ON 17 JULY, the Queen,
Supreme Governor of the Church of England, gave Royal Assent to the
Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill. Thus the Sovereign signed into
law a momentous change that had been consistently opposed by a
majority in the Church over which she, legally, presides.
Irrespective of where one
stands on the Bill itself, or on the Church's (present) teaching on
marriage, that event should give pause even to the most tenacious
defenders of Establishment. One of their chief arguments is that
such a close proximity allows the Church to influence state policy.
Or, at least, that it keeps before the state a reminder of a
"transcendent authority" standing above it, as Canon Peter Doll
argued last month (Comment, 21
But what it has revealed
in this case is the state's complete indifference to - indeed, in
some mouths, open contempt for - what the Church regards as its
wisdom on a crucial element of the common good.
At the General Synod, the
Archbishop of Canterbury conceded that the Bishops who spoke on the
Bill in the House of Lords were "utterly overwhelmed" by those on
the other side.
This latest incident is
not, in itself, a conclusive argument against establishment; for
this has never implied complete or continuous concord between
Church and State on such matters. Nor does the Church's teaching on
marriage rank in doctrinal gravity with its beliefs in the Trinity
or the incarnation, or in ethical urgency with its stances on
absolute poverty, industrial-scale abortion, illegal warfare, or
ecological destruction. Many de- fenders of Establishment will thus
shrug their shoulders: "Well, we lost this one. Now back to
business as usual."
But the symbolism of the
Queen's action must raise the question why the Church's proximity
to the state is worth clinging on to.
The humiliation suffered
by the Church's leadership in this matter comes hard on the heels
of the enormous reputational damage done by last year's
excruciating imbroglio over women bishops.
Here the issue is not the
Church's lack of influence over an important matter of public
policy, but the state's continuing capacity to put pressure on it
to overturn one of its internal decisions.
We now have the unseemly
prospect of the General Synod scurrying around for a workable
consensus under the threat of parliamentary override if its
"spiritual wisdom" on the subject doesn't line up promptly (in two
years, to be precise) with society's.
In this case, of course,
it does line up, by and large; but that is irrelevant to whether
the Church should defend an arrangement whereby it can be
browbeaten into decisions about its internal life. Everyone should
be alarmed at the prospect of the Church's coming under pressure
from the state to act against its convictions; for those who today
might privately welcome the pressure on their Church to endorse a
progressive view of marriage or episcopacy might tomorrow lament
its being blocked from, say, pursuing a progressive investment
policy by a right-wing competition law.
undermine the deeply embedded assumption that the C of E is in some
still meaningful, if ineffable, sense the Church "of the nation",
and thus obliged to mirror the prevailing morality. Sir Tony
Baldry, the Church's official representative in the Commons, put
the point succinctly during the debate on women bishops: "If the
Church of England wants to be a national Church, then it has to
reflect the values of the nation."
I wonder how those who
nodded sagely at this view might reconcile it with Paul's
injunction: "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed"
This same assumption is
invoked to justify Parliament's presumed right to press on the C of
E the views of many millions who still regard the Church as theirs,
even though they neither darken its doors from one year to the next
nor remotely recognise the authority of its teachings.
Whatever its imagined legitimacy in the past, establishment is an
idea whose time has gone. It is time to acknowledge that the
cavernous de facto distance between Church and State now
needs to be reflected in a fitting de jure form. Whatever
the detailed model proposed, it should seek to recognise Church and
State as genuinely independent entities, capable of entering into
constructive co-operative relationships, to be sure, but each on
its own terms.
The Church should now
seize the reins of public debate, and declare that it wishes to
extricate itself from what has become an anachronistic and
spiritually compromising encumbrance. Such a move would, finally,
free the Church from the debilitating posture of constitutional
deference imposed on it nearly five centuries ago by a monarch
seeking the Church's blessing on a view of marriage that also
diverged rather glaringly from its own.
Jonathan Chaplin is
Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics. He
writes here in a personal capacity.