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Change and decay since 1953

02 June 2009

Questions need airing, says David Martin

Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The future of church establishment
R. M. Morris, editor

Palgrave Macmillan £55 (978-0-230-55511-2 )
Church Times Bookshop £49.50

THIS is a cautious and careful academic exploration of the issues posed by establishment and of the spectrum of ways in which these issues might be treated, and establishment to this or that extent amended.

The editor is a Fellow of the Con­stitution Unit in the Department of Political Science at University College, London, and his contrib­utors bring expertise to bear from law and politics; so one has a good idea of the kind of approach adopted. It is not a clarion call for anything beyond an assumption that Britain is a very different place in the 21st century from what it was at the time of the Coronation, and that the traditional prayer for monarchs to live for ever has never yet been answered literally.

Actually, I think it possible to exaggerate the changes, at least when it comes to a notion such as multiculturalism, which has a prescriptive as well as a descriptive use; but there have indeed been massive shifts, with regard to both monarchy and Church.

There are various ways of characterising the religious situation: from quoting the 72 per cent who ticked the Christian box in the Census to citing statistics of belief and attendance. But the situation analysed in one of the chapters, where the percentage attending on a Sunday dropped from 11.7 per cent in 1979 to 6.3 per cent in 2005, certainly stimulates reflection. Whatever was it in the 1990s that brought about a drop of 21 per cent?

This book is important reading for those who want to do some forward thinking on these issues, whether largely in defence of present arrangements or to recom­mend disestablishment. It is not that there is some groundswell of opinion which has to be taken into account, or some obvious political will to engage with what is a very complicated constitutional and political issue, but that certain changes need airing — for example, with respect to the religion of the monarch and the coronation oath.

I have to say that, when reading the chapters on monarchy and legislature, on executive, legislative, and judicial powers, and on finance, I could well imagine why politicians have other things to think about. As the book points out, there are difficult issues with respect to both religious liberty and religious equality, which are by no means synonymous. I suppose issues of religious liberty are more likely to be raised from within the Church, and issues of religious equality from outside, although there are many non-Christian believers who prefer religion to receive at least some recognition by the State.

The situation in Britain, and more specifically the situation in England, is one of a kind. In no other modern democratic state, for example, do bishops sit as of right in an upper house. The authors provide an illuminating analysis of the situation in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, and one that indicates that the Scottish solution is rather specific to Scottish history and culture.

They also provide a conspectus of the arrangements in Scandinavia, which have important analogies with our own situation, but with very important differences. The Danish Church, for example, is a “folk Church” where membership can be assumed through citizenship. The Scandinavian cases also tell us that constitutional dis­establishment is very variable, and by no means the same as social disestablishment.

The Revd Dr David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics, and Hon. Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Lancaster.

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