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Should the Church be disestablished?

churchstateThe continuing decline in Church attendance and the apparent marginalization of Christian perspectives within the country naturally lead to the question of whether the Church should be disestablished. Does it make sense to have the life of the nation tied in to Christian belief by having a Church ‘established by law’ if so few people are actively involved in that Church, and a growing number don’t share its beliefs?

In the April edition of Prospect magazine, two women who are well known in the media debate the question. Linda Woodhead is Professor of Sociology of Religion at Lancaster University, and has in the past asked questions about traditional understandings of what the Church is for. Lucy Winkett is Rector of St James’s Church, Piccadilly, London, and a regular contributor to Thought for the Day.


The format of the discussion is interesting, with case and response put three times by each contributor in turn. Winkett is second each time, and whilst that might seem like a disadvantage, it in fact gives her a persuasive last word. The central point of her first comment relates to the understanding of religion in the public space:

Of course, it’s not perfect as it is, but withdrawal is a greater risk. Competing political and religious ideologies would continue to be explored and argued over, but in darker corners, perhaps in more toxic atmospheres. My advice to the politicians about religious leaders—keep us where you can see us.

There is a parallel here with other current discussion. Aaqil Ahmed, the BBC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, makes a plea for greater profile of religion in broadcasting, since the greater global importance of religion in culture comes at a time of diminishing understanding of religion and the religious in many Western cultures. Yesterday, I was listening to Dr Rowan Williams, the previous Archbishop of Canterbury, give the 2016 Firth Lectures on religion in the arts, and he noted how often, in literature, religious characters are two-dimensional, portrayed by outsiders who don’t understand from the inside or with sympathy what a religious life looks like. They would both support Winkett’s comment:

[I]n a world more furiously religious than ever, and where religion is viewed with suspicion, we should be arguing for more establishment, not less.

Winkett goes on to explore the potential consequences of disestablishment for public and political debate. But, just as important, she notes the difference it makes on the ground, in the everyday lives of the people she ministers among.

The truth is that establishment doesn’t only find expression in parliament, but at the gathering at war memorials in villages, in the legal requirement for a C of E chaplain in every prison; in the multi-faith chaplaincies in the NHS and in the expectation from those who never go to church that the congregation and vicar will throw open their doors after a disaster befalls a community. Establishment is, at its best, an open door with a low threshold between matter and spirit, that insists on an eternal perspective to temporal issues.

Winkett offers us a coherent, informed and passionate defence of establishment in our current context.


Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of Woodhead. She starts with a half-truth about where we have got to:

Disestablishment has been happening for decades. It’s a process and in all essential respects the Church has already been disestablished.

There is some truth in this. Establishment is not one single thing, but a rope with many strands, some of which have indeed been severed. But the legal status of clergy in registering marriages they solemnize, the parish system and the right to baptism, the status of canon law within the legal system, the monarch as head of the Church are all important, formal elements of establishment which continue to be firmly in place—before we consider any of the cultural issues raised by Winkett.

Woodhead is not alone in complaining about the ‘quality of bishops’ in the Church—though like others in this camp, she would need to explain why the most dramatic decline in Church attendance occurred under the leadership of the ‘interesting’ leaders of the past. But the idea that Gordon Brown’s decision to ‘end parliamentary involvement in the appointment of senior clergy’ is responsible for a change in quality is quite fanciful. The C of E had an appointments process in place for many years; Brown’s decision not to choose between the two names offered was a minor change. George Carey was reputed to be the second choice behind John Habgood, then Archbishop of York—and chosen by Margaret Thatcher. I am not sure he would count as one of Woodhead’s ‘quality bishops’.

As an alternative to our current situation, Woodhead points to the case of Denmark as a preferable way of making establishment work. This is an odd choice—and I am slightly surprised that Winkett agrees on this point. Denmark, notwithstanding establishment, has one of the lowest church attendances in Europe. Sociologist Phil Zuckerman undertook an extended study of religion in Denmark, and found it paradoxical. He found a ‘moral, stable and humane’ society—but one that had no interest whatever in God or religion.

Though they denied most of the traditional teachings of Christianity, they called themselves Christians, and most were content to remain in the Danish National Church or the Church of Sweden, the traditional national branches of Lutheranism.

