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Future of established Church debated at Pusey House conference

12 June 2024

Same-sex marriage might be what ‘breaks the camel’s back’ attendees hear


The King is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Coronation in Westminster Abbey on 6 May 2023

The King is crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury during the Coronation in Westminster Abbey on 6 May 2023

THE public legitimacy of the Church of England was discussed at Pusey House, in Oxford, this week. The future of establishment was among the topics debated.

The “complete ignorance of the most basic fundamentals of biblical stories” among children, the dislocation between mainstream opinion and the Church’s teaching, and the blandness of the Church’s voice were among the challenges presented. Voices from those who had worked in Parliament, however, offered reassurance and encouragement.

The annual conference of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life was held in partnership with the Centre for Cultural Witness, based at Lambeth Palace. An early provocation was offered by Dr Jonathan Chaplin, honorary fellow of Wesley House, and author of Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State relations in England (Books, 22 July 2022).

The “hospitable, earthed” form of establishment — the Church’s embedded presence across the nation — could be lost only if the Church “lost or repudiated its vocation to serve all the people of England”, he suggested. But “high establishment”, such as the presence of the Bishops in the House of Lords, could be abolished without having an impact on this.

He feared that “we are in the grip of some kind of mythical thinking here as if establishment . . . [is] somehow standing in the breach between us and a deluge of secularism.” Larger forces were at work, while “remarkable missional opportunities” would open up if the Church were to voluntarily divest itself of such privileges, he said.

Canon Mark Chapman, Professor of the History of Modern Theology in the University of Oxford, suggested that the decision might not lie in the hands of the Church. Tensions between the Church and Parliament had been “stretched now to breaking point”, he said.

“The stability of establishment depended largely on a sense of consensus, as politicians saw Parliament as a kind of lay synod that represented the religious views of the country, more or less. This I don’t think is any longer the case. The old, what one might call Tory Anglicanism . . . has been virtually extinguished.”

Same-sex marriage might be what “breaks the camel’s back”, he suggested. “The few people in Parliament who show much interest in the Church are looking somewhat incredulously on a Church hellbent on tearing itself to pieces over same-sex marriage: something that is opposed by only 13 per cent of the population.”

He warned: “The logic of failing to move with public opinion is, I think, to move inexorably toward disestablishment. Where the Church is no longer useful to Parliament, it will simply be removed by that Parliament.”

Dominic Grieve KC, a former Attorney General, offered a more optimistic perspective, in remarks that focused on the “interweaving of public service within our country”, including “the status of the monarch as a person who takes a coronation oath in a religious setting”. Such “entanglement” was “really fundamental”, he argued. “The idea that you can magic it away is, in my view, impossible. . . You are going to be left at present with absolutely nothing, no basis for ethical governance at all.”

Far from being exclusive, establishment was “astonishingly inclusive . . . If you have some view that there needs to be some fundamental religious or spiritual ethic which should underlie the way in which governance is conducted, it appears to be uniquely reassuring.”

A similar view came from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Daniel Greenberg, who suggested that establishment “appears to be much more controversial among the ranks of its own leaders than in most other forums”. This could be explained by the fact that it brought with it “a responsibility to represent transcendence in a way that is restrained, responsible, and balanced, and that necessarily contributes more to cohesion than to division.

“The fact that this may be a positive or negative force for the development of the Church as a faith explains in part why establishment is continually controversial within the Church.”

Arguments that the numerical decline of the Church posed a threat to establishment “missed the point”, he suggested. “Establishment was never really about the right to parliamentary representation for the majority of worshippers or believers. . . In a world increasingly fragmented by destructive division of so many kinds, an institution that represents the societal force of religion in a way which is deliberately and necessarily transcendent of those divisions provides a unique and invaluable resource for every single resident of the country.”

