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From establishment to uniformity

15 April 2009

Act now to replace the establishment with something better, says George Pattison

Few people can doubt that the process of disestablishing the Church of England has begun. A few months ago, the Archbishop of Canterbury himself invited debate on the subject — and it is increasingly clear that he was not speaking just for the sake of it.

Changes to the Prime Minister’s role in senior church appointments, and the Government’s welcome to the idea that the Sovereign should no longer be barred from marrying a Roman Catholic are signs that things are moving. The part played by Anglican bishops in a reformed House of Lords is also likely to be much diminished. More will follow.

Because of the peculiar nature of the Anglican establishment, and the many different — and often rather obscure — ways in which it is involved in the public life of the country, we might imagine dis­establishment to be the kind of step-by-step piecemeal process that we now see gathering momentum.

This kind of cautious, gradual process might well seem to be entirely appropriate and, in its way, very Anglican. Since it is hard to say exactly where the church establishment begins and ends, it would seem right to go about disestablishing it in a rather tentative way. But this might not be the best way for the Church.

Clearly, the Church has a choice. It can try to hang on for as long as possible to whatever it is able to hang on to, or it could proactively involve itself in the process. Paradoxically, there may be much to be said for the latter course, not least because it would put the Church in a much stronger position to help determine what comes after establishment. For one of the problems with the kind of piecemeal disestablishment that has already begun is that it has only the negative goal of severing the ties of Church and state.

EVAN HARRIS, who moved the private member’s Bill relating to the removal of the restriction on the Sovereign’s marrying a Roman Catholic, is an ardent secu­lar­ist of Dawkins-like views on religious belief, church schools, and all related matters. But this negative agenda is not likely to suit the social and political needs of Britain today, let alone be of service to the Churches. Instead of resisting dis­estab­lishment, the Church would do better to be working now on developing a new kind of religious settlement.

In doing so it might, strangely, help achieve one of the original aims of the Tudor Reformation, namely, the establishment of a uniform framework for religious life in this country which would serve to keep it depoliticised, and that would minimise the opportunities for foreign powers to use religion as an instrument for influencing public life in the realm.

For what we need now is a new legislative framework that would put all religious commu­n­ities on a common basis, defining their rights and obligations. This would cover what part, if any, religious bodies might have in legislation; in running schools; and in providing social welfare and chaplaincies in academic, military, hospital, prison, and other public institutions. It would define what is acceptable with regard to proselytising and the retention of members, and also cover responsi­bilities for buildings used for religious and related social functions.

Here, one might point out that while the Church of England struggles to maintain its stock of medieval buildings — often to the detriment of other aspects of church life — the secular French keep the Church’s buildings sound and watertight at the taxpayers’ expense. Such an Act would also need to cover what protections there should be for those whose religious beliefs require them to abstain from, for example, military or jury service, or assisting in abortion or scientific research.

If some such framework is not developed, many avoidable conflicts are likely to arise. Recent issues such as the nurse who prayed for a patient, the school secretary who was suspended after her daughter spoke to another child about Jesus, and the woes of hoteliers whose Christian consciences cannot live with the idea that people of the same sex are sharing a bed under their roof may boil down to much ado about nothing, but behind them are real issues.

OUR PRESENT situation is such that Muslims (in particular) often feel themselves to be the unjust­ified target of suspicions relating to terrorism, while many Christians feel that their cause is being slighted by public bodies, and their faith exposed to ridicule in ways that simply would not be toler­ated in the case of Islam. Probably both are, to some degree, right — and that is why there is a com­mon interest in developing a uniform frame­work.

Furthermore, whatever disadvantages such a framework might entail for one or other religious community could not be ascribed to inequities arising from one religion’s being privileged over another; in fact, each would have an interest in supporting the other’s cause.

It is undeniable that the end result of such a process would mean the end of the special rela­tionship between the Church of England and the Crown, the end of bishops in the House of Lords, and of quite a few other things, too. On the pos­itive side, it would secure a role for religion in public life that was constitutionally guaranteed, and that would enable all Churches and all other religious communities to be freer and more forward-looking in making the contribution to our common good that they are capable of making.

The Revd Dr George Pattison is Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford University and a Canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

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