At the same time, they were “often disinclined or hesitant to talk with me about religion,” Mr. Zuckerman reported, “and even once they agreed to do so, they usually had very little to say on the matter.”

This indifference or obliviousness to religious matters was sometimes subtly enforced. “In Denmark,” a pastor told Mr. Zuckerman, “the word ‘God’ is one of the most embarrassing words you can say. You would rather go naked through the city than talk about God.”

This is not so much ‘believing without belonging’, but paying without believing, belonging or attending. If Woodhead sees this as a vision of ‘what could have been’, then she is arguing for a quasi-National Trust approach to the Church. As long as there is enough finance, and the buildings are preserved, then it doesn’t matter whether anyone is interested, attends, or believes anything. The analogy she uses in the article is that of the BBC. But this doesn’t fit the Denmark model, since the BBC would certainly have deemed to have failed if no-one actually watched. Not so for the Church in Denmark that she holds up as an aspiration.

And there is a serious question as to whether such an arrangement is sustainable. Establishment in Denmark is like a hollow shell, formed by historical belief, but now emptied of substance. It doesn’t take much—an advertising campaign by atheists—for the shell to crack and collapse, and thousands to decide that their membership of the Church is indeed meaningless, and they could be doing better things with their money.


April2016_Duel_smallerIt is a shame to see uninformed inaccuracies in this piece. To think that the Church has done nothing but ‘oppose or ignore’ developments in society could only be sustained by ignorance of what actually goes on at just about every level. But the saddest thing is Woodhead’s recourse to insults. General Synod is sometimes strange and frustrating, but to consider it ‘a grandstanding platform for the Church’s most extreme and unattractive elements’ is to descend to schoolyard taunts. The dismissal of bishops is similar—and unfounded. Robert Runcie, whom she lauds, was not universally well received; even Andrew Brown, who praises his personal qualities, admits that ‘There may be no lasting achievements of his primacy, after an earlier life of remarkable promise and success.’ What is most striking is that Woodhead offers neither sociological nor theological arguments for her position.

There is, in fact, a good, theological argument against establishment, but it is Winkett, not Woodhead, who offers it.

If one designed a state from scratch, it would be very surprising if we ended up with an established church. What’s more, followers of the Galilean preacher who never joined a political party or founded an institution find the sight of bishops in the House of Lords unpalatable.

So there is a debate to be had. But the practical issues that Winkett highlights means, I strongly suspect, that it is not the most urgent issue on most people’s agenda.


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14 Responses to Should the Church be disestablished?

  1. Geoff April 12, 2016 at 11:08 am #

    There are many things I love about the Anglican Church but I have never quite got the theology behind being a state church. To me it seems leaders are appointed by politicians and the church is bound to state law.

    Ian, the argument put for establishment is built on good sociological and pragmatic reasons but theologically I just don’t get it.

    I wonder if the argument to disestablish will never go anywhere because there is too much power and influence to loose?

    ‘followers of the Galilean preacher who never joined a political party or founded an institution find the sight of bishops in the House of Lords unpalatable’.

  2. Anthony Archer April 12, 2016 at 11:11 am #

    The Church State relationship has not been formally considered since the Chadwick Commission, which reported in 1970. It was a useful piece of work, but its members were not of one mind. Three members were full blooded disestablishmentarians, the other thirteen were divided about how far, short of formal disestablishment, it would be wise to go in excluding Parliament and the Prime Minister in ordering the Church of England’s affairs. The one major change that eventually came out of the Commission’s work was the creation of the Crown Appointments Commission, later revised in its working through the Perry Report and more radically by the recent convention adopted by Gordon Brown that the Crown should accept the first name proposed by the Church for nominations to diocesan sees. However, what Chadwick was clear about was the language of ‘establishment.’ It should not be confused with the colloquial sense of describing ‘those in positions of authority, with its undertone of privilege, reaction, apathy and self-satisfaction.’ The term ‘the Church by law established’ is also hard to define, harking back to the Reformation. ‘The words … were originally used to denote the statutory process by which the allegiance of the Church of England to the Sovereign (and not the Pope) and the forms of worship and doctrines of that Church were imposed by law. The phrase distinguished the legality of the national Church from other Churches which were then unlawful and whose worship and doctrines were then proscribed.’ Wind the clock forward 45 years and what do we see? The Church of England is only ‘controlled’ by the State to the extent of the workings of the Ecclesiastical Committee in terms of declaring Measures expedient. It is a useful check, but hardly a burden. The Church now appoints its own bishops. There are still Lords Spiritual, but the House of Lords now also includes bishops and senior faith leaders who are not currently serving diocesans, including ++Eames, Baroness Richardson and Rabbi Lord Sacks to name but a few. Should there be fewer diocesans in the Lords? Possibly. But it remains the case that the Church of England exists to serve the nation; it is largely open for business in every city, town and village and people of faith and no faith regard it as ‘their Church’ at life’s great moments, even if they are not regular worshippers. Should the discussion be had on establishment? My view is not, unless Parliament wants to initiate it, which would be its privilege.

