishops should remain in the House of Lords. A survey published in April 2022 showed that whereas a fifth thought they should stay, three-fifths thought they did not have a place in a modern legislature and another fifth were “don’t knows”.

The last royal commission on the House of Lords thought there was a place for specifically religious representation. This could have been achieved by reducing the number of bishops and replacing them with representatives of other religions, recognising that there were difficulties in identifying appropriate people in the case of non-hierarchical religions. Such solutions may be criticised as reinforcing the problem, by conceding an automatic right of nomination to whatever new nominating body is introduced. But defence of the present system is difficult when no other assembly that could reasonably be called democratic has religious representation (apart from the Isle of Man, where the bishop sits by right in the Tynwald, or Manx parliament).

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Archaic: an image of the lords spiritual from the Illustrated London News in 1901. Image: Universal Images Group North America LLC / Alamy Stock Photo

Some pro-establishment commentators argue that the survival of the monarchy depends on the quasi-monarchical powers of bishops being retained, and that the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords would signify the displacement of religion from public life. The first point seems to be controverted by the fact that the monarchies of Belgium, the Netherlands and Spain have no special religious requirement, and no religious parliamentary representation. Religious tests for the monarch survive in Denmark, Norway and Sweden, but there is no religious representation in their parliaments.

A point sometimes made in favour of retention is that bishops have been in parliament for a very long time. While true, it does not seem to advance the discussion, let alone defeat the observation that the bishops’ presence can only be explained as an accidental residue of former constitutional arrangements. Moreover, their removal would not end their ability to make their case publicly on any subject they choose. The Church of England would not be removed from the public square but merely asked to take its seat alongside everyone else. In the interests of equality, the Church should surrender the only seats guaranteed (by Tudor statute) a specific place in this bloated assembly, thus offering a much-needed reduction in that assembly’s numbers.

The coronation

Coronations do not make a monarch. Under the common law, heirs succeed immediately on the death of the predecessor, and there is therefore no gap in sovereign rule. Coronations are splendid—and expensive—occasions. Their religious purpose is to signify the descent of God’s grace on the ruler and proclaim that they are ultimately answerable to a higher, celestial power.

The UK is the only European monarchy that retains a coronation. Of those countries that had them, coronations ceased in Denmark from 1849, in Sweden from 1873 and in Norway from 1906. Belgium, the Netherlands and (in modern times) Spain have never had them. In many European countries the monarch is sworn in or invested by parliament, taking office after the civil, as opposed to religious, oaths are sworn.

Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953 took place some 16 months after her accession. A eucharistic service (according to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer) took almost three hours and 8,200 guests were crammed into Westminster Abbey. It is understood that Charles III intends a swifter and less expensive affair. Yet the liturgy may still be as before, which will strike many in a radically changed population as incongruously exclusive.

Whether or not the Church of England is disestablished, it is questionable whether there will be another coronation after the next one. The present make-up of the UK raises uncomfortable questions for a denomination that seeks to retain its own establishment powers and privilege on behalf of us all.

That said, one of the best things about the Church of England in recent years was its head, the late Queen, whose Christmas broadcasts consistently beat the pants off any sermon from the archbishops. She managed to talk to home nations and the wider world in a way that belied her apparent cocoon of privilege. Meanwhile, the archbishop of Canterbury had to be corrected during a recent visit to Scotland: no, he is not the spiritual leader of that nation. Nor is he of Wales or Northern Ireland.

Queen Elizabeth was rightly cherished because she lived her life quite selflessly, with her Christian beliefs integral to her vocation. There is no doubting that she was a woman of sincere, deep and committed faith. Maintaining such dignity continually for 70 years is hard graft, never mind when you are past 96. King Charles III takes on the role at 73, following a very lengthy apprenticeship.

However, such monarchical devotion does not necessitate an established church for Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland—nor England. The new monarch will not need the Church of England to be established to safeguard the civic and religious virtues. Indeed, I suspect the monarchy can do this better without the enshrined patronage of an established church. It will not diminish Charles III’s role as defender of the faith one jot.

If the Church of England is to be serious about establishment rather than passively assenting and cashing in on the benefits, decisive and self-corrective action is needed. Insisting on the continuance of an unaccountable elite, who have pretensions to automatic membership of the ruling class, and claim a rightful, sanctified legitimacy, is surely a doomed approach. Equally, trying to pretend that the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth are somehow “gathered under” one English denomination is in danger of descending into the absurd.

Canute knew that the king was powerless to stop the waves. The Church of England needs to learn the limits of its own power—and adapt quickly if it is to survive. Rapidly growing indifference towards the Church, and its increasing irrelevance to the emerging generation, are only exacerbated by the tokens of establishment—including ceremonies and seats in the House of Lords. Clinging to the privilege and power of the past—in some vain hope of a brand-refreshed, nostalgia-led bounce in Church membership with the succession of a new monarch—will only see the tides of change rise ever-more quickly. Indeed, the evidence is that this cultural climate change has already arrived.