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Platinum Jubilee: The privilege of establishment must be seized

27 May 2022

If they are going to challenge the powerful, religious leaders need to be in the same room, argues Lucy Winkett


The Archbishop of Canterbury in conversation with the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow; the Queen; the Prime Minister, David Cameron; and the Leader of the Commons, Chris Grayling, at a reception in Buckingham Palace to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday, in May 2016

The Archbishop of Canterbury in conversation with the Speaker of the Commons, John Bercow; the Queen; the Prime Minister, David Cameron; and the Leade...

IF YOU were to design the structure of a Church, starting with a blank sheet of paper, very few people would design an Established Church in the model of the Church of England. Mind you, Professor Linda Woodhead, who has for many years taught the sociology of religion in British universities, has sometimes commented that when she asks students to design their own religion from scratch, very few of them will create clergy at all.

Many defenders of an Established Church start and end with this sort of pragmatic muddle: we are where we are, and the energy needed to change it would not be energy well spent. There is something in that, but perhaps there are more principled reasons, too, for retaining — even celebrating — the establishment of a Church, especially at the time of the unprecedented Platinum Jubilee of its Supreme Governor.

When I was first ordained a priest, I thought that it was a no-brainer that the Church of England should be disestablished. But I think, now, that I was wrong. Of course, it is a stretch to go from the Galilean poetic healer and preacher who never wrote a book, joined a political party, or founded an institution, to listening to the Lords Spiritual debate asylum legislation in the Westminster Parliament.

But Christianity is a historic religion, rooted in events, places, and times. It is a religion founded on the messiness and complexity of incarnation. The theological scandal of particularity — the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth — gives Christians their blueprint for their spiritual practice: earth and heaven are both formative and influential in the shaping of faith.

Jesus did not leave a philosophy, nor a manual for spiritual practice, nor the establishment of a new religion. He taught his disciples how to pray, gave them a new ritual, healed and challenged them, and gave up all that he had to save what is lost in this life. Along the way, he consistently confronted political, military, and religious authority when necessary. So, in institutional terms, perhaps there is a more principled foundation for an embedded religious presence in the issues of the day, as expressed in national and local politics.

ONE of the most powerful ways in which I find myself in support of an Established Church is by contemplating the opposite. The photo op in 2016 of President Trump waving his Bible at the Pope was enough to convince me that the separation of Church and State so trumpeted in the United States is not working.

The frequent insistence, and not just at election time, that, in the US, prayer has no place in politics, curiously makes the influence of religion on the political culture arguably much stronger than in the UK. The lines between the political protection of human rights and the moral teaching of the Church are much more blurred, to the extent that, in national debates over abortion, the death penalty, assisted dying, and homosexuality, politicians are in thrall to religious lobbyists and funders far more than in England. The prospective repeal of Roe v. Wade is one case in point (News, 6 May).

There are some elements of establishment which are very visible, others not so, but the dynamic and ongoing relationship between political leaders and leaders of the Established Church can be helpful in brokering public conversations that go to the heart of the matter.

In living memory, three examples of this come to mind. The 1985 Faith in the City report that so enraged the Prime Minister at the time, Margaret Thatcher, shone a light on the lived experience of inner-city Britain, rooted in the theology that the intrinsic dignity of humanity is found in being created in the image of God. So, equality matters, and the distinction between relative and absolute poverty was exposed and challenged.

In 2009, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Williams, preached in St Paul’s Cathedral at the commemoration service after the war in Iraq. He told the congregation, which included both Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, that “there were those among both policymakers and commentators who were able to talk about [the conflict] without really measuring the price. . . Perhaps we have learned something — if only that there is ‘a time to keep silence’, a time to let go of the satisfyingly overblown language that is so tempting for human beings when war is in the air.”

And, on Easter Day this year, Archbishop Welby said that the current Government’s immigration proposals “cannot stand up to the judgement of God” (News, Leader comment, 22 April). The Bishop of Chelmsford, Dr Guli Francis Dehqani, herself a refugee from Iran, has spoken powerfully in the House of Lords on the same subject, and wrote to the Home Secretary to criticise the “cruel and inhumane” proposals.

These three examples are of the Church speaking from within its own context outwards: claiming the freedom of the pulpit or the printing press to publish its considered view on poverty, war, and immigration.

