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Establishment: duty, not favouritism

15 April 2009

Critics fail to grasp the nature of the Church’s relationship with the State, says Robert Reiss

Abbey welcome: the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arriving at Westminster Abbey last month for the Commonwealth Day service, greeted by the Dean, the Very Revd John Hall (right in photo), and Canon Robert Wright

Abbey welcome: the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh arriving at Westminster Abbey last month for the Commonwealth Day service, greeted by the Dean, the...

THE Church of England’s status as by law established is under attack. Some ask how it can be justified in a multicultural society, where there is a variety of different religions and denominations, and many who hold no religious views at all. In such a setting, can it be right that one Church has a privileged status?

It is important to have the fullest picture. The so-called privileges of establishment are only one side of a two-sided coin. On the other side is the rights ordinary people have to their parish church. Clergy should, and normally do, take the funerals of any in the community whose families request it, irrespective of whether the deceased was a regular churchgoer — or even a believer.

If one of the parties to a marriage is baptised, a couple can normally be married as of right in their parish church. If parents want their child’s birth to be marked by baptism, then most clergy will readily do so, even though, wrongly, some may try to impose conditions, contrary to canon law.

Alongside those rights, many clergy have a strong sense that they are not just chaplains to their congregations, but representatives of the Church to the whole community, concerned for its overall well-being. They engage with schools as gov­ernors, with social services about individuals, with local government in its concerns for the neighbourhood, and often with representatives of other religious groups in seeking to establish social cohesion.

Senior bishops in the Church of England are in the House of Lords (Comment, 13 March), carrying out their responsibilities, because paro­chial clergy in their dioceses are on the ground, fulfilling this place in their communities.

ONE obvious conclusion from all this is that establishment is not about privilege, but about responsibility. I suspect that senior bishops find that representing in the House of Lords all who live in their dioceses is a responsibility, and one that the leaders of other religions in those communities often value.

One diocesan bishop with a large Muslim element in his diocese invited an imam to address his diocesan synod shortly after the 9/11 bomb­ings. The imam was appreciative not just of the invitation, but that the bishop was prepared to explain the views of the Muslim community in settings such as the House of Lords.

The imam said in front of the synod: “Bishop, we consider you to be the leader of the Muslims here.” The bishop was rather pleased, until his archdeacon pointed out that Ramadan was to start the following week.

At Westminster Abbey, we have a particular perspective on that sense of responsibility, in seeking regularly to provide appropriate services for national figures and organisations. Whatever the event, we are not acting as a narrowly Christian body, but one that uses its Christian inheritance to form a response that acknowledges the spiritual element that is always there.

If we, or St Paul’s Cathedral, or St George’s, Windsor, or many other cathedrals, did not do that, then who would? And what would happen to the often confused emotions that so often surround such events? A secular commemoration in, say, Westminster Hall would leave many disappointed.

THIS is part of the case for establish­ment; it does have consequences for the Church of England.

First, it means resisting sectarian­ism, by which I mean a narrow concern only for the Church and its members. This affects only a minority in the Church, but it is a serious threat, illustrated by those who seek to apply all sorts of conditions to those who wish for the services of the Church, whether it be in the occasional Offices, or the occasions associated with celebrating some local or national event.

If the Church of England is to be true to its character, it must be there for everyone in the community, churchgoer or not; sectarianism is a fundamental threat to the integrity of the Church of England.

Second, it means being open to a developing establishment. Establish­ment cannot be set in aspic: minor modifications are bound to occur, as with some of the recent discussions about the Act of Settlement and royal marriages (News, Leader comment, Press, 3 April). It is for the state to decide who should be part of an established religious body, and if it wants to widen the base of estab­lishment, we should not resist. Roman Catholic, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu figures in the House of Lords should be, and I am sure are, welcomed.

Third, we must be prepared to defend the Christian vision in the public sphere, and not retreat to a private one. If those in the public sphere wish to attack Christianity — and in a free society they have every right to do so — then it is in that same public sphere that their views must be examined. Where they have a legit­imate point, that must be ac­know­ledged; where they are wrong, or, more often, where they grossly dis­tort what sensible Christians are saying, then they must be challenged openly.

How to do this will depend on local circumstances. Some will have the advantage of reasonable numbers who come to services with sermons, and more who read that sermon on the web. Most local newspapers will print well-argued letters if they engage constructively with the scepticism of our age.

In that process of public debate, inevitably Christianity will develop. Most Christians today have adapted their understanding of how the world began in order to take account of developments such as Darwinism. We do not believe exactly what our Christian forebears did 200 years ago.

It would be foolish to think that that process of development has now ended. The core convictions will re­main, but how they are seen and how they are expressed will develop. We should not be alarmed at the prospect.

If the Church of England could grasp, not just in its mind but in its soul, that establishment is not about privilege but about responsibility, it could be transforming — both of us and of the communities we seek to serve.

The Revd Robert Reiss is Canon Treasurer of Westminster Abbey.

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