Should the Church of England disestablish?

Jonathan Chaplin has just published Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church State Relations in England (SCM 2022)—which is available at 20% discount until the end of this month from the SCM website. I was able to interview Jonathan about this fascinating book.

IP: I really enjoyed this book—your crisp and clear style, extremely well researched and informed, and with some nice touches of dry humour. But as you say, you are not the first person to make this argument. You make particular note of Colin Buchanan’s Cut the Connection—but I am not sure he persuaded many people. Why will the case you make do better?

JC: Thank you. There’s no knowing whether it will do any better at all (there’s a short summary here). And Buchanan was a bishop whereas I’m a mere lay academic. But you yourself well understand how important it is to keep making arguments you are convinced are true and good for the Church even when you change few minds! Buchanan’s book appeared in 1994 and is still eminently worth reading, but let me note two ways I think mine goes beyond it. 

One of my core arguments is also central to Cut the Connection, namely that even the surviving remnants of Establishment amount to distracting curtailments on the spiritual autonomy of the Church. I echo Buchanan’s call for the Church to become more aware of its remaining captivity to improper constitutional ties to the state. But I couple that with a wider argument from political theology for a religiously impartial state, and I derive both from a New Testament theology of ‘church and state’, spelled out in detail in Chapter 2 (‘A Theology of Disestablishment’). Buchanan’s book does not purport to offer any extended theological arguments, so I think mine complements his in this regard. I hope Anglicans can still be persuaded by theological arguments, or at least provoked to try to rebut them theologically and not only pragmatically. There certainly are pro-Establishment theologians who could give these core arguments a good going over, and I hope they will.

The other way in which I think my book goes beyond Buchanan’s is that I devote two chapters (5 and 6) to disputing the three arguments most frequently wheeled out in defence of Establishment. The first is the ‘concession to secularism’ argument (picked up below). The second is the ‘anti-neutrality’ argument: that disestablishment would only usher in some less desirable, privileged public worldview, such as secular liberalism. I argue that one can maintain a religiously impartial state without necessarily allowing any other worldview to rush in to fill the supposed vacuum.

The third is that disestablishment would amount to an abandonment of the Church’s historic ‘national mission’. This comes in two parts. The first warns of a retreat from the Church’s pastoral openness to all comers, and a (further) lapse into ‘congregationalism’ and ‘sectarianism’. I deconstruct these loaded,  polemical and frankly partisan terms and show that disestablishment need not feed either of them (or, if it does, it’s no business of state law to prevent that). Disestablishment would not prevent the Church from remaining as pastorally open to all comers as it wished, but only secure elements of its spiritual autonomy that current arrangements compromise. 

The second part warns that disestablishment would amount to a retreat from the Church’s commitment to national political engagement. (This was argued recently by Lucy Winkett in Church Times; my rejoinder is here.) I show it would amount to no such thing: such a commitment would be entirely up to the Church to maintain. It might have fewer privileged platforms from which to launch it (e.g., no, or fewer, bishops in a future House of Lords; no automatic precedence at national ceremonies), but it should shed such privileges anyway as theologically unjustifiable. There is no reason whatsoever why the Church should choose to retreat from national political engagement. Only timidity would hold it back.

So, I hope these new elements of the book’s argument at least evoke the curiosity of the unpersuaded.

IP: I was interested that you title your book ‘Beyond Establishment’ rather than ‘Against Establishment’ or something similar. Was that deliberate? Do you think people simply struggle to imagine a different situation from the one we have now?

JC: Yes. I didn’t want to offer merely a negative critique, but to sketch out the new opportunities for public mission that a post-Establishment Church could avail itself of. In fact, the book began as a chapter in my previous book, Faith in Democracy, which sets out a much fuller account of the constructive place of faith in a plural society under an impartial state. Disestablishment shouldn’t be seen as a loss but a gain—in the Church’s spiritual autonomy, confidence and prophetic freedom. I call for a Church that is critically engaged in society and public life at all levels, yet on the basis of an equality of constitutional standing with others, and with other faith communities. The Church needs to learn to see itself as a peer of other faith communities, enjoying no more than public parity with them, not presumptuously operating as prima inter pares (which is what Anglican ‘hospitality’ to other churches or other faiths too often means). 

