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It’s time to change, and fast

by
28 February 2014

The Church of England needs to relate to the whole of the nation, Charles Clarke  argues - but this has five primary implications

BY THE year 2035, the Church of England needs fully to embrace the diversity of modern life and society in the United Kingdom.

I would say that this is desirable for any faith that is more than a sect or faction. For the Established Church of this country, however, it is more than desirable - it is essential. The Church of England will risk losing the status and privileges of establishment unless it can demonstrate that it deserves them by relating to all of British society, in all of its diversity.

This has five substantive implications. In each, the Church has already been changing for some years, but the change needs to go faster, and become more comprehensive.

First, the Church of England needs, in its own conduct and behaviour, to reflect its positive recognition of the value and importance of diversity. The barren and depressing debates about the place of women in the Church, the rights of gay people, and other similar matters need firmly to have become history.

Since I am not a theist, I am unqualified to offer theological comment; but, second, it seems to me that the Church of England needs to move beyond particular doctrinal standpoints which ultimately result from its Tudor foundation.

Over nearly 500 years, doctrinal conflicts have both defined difference with other Churches and spawned conflict within the Church. Whatever their historical justification, the Church now needs to focus on what unites, far more than what divides.


THIRD, this means that the Church has to become not only the defender of its own faith, but a far broader-based defender of respect for faith - all faiths - throughout our national life. This means working even harder to develop functioning and working relationships both with other faiths and with all those individuals and groups who have their own faiths, without adhering rigidly to any collective church doctrine.

And, fourth, the Church needs to understand how best to express these values in its broad relationship to the rest of society, in areas such as the constitutional position of the Church, its influence in education and welfare, and its promotion of strong and cohesive local communities.

The Church of England's fifth challenge is how to exist in an even more diverse and complicated world, in which many of its component national Churches have quite different parts to play in their own societies, and so, unsurprisingly, have different approaches to these problems. A difficult process of dialogue and devolution is the only way to make progress here, and avoid damaging schism.

The Church has already been moving - usually slowly - in each of these areas, but change needs to be accelerated dramatically if the centrality of the Church of England to our society is to be demonstrated, and establishment justified.

This is all a huge challenge, but if the Church does not succeed, it will make itself less and less relevant to society, and this will, in turn, place in question the very idea of an Established Church.

Charles Clarke is a former Home Secretary and is currently a visiting professor at the School of Political, Social and International Studies at the University of East Anglia.

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