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Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State relations in England by Jonathan Chaplin

by
22 July 2022

Richard Chartres looks at live questions in the establishment debate

IN 1977, Bishop Robert Runcie, later Archbishop of Canterbury, contributed to a volume to mark the centenary of the diocese of St Albans. He wrote, “I hope that St Albans will be part of a disestablished church . . . and that my successors will no longer sit as of right in the House of Lords.” Decades of numerical decline later, and, contrary to Runcie’s expectations, very little seems to have changed in the formal links between Church and State in England.

Jonathan Chaplin, in his new book Beyond Establishment, admits that “establishment hardly seems to be the most pressing issue at stake in the larger question of the place of faith in British Society.” He regrets this situation, however, and calls for the Church itself to take the initiative in proposing “a planned sequence of steps towards disestablishment”.

The book is chiefly concerned with what the author regards as the fundamental principles of “church autonomy and state impartiality”. He admits that disestablishment “could be compatible with French style laïcité”, in which the State supervises a thoroughly secularised public realm, where religious identity is invisible, and religious voices are silenced. In Chaplin’s view, this would be regrettable, which is why he argues that disestablishment ought to be accompanied by the development of a positive vision of how the State should engage with religious bodies generally.

This will clearly be a very great challenge. Great Britain ceased to be a confessional state in the first half of the 19th century, and the character of establishment has profoundly changed in the century and a half. In some ways, the Church of England is already the most disestablished Church in Europe. Although the Church is responsible for 45 per cent of all Grade I listed buildings in England, worshippers largely pay for their upkeep, and the clergy are paid without the substantial public finance available to churches in Germany and France.

Any reset in relations between Church and State should prompt a reconsideration of the Church’s role as custodian of such a large part of the cultural inheritance of the whole nation, as well as its historic involvement in the education system.

Chaplin wisely excludes these areas from his analysis and also, with great candour, admits that there is support for the present situation from outside the Church of England. He quotes Tariq Modood, the Muslim political scientist, as representative of the majority view among adherents of other faiths that “the minimal nature of Anglican establishment . . . is an ongoing recognition of the public character of religion” and “far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphal secularism”.

Chaplin himself believes, in contrast, that establishment even in its present vestigial form generates “conflicting and inevitably compromising expectations”. He argues for “more psychic space for the Church to calibrate its national interventions” without any lingering sense that it has some sort of chaplaincy role to the nation.

These are important questions, and the book makes a serious contribution to a debate that will not go away.
 

The Rt Revd Lord Chartres is a former Bishop of London.

 

Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State relations in England
Jonathan Chaplin
SCM Press £25
(978-0-334-06173-1)
Church Times Bookshop £20

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