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Living in an old country

14 February 2014

Malcolm Brown believes that the relationship between Church and State reflects a deeply embedded Anglican Christian identity

"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 one's own.

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 itself.

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 expect.

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 its priorities.

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 country.

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 England.

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 things.

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 England.

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