If people struggle to imagine a different situation, that might be for various reasons. One with which I entirely sympathise is that many church people are so worn down by local and national challenges that they simply don’t have the mental or psychic space to think about the issue (‘just let’s stagger through LLF and then leave me alone in a dark room…’). Another, with which I have less sympathy, is that English Anglicans are far too incurious about how other churches relate to their political authorities. But there are ample examples already in the UK—Scotland, Wales and Ireland—of well-enough functioning church-state relations not marred by the debilitating constitutional entanglements and cultural expectations generated by English Establishment. A third reason, with which I have least sympathy, is that this lack of imagination of different possibilities is consistently sustained by most people in senior leadership positions, who cling on to Establishment (some quietly enjoying the advantages of its prestige, access and estate) yet without making the slightest attempt to justify it theologically. The last attempt at any justification was the Chadwick Report of 1970 and that had no theology in it at all (except in the dissenters’ contributions).

IP: Early on, you quote Paul Avis’s definition of Establishment as expressing:
a. partnership between Church and civil society;
b. the national pastoral mission of the Church;
c. the State’s recognition of the role of the Church; and
d. the contribution of the Church to debate on public issues.
But it does not take very much thought to see that Establishment is not necessary for any of these things—and they are achieved by other, non-Established churches. Given this, why do so many make this claim?

JC: Good question! For Paul Avis (a very impressive Anglican theologian), I think the key is c. national recognition. But he, like many, means not mere public acknowledgement – which, for example, the Methodist Church Act offers to that church – but  ‘special’ or ‘privileged’ recognition. He seems reluctant to speak of ‘privilege’, but some defenders of Establishment openly accept the word and defend Establishment accordingly; that is at least helpful in clarifying the debate. In any event, most defenders imply that a privileged legal status is necessary for what the Church of England uniquely offers to the nation. I simply don’t buy that, for the reasons you point out, and others. On the contrary, I argue that the Church could improve its offering if it were disestablished, as it would be freed from the expectation that it must be on standby to serve as the nation’s chaplain. Nations don’t need chaplains, they need prophets.

IP: You rightly criticise the idea of a Christian nation (which is not very far removed from English ‘exceptionalism’) which is very often the implicit assumption behind much Establishment thinking. But you then go on quite quickly to claim this leads to state impartiality towards religion. But does this really follow? Why cannot a state say it does indeed have a preferred religious outlook – Christian – without assuming we are a ‘Christian’ nation? Hasn’t Tom Holland highlighted the way that Western values are not impartial or neutral, but deeply rooted in a Christian outlook? After all, our democracy would look rather different if historically we we’d been rooted in Islam or Hinduism.

JC: I argue that a New Testament theology of ‘church and state’ lends no support to the idea that the state has any legitimate jurisdiction in approving, adjudicating among, or privileging, ultimate visions of life (religious or secular). Notwithstanding many deep continuities between Old and New Covenants, one of the sharpest discontinuities is between a polity (Israel) in which political authority is commanded to uphold the faith (and law) of Yahweh and impose it across the whole covenant people, and one in which, while divinely ‘instituted’ (Rom. 13: 1, NRSV) for the purposes of enforcing justice, is nowhere accorded any authority over the realm of faith. Paul’s argument at that point is not merely local. Now this might be dismissed as a mere ‘argument from silence’, were it not powerfully reinforced by the entire ecclesiology of the NT. On that ecclesiology, the people of God are now wholly divorced from special attachment to any one territorial national political order. They have become a transnational voluntary fellowship.

So the suggestion that the church could also enjoy privileged constitutional ties to the state flies in the face of the entire thrust of that NT ecclesiology. None of that is to deny that, as Holland argues, the cumulative impact of Christian political thinking and practice over centuries has, in spite of its periodic corruptions, powerfully shaped our modern political orders for good; and in ways profoundly differently to the way Islam or Hinduism has shaped the orders in which they were a majority. I’d wager, however, that had the church renounced the offer of state privilege from the 4th century onwards, rejecting any appeal to coercion on religious matters, its mission would have been much more successful and drastically less implicated in violence than it turned out to be. And if you allow your state to have the ‘preferred religious outlook’ you favour, you can’t complain when states like Iran, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Malaysia opt for their ‘preferred religious outlook’.

IP: One of the fears of disestablishment is that it colludes with or promotes secularism. But you quite carefully distinguish between ‘procedural’ and ‘programmatic’ secularism. Can you explain the difference? Why is this so important—and will the Church as a whole understand and accept this difference?