DOES it matter that the Church is established when these “callings to account” are made? I think it does. Because, in a liberal democracy, an established religion holds open a space, whether in pulpit or parliament, for this sort of dialogue that is public, accountable, peaceful, and — most importantly — rooted in a deeper perspective than the heat of the political fray.

It is an immense privilege to given permission to speak from a pulpit, to preach the gospel, and, in the manner of Jesus’s ministry, comment on economic realities or political decision-making. I might suggest that the meaning and success of establishment arrangements lie in the ability of those who preach to seize this privilege and run with it — to claim the freedom that lies at the heart of establishment and not become lazily vested in things staying as they are.

Establishment is visible in the pulpit; it is also visible in Parliament itself. The presence of the Lords Spiritual is not uncontroversial, of course, but even if I were not a person of faith, I think that I would be glad that the day’s business began in both Houses with prayers.

That is because, at its heart, this practice does not set out to oppress or convert; rather, it sets out the context for the day-to-day debates, reminding policy-makers that they are accountable not only to constituents, but to their conscience, to moral and ethical standards of behaviour, and, believers would say, to God.

Parliamentary debates, whatever your own political persuasion, have benefited over the years from interventions rooted in spirituality and theology on re-armament, foreign policy regarding apartheid South Africa, assisted dying, immigration policy, industrial relations, and a hundred more ethical and moral debates while legislation is crafted, amended, and crafted again.

Of course, it is not perfect as it is. Of course, the Lords Spiritual do not have a monopoly on faith or morality, and the risk is that the representatives of religion get bogged down in the corridors of power and love it too much to be effective. But I would argue that the greater risk is withdrawal. In that case, various and sometimes competing political and religious ideologies will continue to be explored and argued over, but in darker corners, perhaps in more toxic atmospheres, and not in the accountable light. My advice to the politicians regarding religious leaders is to keep us where you can see us.

IT IS clear what can happen when religious leaders become too close to political ones: in Russia currently, and in Syria, religious leaders are providing and sustaining some of the cultural context in which dictators are allowed to flourish. And, in our own society, it is hard to identify any sort of moral progress made possible by religious involvement in politics: in the persistent and growing gap between rich and poor, or in the proliferation of low-paid zero-hours-contract jobs in a service economy, or the plethora of new conundrums presented by online trends of trolling, revenge porn, and child exploitation available on my smartphone 24 hours a day.

But still, to have an Established Church, despite its imperfections, is an implicit recognition, within the polity of a nation, that “Just because we can doesn’t mean we should.” It means that the spiritual and moral dimension to life is given an axiomatic place and voice in political debate, affirming a holistic view of human beings. And, what’s more, eminent scholars, such as the late Zaki Badawi and Lord Sacks, have said clearly that their own faiths benefited from there being an Established Church, with an open and tolerant view of other religions.

We need more reasons to be in the same room, not fewer, and anything that seeks to lessen the isolation of any religious world-view (including the sometimes rather self-regarding Church of England) has to be a good thing.

If the C of E disestablished officially, the minority who turn up to a Church of England service on a Sunday might not initially notice. But, in the long run, disestablishment would be a mistake for everyone who thinks that there might possibly be a God, and that, if there is, God is not their own private creation.

The truth is that establishment does not find expression only in the legislative chambers of Westminster, but at the gathering at war memorials in town and village squares; in the legal requirement for a Church of England chaplain in every prison, and for every person who gets sent to prison to see the chaplain in the first 24 hours; in the multifaith chaplaincies in the NHS; and in the instinctive expectation from the majority who never go to church that the congregation and incumbent will throw open their doors after a local disaster befalls a community.

ESTABLISHMENT is, at its best, an open door with a low threshold between matter and spirit, which insists on considering seemingly intractable temporal issues in the context of morality and eternity.

It is true, of course, that, in a historic Church with centuries of decision-making behind it, plenty of bad mistakes have been made — and it is important to say not just mistakes, but wickednesses perpetrated, such as the owning of slaves or the burning of people. And, in today’s multifaith society, helping to keep the door open for everyone is vital. But there is already too much privatisation of spirituality, unaccountable and unchallengeable because it is simply “what I believe”.

Disestablishment might look neat on paper, but withdrawal from these relationships would cheapen the public conversations made possible by the long relationships, and leave both the Church and the State damaged by the distance. The way establishment will thrive as a system, maintained not only through pragmatism but from principle, is if we stay in the room — but be braver while we are there.

The Revd Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s, Piccadilly, in the diocese of London.

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