"TO BE sure, if I was trying to get there I wouldn't be starting
from here," the old Irish joke has it. If the UK was a newly
created state, writing a constitution on a blank sheet of paper,
how might religious belief be factored in to national institutions,
national identity, and cultural life?
Probably not through the presence of 26 bishops of an
Established Church sitting in Parliament, or through an MP's
answering questions in the Commons about church affairs (or,
rather, the affairs of one particular Church). Perhaps there would
be no place in the fabric of the nation for religion at all.
But that is not where we are starting from. We started a long
way back. We are, as the commentator Patrick Wright put it in 1985,
"living in an old country". You do not have to know much history to
sense that this is a country where history constantly challenges
neatness and pure logic. Institutions and ways of thinking have
evolved, changed, adapted, and grown to be what they are today.
There have been bishops in Parliament from its foundation, but
the relationship between Church and State is not a matter of
special privileges granted by an all-powerful State to one
particular faith. It is a relationship that has been at the heart
of our forms of government for many centuries, and which has
weathered enormous changes - even a civil war.
That does not answer the question how things ought to be today.
In discussing constitutions, government, and democracy, the
constitutional separation of Church and State in the United States
is widely thought of as somehow more natural, fair, and modern than
the complex relationships still current in England.
But instead of the common assumption that "ancient" equals
"anachronistic and pointless", a more useful debate would consider
how far assumptions from a young country apply in an old country
such as ours.
IT IS possible to defend some old institutions on grounds of
utility. Along with the crossbench peers, the Lords Spiritual bring
an important non-party dimension to the Lords' work of scrutinising
and revising legislation.
The House of Lords combines members with party affiliations with
those chosen for particular expertise, or who represent aspects of
national life. Whether that balance is right is another matter, but
the Lords Spiritual contribute two important things.
First, as diocesan bishops, they have a ministry and concern
that is focused on a specific part of the country. They can speak
for the communities of their dioceses with the authority of a
Church that is present in every parish.
Second, they witness to the fact that we are not, in fact, a
secular state. And this takes us beyond utility to consider matters
of identity, and gets to the heart of our national difficulty in
handling diversities of all kinds.
Behind the view that diversity necessitates an entirely secular
state, which shows no overt allegiance to any faith at all, lies
the odd idea that it is possible to adjudicate between diverse, and
potentially conflicting world-views without having a world-view of
Tensions in the US between Church and State suggest that such
neutrality may be hard to maintain. Completely separating religion
from the State misses something about the beliefs that motivate
people to commit themselves to the shared project that is the State
Opening the benches to all faith communities raises problems,
too. What counts as a faith? How should proportionality be handled?
It is worth noting that other religious communities do not all
think and behave in the way that the secularist mind might
Few of the great world faiths in the UK would object to stronger
parliamentary representation. But that does not mean that they all
resent or oppose the particular part played by the Church of
England, as several made clear in their formal responses to the
committee examining the last Bill on Lords reform.
AS THE Queen said, in a speech to faith leaders at Lambeth Palace
in 2012, "The concept of our Established Church is occasionally
misunderstood, and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role
is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions.
Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all
faiths in this country. . . Gently and assuredly, the Church of
England has created an environment for other faith communities -
and, indeed, people of no faith to live freely."
If we fulfil that vocation, even imperfectly, many apparently
anachronistic institutions, such as bishops in the Lords, the
interweaving of canon law and statute law, and so on, begin to make
sense. This is not, perhaps, in the strictly utilitarian terms of
secular ideology, but in the context of an old country which tries
to adapt its institutions to changing circumstances rather than
wants everything to be logical, predictable, and subject to only
one mode of temporal power.
Against that background, how is the Church of England doing
today? In the Lords, there is a bishop on duty every day that the
House is sitting. The idea that, day by day, 26 prelates sit in
lawn sleeves and serried ranks, dutifully traipsing through the
voting lobbies, is wide of the mark.
The bishops all have plenty to do in their dioceses. So it falls
to one or two bishops to cover the enormously varied business of
each parliamentary day.
They work in clusters around particular areas of interest -
rural matters, the economy, health care, international affairs -
with two or three bishops staying abreast of developments in each
area. That way, there is a fighting chance that a bishop who knows
a good deal about a subject can be in the House when that subject
arises in debate.
THE Lords Spiritual are backed up by the Parliamentary Unit,
established in 2008, which is located in the Mission and Public
Affairs (MPA) Division at Church House. Supported in turn by MPA's
small team of specialist advisers, the Education Division, and
others, the unit ensures that bishops are well briefed to
contribute to debate.
The bishops do not confine their activities to the floor of the
chamber: for instance, they may meet ministers to discuss
government plans at various stages of the parliamentary process.
That helps the Church to be well-informed as well as communicating
Some serve on parliamentary committees, as the Archbishop of
Canterbury did so effectively on the Commission on Banking
Standards. That example shows how the Church's activity in
Parliament spills over into its wider public position - and its
daily life in the parishes and dioceses.
Archbishop Welby's work on the Commission on Banking Standards
prompted his analysis of the financial crisis as a market failure.
From that analysis came his interest in credit unions as part of
the solution to the dysfunctions of the sector, leading to his
creation of a task group to promote change in the industry, and to
a grass-roots campaign to link the resources of parishes to their
local credit unions.
One case-study like that is worth any number of lists to show
how the Church of England in Parliament connects both to the
"principalities and powers" of national life, and to the everyday
existence of communities in cities, towns, and villages across the
A Church in an old country must be adaptable. The part it plays
extends beyond the "anachronistic" Lords into the much more
"modern" institution of the Commons. The Second Church Estates
Commissioner is a member of the government of the day, who fields
questions each month on matters pertaining to the Church of
HON. members are not only skilled in spotting the points where the
life of the Church connects with the lives of their constituencies;
their questions also suggest that what goes on in the church
matters widely. They care about the culture and flourishing of the
nation, and they see that the Church makes a difference to those
The Parliamentary Unit supports the Second Church Estates
Commissioner, Sir Tony Baldry, as robustly as it supports the Lords
Spiritual; and the range of topics dealt with in a parliamentary
session - bats in belfries, same-sex marriage, women in the
episcopate, the affairs of local churches, the policies of dioceses
- are certainly stretching.
If you want to evaluate the impact of the Church of Englandon
national life today, you could try to count person-hours given in
service, church halls in community use, projects to alleviate
poverty, and so on. It would add up to a great deal.
I prefer something less starkly utilitarian: starting with the
deep embeddedness of Christian faith - and Anglican identity - in
the history of the country, and the way we still understand
ourselves as communities and as a nation.
It is impossible to quantify in statistics. But if you look, you
will see it. And it reaches from the red and green leather benches
at Westminster through to the battered pew of the parish church,
and beyond that to the simple neighbourliness of Christian people
in their communities.
I believe that old institutions in the UK have not yet been
completely eclipsed, except in the rhetoric of those with an
interest in eclipsing them. You would not invent it all to be like
this. But, as we've got it, it is worth valuing.
The Revd Dr Malcolm Brown is the Director of Mission and
Public Affairs for the Archbishops' Council of the Church of