The Lords Spiritual “appear to have intuitively” understood this, he said. “They do not as a rule seek to inject into a debate the demands or even advice of Christian practice, nor do they generally purport to moralise or preach from a Christian perspective.” Rather, they appealed to “fundamental concepts such as charity, mercy, and forgiveness, that may have a particular foundation and resonance within the Church, but have an indisputable moral claim at a level of simple humanity, and by doing so they cement the claims of those religious values in the heart of Parliament and the constitution”.

Questions about how the Church maintained a distinctive voice as the Established Church in a pluralistic society surfaced throughout the day. The historian Tom Holland suggested that the two options available to it (“Does it affirm its distinctiveness, the sense that it is the embodiment and expression of God’s purpose, or is it the religious wing of multi-culturalism?”) both seemed “fairly invidious”. “In the one way, you are proclaiming the sectarian identity that will not go down well, and, on the other, you lose everything that makes the Church distinctive.”

The Archdeacon of Hastings and Dean designate of Chichester, the Ven. Dr Edward Dowler, suggested that, while one danger was that the Church’s voice could be suppressed as one outside mainstream opinion, there was an “equal and opposite danger that the Christian voice could become so similar to the prevailing noise around it that it has no distinct quality . . . absorbed so that there’s nothing worth listening to”. There was a risk of the Church’s “dying of boredom”, he warned.

Shermara Fletcher-Hoyte, principal officer for Pentecostal, Charismatic, and multi-cultural relations for Churches Together in England, spoke of a current study of Millennials and Generation Z at the Oxford Research Centre, which suggested “a real openness to the transcendent. . . There’s actually a hunger in society right now for what is not in the world; so let’s not be embarrassed by that, let’s share our spiritual practice.”

The Archbishops’ Council’s Director of Faith and Public Life, Canon Malcolm Brown, suggested that one future path might be to form “alliances between those faiths that do believe that this life is not the end, not just for the sake of ecumenical and interfaith dialogue, but because actually the future of the world depends on making that believable again”. He heard, he reported, few funeral homilies that affirmed the “sure and certain hope” of resurrection.

To laughter, Mr Holland told the conference that he had loved the Coronation “in the way that I would have loved seeing a Triceratops roam across a Dorset field”. After suggesting that “we are living through a process of cultural and moral change at the moment that is analagous to the Reformation,” he observed that the Prince of Wales “may be a king that is more in tune with a country that, in a decade, or two decades, or whenever he is crowned, will have slipped the moorings of Christianity even more”.

One reason for that was that, despite running large numbers of schools, the Church did not “seem to be inculcating a familiarity with the Bible. Generations are growing up at the moment with a complete ignorance of the most basic fundamentals of biblical stories.”

In his remarks, the Bishop of Ramsbury, Dr Andrew Rumsey, noted that, while 51 per cent of children in his diocese attended an Anglican primary school, only 1.7 per cent attended its public worship. He referred to this as evidence that, “whilst our congregational membership has long been shrinking like a balloon, this slow puncture has not by contrast shrunk the Church of England’s own view of its social reach and responsibility. National allegiance to the Church may be in heavy and long-term decline, but the Church’s allegiance to the nation remains as lofty as ever.”

Anglican local attachment was, at its best, “good for both faith and society, being a bulwark against increasing religious sectarianism and a sign that the nation, the state, or society, is no mere pragmatic, political, existential contract, but it’s also a sacred and a transcendent thing with a meaningful narrative leading us to a better place”.

The Bishop of Hull, Dr Eleanor Sanderson, opened the conference with reflections on having served as a bishop in the Anglican Church of Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. “It is too soon for me to say whether being an Established Church will enable a different reality of transformation in areas that are a concern for me,” she said.

“What I can say is that, in England, the Rt Revd and the Rt Hon. are joined together in a unique way. Those for whom this is the case have taken oaths to a people and to a place, to be loyal to the gospel purpose, and, from my cultural lens, for one’s identity to be so shaped asks: what or who do we reverence?”

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