Book title: Against Establishment: An Anglican polemic
Author: Theo Hobson
Publisher: Darton, Longman & Todd
Church Times Bookshop £7.15
ESTABLISHMENT offends Theo Hobson as being a dishonesty, now that the nation “has rejected its traditional religious identity”, and a drain on the Church of England’s vitality and credibility. “An established Church gives its blessing, which is Christ’s blessing, to the dirty little productions of the state.”
To press this case, he writes dismissively of several Anglican thinkers past and present. He describes his short book, a little too accurately for his own good, as “an itchy rant by a young man in a hurry”.
If he were in less of a hurry he could trust to time. A working definition of establishment (Hobson leaves it undefined) might call it a set of statutory C of E privileges with matching duties. The privileges have been in decline since 1778, when the first of the Catholic Relief Acts began opening public life and higher education to non-Anglicans.
Nowadays the only important public office still in practice reserved for a member of the C of E is the monarchy. The privilege of helping to crown the monarch is already shared with clerics of several other stripes; the duty of submitting to the monarch’s choice of bishops and deans has been much softened. The power of choosing lodged with the Prime Minister has since 1976 been largely made over to ad hoc
C of E consultants.
Certainly Downing Street should retire from that work altogether. But the logic of events is that it will. James Callaghan, the Prime Minister who did the 1976 deal, kept a residual hold on the choosing of bishops because there were so many of them in the Lords.
So there are, to this day: 26, with no other church leaders in sight. But when a braver Government than this one finishes the job of Lords reform, public ridicule will enforce a change in that privilege; and a change in bishop-making will follow.
Or take the duty of getting a parliamentary nod for changes in C of E services. Parliament famously used this function against the 1928 Prayer Book, but ceded it in 1974 to General Synod, and is not likely to ask for it back.
The important part of establishment is the opportunity, part duty, part privilege, of providing those services for all comers: baptisms, weddings, funerals. The opportunity is still gallantly taken, but more and more patchily, and resources and take-up diminish.
Hobson quotes Rowan Williams as having predicted three years ago at Greenbelt, before the caution of high office descended on him, that the C of E would undergo “disestablishment by thousand cuts”. In fact that process has been in hand a long time; and the cuts have not been painful.
John Whale is a former editor of the Church Times
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