  3. Andrew Godsall April 12, 2016 at 3:48 pm #

    Andrew Brown’s piece about Bob Runcie is a wonderful reminder of what a remarkable Archbishop he was. Whilst Andrew concludes that ‘there may be no lasting achievements of his primacy..’ he then goes on to say: ‘He did as much to sustain the unity of the Church of England and the Anglican Communion as any man could; and he did more than seemed humanly possible to show why that unity was worth preserving.’

    No Archbishop since has managed that. Much more, Bob Runcie managed to inspire the church to be more prayerful, and more theological in response to the important issues of the time than any Archbishop since. We have ‘The Church and the Bomb’ and ‘Faith in the City’ as evidence of that. His tenure was followed by a Decade of Evangelism that simply shrank the Church with its shrill approach, and that tenure was followed by the stabbing in the back of Jeffrey John and endless stupid debates about the ‘gay issue’. Who wants an established church that can’t even treat all members of the establishment with equality?

    Andrew noted in his obituary that ‘almost everyone who knew him will feel today that they would swap half the British constitution to have him back’ and I’m certain that’s still true. It’s because, as Andrew notes in relation to the famous sermon after the Falklands war, that he embodied ‘the work of a man who, after he won his MC, walked over the battlefield to look at the bodies of the men he had killed.’

  4. James Byron April 13, 2016 at 7:38 am #

    Separation of church and state is too often framed in the wrong way: as atheism vs. religion; instead of as a protection for religious liberty.

    It should be remembered that the earliest, and most fervent, advocates of cutting the ties between church and state weren’t atheists or deists, but religious dissenters who wanted liberty to worship as their conscience dictated. Nor does secularism automatically lead to public irreleigion, and closeted believers: America, firmly secular, is also one of the most overtly religious countries in the West.

    Secularism should be framed as liberty and equality for churches, and freedom from state bullying in matters of doctrine. Don’t want to go the way of the Folkekirken? Don’t claim to be a church for all: or sooner, rather than later, the state will force the church to change, rather than seek to change those who join.

  5. Jamie Wood April 13, 2016 at 9:10 am #

    James Byron I agree with you 100%.
    Establishment says that 2% of the population – the practising Anglicans – have a duty to maintain 12000 cathedrals and listed parish churches “on behalf of” the wider community. Establishment says that any young layperson, white or black, starting work and intending to contribute actively to the church, has to dedicate himself or herself long-term to giving money and administrative effort to preserving a huge swathe of the nation’s built heritage. This is unrealistic, because (i) ancient building preservation is a niche interest (ii) our system for building maintenance, run by 12000 independent trusts (“PCC’s”) without any central management, is singularly inefficient. So if any young person is starting on the Christian life and intending to commit to it – which is a huge challenge anyway – I suggest you consider a non-Anglican denomination in which any buildings used are at the discretion of, and if necessary at the disposal of, the people using them.
    In short, establishment is a heavy and unfair burden on the people of God. We are in chains – when will we wake up and seek to escape them?

    • James Byron April 13, 2016 at 10:17 am #

      Excellent point about the onerous property burden, Jamie.

      Secular France solved the problem neatly: the state took over its ancient churches and cathedrals, accepted the bill for their upkeep, while giving the Catholic Church exclusive usage rights. Ironically, the nation of laïcité gives the church far more practical support than England.

  6. Tim Chesterton April 14, 2016 at 10:14 am #

    I find it ludicrous that defenders of ‘Establishment’ in England continue to trot out the line that because of Establishment the C of E can ‘be there for the whole nation’, to serve the whole nation.

