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The only defence against unaccountable power

21 June 2013

An Established Church guards against tyranny, says Peter Doll

IN THE raft of articles that appeared in connection with the 60th anniversary of the Coronation, analysis of one aspect of that event was conspicuous by its absence. There were features about the magnificent ceremonial and the people who took part, but there was no reflection about what the Coronation means constitution- ally.

There was a grudging recognition that it was a religious service, and that this side of it meant a great deal to the Queen, but it was not deemed worthy of comment that the Coronation is the source of, and encapsulates, the power relationships within the British constitution.

Disappointing as this is, it is hardly surprising, when you consider that the at-least-theoretical significance of the Church of England to this relationship is deeply unpalatable to a power élite that seems anxious to make our society as secular as possible.

Nevertheless, the mixed nature of political authority and of our whole society is still expressed in the Coronation. The ceremony includes the popular element in the acclamation by the people in Westminster Hall, and the sacred dimension in the ecclesiastical consecration, anointing, vesting, coronation, and enthronement.

The consecrating, anointing, and vesting are practically indistinguishable from the ordination of a priest. The Queen is thus a "spiritual person", with authority in ecclesi-astical as well as temporal matters. It is the Church that confers this authority; the authority of the Queen in Parliament comes from God, and remains answerable to God.

There are those who will dismiss the whole rite as an agreeable charade. As far as real power relationships are concerned, they will have a point. When push comes to shove, as in the current legislation for same-sex marriage, the Church is not able to be much more than a political irritant.

Nevertheless, the Coronation is ultimately concerned with something of enduring significance, namely accountability: to whom or to what are the powerful ultimately accountable? This question becomes even more pressing when international corporations such as Google, Microsoft, and the banks are showing themselves to be more powerful than all but the mightiest nation states.

IN THE 20th century, the fact of the establishment of the Church of England struck most observers as an embarrassing anomaly, a medieval anachronism that had no place in modern society. Now it is being seen with fresh eyes, which are alive to its potential virtues in a world where religion, against the expectations of all the experts, has risen to the top of the political agenda.

Joseph Weiler, a professor of law at New York University, last year wrote of the British religious establishment as a model for other nations, demonstrating that "religion, even as part of the very identity and artefact of the state, need not compromise its democratic and liberal identity, and need not alienate its non-religious or other-religious citizens" (Comment, 19 October).

Commentators such as Professor Weiler may be looking at establishment with new eyes in part because they perceive anew some of the weaknesses of the Enlightenment legacy in government. In countries that are heirs to the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Code, the nation state has united in itself both the secular rule of law and a quasi-religious identity, enjoining a loyalty that is paramount over every other allegiance in society.

Here is the origin of the French law against Muslim religious dress: the nation cannot accept the wearing of clothing that challenges the quasi-religious principle of secularity itself, or that reflects the claim of another authority beyond and above the state.

To say that such governments are accountable to "the people", the voters, is not necessarily reassuring. Adolf Hitler was a popularly and legitimately elected leader, who encouraged a mystical understanding of the German state and of himself as its leader.

In a different way, the United States also inspires a religious loyalty among its citizens. Its founding documents are sacred texts; the abuse of its flag is akin to sacrilege; the nation has a missionary re-sponsibility to share its values with the rest of the world. That dangerous conviction has played a part in involving NATO countries in costly and still-unresolved wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

THE networked world in which we all now live adds another worrisome dimension to the question of the accountability of power. New-style corporate executives may dress and present themselves as a different breed from the old style - cool, relaxed, informal, and therefore putatively more trustworthy - but recent revelations about corporate taxation show that the new corporate power is every bit as ruthless as its predecessors.

Working outside the restrictions of national regulation and taxation, unaccountable to voters, and with near-monopolistic control of markets, it can afford to be indifferent to bad publicity and governmental condemnation. An unregulated market provides no "invisible hand" (as Adam Smith described it) to hold it accountable.

The current evidence of the US National Security Agency and British GCHQ's working with unfettered access to all the personal data we have blithely entrusted to Google, Facebook, and internet-providers raises the spectre of unaccountable power to near-Orwellian heights.

It is not healthy for nation states to have ultimate religious claims over their citizens. States exist to protect the rights and freedoms of citizens, not to betray them to unaccountable corporate control. Such ultimate claims leave the people with no protection from tyranny, whether of a democratic majority, a messianic dictator, or a multina-tional monopoly.

A state with an Established Church, however, has built into its DNA the conviction that human society and government must be subject to a higher-than-human authority. The Church and the monarch whom it anoints have the responsibility to witness to the eternal judgement of God's coming Kingdom of love, mercy, and peace, in its churches and in the corridors of power. If barely fettered public and private powers collude, what other protection do we have?

The Revd Dr Peter Doll is Canon Librarian of Norwich Cathedral.

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