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Press: State Churches: public utilities or libraries?

26 July 2019


MORE rumblings on from the British Social Attitudes (BSA) survey (News, 12 July, Press, 19 July), one of which was actually illuminating, if not as the author intended: Dennis Lennox, writing in The Spectator’s blog section, demanded the disestablishment of the Church of England on the grounds that it “is no longer fulfilling the Great Commission: the biblical command for Christians to propagate the faith and make disciples of Christ”.

This, you may feel, is a little hard on the Holy Trinity, Brompton, grouping who now run the Church; but that’s not the originality of the piece. Anyone has for years been able to get a rant published by misunderstanding the Church of England.

Mr Lennox manages to misunderstand the public library system as well, culminating on one of the most gloriously wrong-headed passages I have read in years: “The Church of England has become the equivalent of a public library: underused but there for everyone, regardless of actual belief. . . By joining the organisation as a member you get certain benefits denied to non-members. Presumably most people in the pews join to be saved from eternal damnation.”

Of course, a state Church has to be much more like a public utility than a voluntary organisation: the very idea of a state Church only really makes sense when the Church in question is an involuntary organisation where membership is part of the duties of the subject. This is the form of society assumed by the BCP, which makes it all the odder that Mr Lennox describes himself as a Prayer Book Anglican. Still, when the great ship smashes up, there are many very curious fragments of wreckage found bobbing in the water where once it sailed.


THE German approach to state Churches is interestingly different. Because the country was not unified until long after a troubled period of ecumenical relations, which culminated in 30 years of inappropriate, even unacceptable, behaviour — from 1618 to 1648 — it has two state Churches, so that Roman Catholics and Protestants can each choose to subsidise their own through taxation.

Now, I see from Deutsche Welle, there is talk of introducing a mosque tax, for Muslims, which would ensure that German Islam was self-funded rather than dependent on foreign donors. This seems to me a reasonable and possibly workable solution to the problem of integrating religion with society, even though there is no arrangement whatsoever that cannot be corrupted, as a later period of German history shows.


ONE of the predictable results of the BSA survey was a flurry of letters to The Guardian, one of which I think is worth quoting because of the author’s artless conviction that anyone who thinks for themselves must come to agree with him: “Hopefully, the next generation will learn to think for themselves and become capable of recognising that it is the responsibility of humans alone to make the world a better place.”


THE United States does not, of course, have an established religion, but there is a chaplain to the House of Representatives, a Jesuit, whose prayer to open the day’s business made The Washington Post: “‘This has been a difficult and contentious week in which darker spirits seem to be at play in the people’s House,’ Fr Conroy prayed, his eyes closed and his open hands outstretched before him.

“‘In your most holy name, I now cast out all spirits of darkness from this chamber; spirits not from you.

“‘I cast out the spirit of discouragement which deadens the hope of those who are of good will.’”

If the Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons were to attempt to cleanse the place in that sort of language, would anyone notice?


AT THE far end of the spectrum from state Churches comes the apparently undoctrinal “spirituality” movement, which has sold mindfulness as a technique that can be applied without any theological or metaphysical commitment. One of the important leaders in that movement was an Englishman, Dennis Lingwood, who took the name Sangharakshita, meaning “One who is protected by the spiritual community.”

And how: The Observer ran a long story about the 40 years or more in which his organisation, originally the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, protected and indulged his sexual tastes.

“A bombshell internal report, produced by concerned members and shared with The Observer, has found that more than one in ten of them claim to have experienced or observed sexual misconduct while in the order. Many of the allegations are against Sangharakshita himself, but others make it clear that he was not the only alleged perpetrator.”

He seems to have been the Peter Ball of Western Buddhism. The moral is not just that abuse can happen anywhere: it is that the mechanisms to stop and report it, however ineffectual, do make a difference. There was no one to whom Lingwood was even notionally responsible, no one to whom his victims could write, even if their letters were subsequently to be ignored. There will be no public acts of shame and repentance.

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