    What on earth is it that makes Establishment necessary for that purpose?

    In North America one of the Christian traditions that is best known for being there to ‘serve the whole nation’ is the Mennonites. They’re the first in with disaster relief, the first on aid projects, and they punch far above their numbers in practical service. Here in Edmonton, for instance, they run the longest serving centre to help new immigrants and refugees in the city. And yet, they are the heirs of the spiritual tradition that first protested Christendom and ‘Establishment’ over five hundred years ago.

    Anabaptism, the spiritual tradition to which they belong, says that the best way for the church to serve the community is for it to be the church, and to be the church it needs to give up its everlasting fixation with being in the power structures of society. Jesus served from the margins of society. Anabaptism reclaimed the margins as being the most effective place for the church to be. That’s one of the most important lessons we can learn from Anabaptism today.

  7. Perry Butler April 14, 2016 at 12:35 pm #

    The C of E has been partially disestablished incrementally since 1828 to 1832 .I can’t see the State wishing to deliver the coup de grace as it would be so complicated and take up huge amounts of legislative time.What would disestablishment actually mean? Would it involve disendowment as in Wales? Would a disendowed church keep financially afloat? And would a disestablished Church of England with its theological tensions and varieties of churchmanships manage to stay together or fragment into its constituent bits. I suspect there will be further evolution and the matter will ultimately be decided by the wider political and cultural landscape over the next 30 odd years….a fascinating pointer into how things have changed will be the shape of the next coronation.

    • Jamie Wood April 14, 2016 at 4:35 pm #

      Yes the matter will be decided by the political and cultural landscape – unless the Church acquires a will of its own in the matter. And why should it not? A human being who is always saying wetly “I’ll let other people decide for me” fails – a human being who knows what they want and says what it is, prospers. Similarly a church prospers when it knows what it wants and says what that is.

  8. Nikolaj Christensen April 15, 2016 at 11:21 am #

    There was an interview with Prof. Woodhead in a Danish newspaper the other day as well, on a similar topic: http://www.kristeligt-dagblad.dk/kirke-tro/statskirker-er-immunforsvar-over-fanatisme
    As a Dane living in the UK (and a regular reader of your blog) I agree that her views are ludicrous both from a theological and a sociological point of view. The C of E is in far better shape than the Danish church, even if both have their problems. What’s interesting about the interview is that Woodhead explicitly admits: “I am actually quite negative regarding religion”. So possibly not the best person for the church to take advice from! (What the interview possibly misses is that from my knowledge I suspect the other interviewee, Hans Raun Iversen, is not quite on the same line as her.)

  9. Richard Fellows April 16, 2016 at 6:35 pm #

    It is idolatrous that clergy should have to declare allegiance to the queen and her successors. It is offensive to me and to many others.

  10. Andrew April 20, 2016 at 3:45 pm #

    Richard – I assume you mean as head of the Church? Swearing allegiance to the head of state in the secular sense is perfectly compatible with Peter’s instruction in 1 Pet 2:13-14.

  11. Richard April 22, 2016 at 5:30 pm #

    As I understand it before Jewish emancipation only members of the Church of England were allowed to stand for election to the House of Commons thus MPs saw themselves as the lay voice of the church. With universal suffrage that has changed but the historical background is important in understanding parliaments role in the CofE.

  12. Nicholas Bensted April 23, 2016 at 1:56 pm #

    The strange thing is that the future of the church is being considered in a simple dichotomy of establishment and disestablishment. Have we learnt nothing from the origin of the church and from church history? Furthermore I don’t like the term disestablishment. Just because a church is not established it need not necessarily be against those churches that are. Nor should those churches that are established be an anti-thesis to the same.

    Of course understood correctly establishment presents many advantages. But these are also seriously counterbalanced by the need to gain more converts, which of course cannot adequately be done without new initiatives, which by defintion cannot be ‘established’ activity.

    Thus quite a lot of this discussion is quite simply daft. So much of it has to do with preserving the situation as it now is, either by simply not taking advantage of the established place of Christianity or refusing to consider how entirely necessary new churches are (or if you must use the term ‘disestablished’ churches).

    I don’t think God really thinks the way we think on many of these issues.

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