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New Supreme Governor, same issue for Church    

16 September 2022

The C of E will continue to hold an umbrella for other faiths in society — but for how long is this sustainable, asks Nick Spencer

THERE has been much discussion about the faith of the new King, and there will, no doubt, be much more.

He is renowned for once musing that he might prefer the title “Defender of Faith” — or even, in some renditions, “of faiths” — to the formal one, “Defender of the Faith”. In actual fact, as he subsequently clarified in an interview for The Sunday Hour, he never intended to change the monarch’s title; rather, he wished to highlight how he might use the role to enable and protect the practice of all religious faith. “It’s always seemed to me,” he said, “that, while at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.”

This is no break from (recent) tradition. Indeed, it is pretty much identical to his mother’s conception of her role and that of the Established Church. “The concept of our Established Church”, she said in a speech in Lambeth Palace during her Diamond Jubilee year, “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” (News, 17 February 2012). Mother and son, however much they might differ in the profundity of their faith, are at one in their understanding of the Church over which they are Supreme Governor.

It is an understanding that the Church itself shares. In an interview on Radio 4 last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury echoed the Queen’s words. “What the Queen was saying [in 2012] . . . was, ‘It’s not about us Anglicans’ — we’re there for others, as she said, to be an umbrella for faith.”

It is a nice formula: appealing, cuddly, no sharp edges. It is not wrong, either in theory or in practice. The Church of England does open up space here. Non-Christian religious groups and leaders, most eloquently the late Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks, have often spoken positively about the way in which the establishment of the Church has made life easier for other faiths within a comparatively secular culture. That recognised, it is a role that is going to become increasingly difficult to sustain over coming decades.

THERE is a significant and infrequently acknowledged tension here between (a) the Established Church as “creat[ing] an environment for other faith communities . . . to live freely” (let us call this, borrowing from Archbishop Welby, the “umbrella option”) and (b) the Established Church as a missional body that seeks to make Christian disciples of all people (the “missional option”). It is, in effect, trying to combine the part played by a (generous, broad-minded) referee with that of a player who, however willing to honour the rules, is still invested in the result.

This is by no means a new tension. Much of Queen Victoria’s reign was characterised by bitter tensions between Dissenters and Anglicans: the former resented the way in which the latter’s position at the heart of the Establishment tilted the playing field away from Nonconformity. The (potential) tension today is the same as it was then (albeit far less heated), just played on to a wider religious screen.

This was not such a big problem in the 20th century. This was partly because Anglican-Nonconformist tension passed away, and was not replaced by comparable multifaith considerations until the late 1990s, and partly because, during that period, the Church of England felt reasonably secure as part of the established furniture. The result was that the missional option, however much talked up in church documents, was never much of a threat to the umbrella option. Today, however, as all data show Anglican numbers heading south, the reality is that, unless the Church of England becomes much more missional, it will not exist a century hence.

SOME will claim that it is perfectly possible to combine the the umbrella and missional options. In one sense, they are right. The Established Church is a convenient boat to fish from, as (some) Evangelicals used to say. While this arrangement might be possible, however, it would not be fair. At some point, other religious groups would, quite rightly, become upset by the sense that the Church was having it both ways: competing for converts while enjoying the privilege of being the faith referee.

For some people, including me, this is a genuine dilemma. I believe that the Church of England is a genuinely humanising and positive institution within contemporary England, much as the late Queen described it. At a time when centrifugal forces threaten to pull us ever further part, I have no desire to unfasten one of the ties that bind us both to ourselves and to the Good.

But I also believe that, at some point — perhaps in King Charles’s reign, but more likely after it — the Church is going to have to recognise the umbrella v. missional conundrum, before it becomes an outright hypocrisy, or, worse, before there is no Church to face it at all.

Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos.

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