JC: What I call the ‘concession to secularism’ defence of Establishment holds that, in the current climate, for the Church to take the initiative towards disestablishment would amount to a gratuitous victory for ‘secularism’. I line up a list of Anglican luminaries endorsing that view. The distinction between procedural and programmatic secularism is Rowan Williams’. Using it for my own purposes, I rebut this defence by saying that the Church should make a ‘concession’ to ‘procedural secularism’ because that kind of secularism is theologically mandated. Procedural secularism is basically what I mean by a religiously impartial state. I argue that disestablishment would make the state more Christian. RW distinguishes this from ‘programmatic secularism’, which is a militant faith bent on banishing religion to the margins of public life and coercively secularising more and more of society. The Church is right to resist that kind of secularism.

It should do so in strategic alliance with other churches and other faith communities, many of whom would worry if the ‘sacred canopy’ (as they see it) of Establishment were removed. What is needed a broad effort to shore up the place of religious organisations in the state generally, wherever their autonomy or public status is being improperly compromised. So I also urge the Church to seize the unique opportunity that initiating disestablishment would open up, to engage in a full-on public explanation of its identity and mission in relation to state and nation—and thereby to contribute to that resistance to programmatic secularism. It has the resources to do so—but does it have the theological clarity and moral courage? Calling Bp Graham Tomlin and the new Centre for Cultural Witness!

IP: The 1927/28 Prayer Book was rejected by evangelical lay people in Parliament—a direct consequence of Establishment—and as a result, the C of E is very different from how it might have been. In fact, I don’t think I would be an Anglican if it had been accepted. The Churches in Wales and Scotland have disestablished—and have declined much faster than the C of E. Don’t these offer a pragmatic argument for at least some advantage in Establishment?

JC: We have no business looking to parliament to keep the Church ‘orthodox’ (as we define it). How does an organ of state know what is ‘orthodox’ (as Locke famously asked in the 17th century, but only following radical Puritan Roger Williams)? To invoke Establishment because it favours our cause within the Church of England, whatever that is, is instrumental and tribal. I’m not sure, in any case, that it presently favours any of the three main wings.

I’m also not at all sure that disestablishment in Wales exacerbated its decline, or that the Church of Scotland Act 1921 (which did not disestablish the Kirk but recognised its jurisdictional independence from the state) had that effect either. I think much larger cultural forces of secularization were at work. But they also explain the Church of England’s steep decline even while Established, so let’s not score points off those different arrangements.

IP: You offer some very clear counter-arguments to the case made by Paul Avis, Martyn Percy, and Tom Wright (amongst others): Establishment doesn’t deliver what it claims, and other churches (such as the Roman Catholics in their social engagement) do offer the things that are deemed to be important to Establishment. Doesn’t this suggest that the case for Establishment is more romantic and imagined than rational and real? In which case, will the rational arguments you offer actually persuade anyone or effect change?

JC: You know, you may be hitting the nail on the head here. If I have one regret about the book it is that it does not address this romantic, affective attachment to Establishment. But several conversations since it was published suggest that, when you present a series of rational arguments like mine to defenders, they don’t respond to those arguments, but bring up other factors disclosing a sense of unease at some ill-defined ‘loss’ that disestablishment is thought to entail. I need to do more work on what this really amounts to.

It may be partly based on misunderstandings of how Establishment works (such as that ending the Supreme Governorship would somehow imperil the parish system, or that removing the Lords Spiritual would silence the Church in public affairs). Or it may arouse a fear that ‘cutting the connection’ would somehow sever the nation from any remaining sense of ‘transcendence’ (a point I critique in chapter 3). Or it may reveal an inchoate anxiety about no longer ‘being special’, of losing an automatic entitlement to the public’s attention, or of no longer being ‘in the room where it happens’. The first two concerns can perhaps be mitigated by careful persuasion. The third – the need to be special – is an unacknowledged emotional dependence that is much harder to engage with. Suggestions welcome! 

IP: You detail quite clearly what would be needed to move beyond Establishment, and it will involve both quite a lot of work and a good deal of confident imagination. Given the sense that the C of E is quite stretched at the moment and feeling under-resourced, does it really have the energy to take this on?

JC: Defenders of the system invariably argue that disestablishment is not a priority, that it would be a distraction from ‘more important’ issues. Certainly the Church is under huge internal pressure right now, but to keep on wheeling out this defeatist defence is to engage in perpetual evasion of the critical theological and missional questions that Establishment throws up. In the book I suggest a 10-year process, starting in 2024 (so, two years to take a deep breath and assemble a working group) and lasting a full decade.

The goal would be effective disestablishment by 2034, which historians will know is the 500th anniversary of the first Act of Supremacy. How about that for a unique opportunity to set forth a new, biblically radical, post-Establishment Anglican public theology for the nation of England? Am I optimistic? No, but I live in hope.

IP: As do we all! Thanks for your time—and I look forward to seeing further engagement with your book and the arguments it sets out.

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is Honorary Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge where he contributes to the work of the Centre for Faith in Public Life. He is author of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021).

Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church State Relations in England (SCM 2022) is available at 20% discount until July 31st 2022.

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16 thoughts on “Should the Church of England disestablish?”

  1. Prophetic voice? Really? If not now when, where and how
    Would disestablishment release the far from tongue tied CoE into a coherent cohesive , one voiceness. Jesus is the prophetic voice, silenced.
    Where is there any Christian prophetic voice now in the House of Lords?
    There is in the Palace, Buckingham, not Westminster, but not for much longer.
    Emotional attachment, may be little more than vested interest protectionism. Or progressive deconstuction, through partisan politics, within the nostaligic superstructures.
    There will never be an impartial State, though the separation of powers, checks and balances look to provide balast fot the ship of state.

    • I think the point is that establishment actively dissuades our bishops being prophetic voices and instead makes them chaplains to a secular state.

      Certainly the hierarchy of the church and the hierarchy of the civil service seem to be basically drawn from the same outlook, which makes it rather hard for the bishops to see where the prophetic voice is needed. Whether disestablishment would cure this is another matter.

      • I recall that one of the first essays I wrote on a law degree course, ( but can’t remember whether it was in relation to Constitutional law or Jurisprudence -I think, the former- I used the word *establishment* and it came back underlined in red followed by red question marks.
        While there has been an attempt to define establishment, the present CoE establishment structure as it is being played out at the Lambeth Conference doesn’t hold out much hope that there will be a prophetic establishment voice in the CoE whether disestablished or not, if the current systems persist largely unchanged. (Maybe only the liberal revisionist arm would remain *established*.)
        Especially if lessons are not learned from, say, the declension in the C.of Scotland and Methodism in the UK and USA.
        And that is merely inward looking, without looking at any influence the Christian church, which is far more expansive than the CoE alone, may have in political, governmental, state, structures

  2. An interesting debate!
    I was a bit confused at first with the references to Scotland as to whether you were referring to the Episcopalian church in Scotland, or to the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland, ie the Kirk.
    One book which has a different take on the above is “Believing in Britain: the Spiritual Identity of Britishness” by Ian Bradley (2007/8.)

  3. We follow Christianity (or rather Christ) because that is what is true, not for any other reason.
    The proposal is therefore to disestablish truth. What is to replace it?
    While truth is established at the heart of things, structures of geographical parishes, church buildings, parish councils, villages and communities, cycles of baptisms and weddings and funerals within those communities – are all possible.

    • I hardly think the particular expression of church which is the c of e has exclusive claim to ‘truth’, nor is it, practically, embedded in those things due to establishment. If you disestablished the church you would still see cycles of baptisms and weddings and funerals. You’d still see church buildings in the parishes.

      • That’s not my point. I agree with your points but they are not relevant to mine.

        My point is: if you have a worldview and a system that is the correct and accurate one (i.e. Christianity), why would you make that more distant rather than more central from the way things are done?
        It would be ok if another version of Christianity were to replace it in the common weal or state (for the Anglican version is far from being the best, though it has its community rootedness massively in its favour); but the proposal is that none replaces it. Hence we regress (in terms of the state) to secularism or paganism. How appalling. And what a waste, since it is provenly possible to have a Christendom-state instead.
        We have seen the disasters since the 1960s once laws are no longer made according to a Christian framework.
        If you don’t proceed according to what is true you end up with a lot of incoherence and self contradiction. As we are seeing all the time with people tying themselves in knots about what is a woman etc etc etc. (I listed many of these contradictions in What Are They Teaching The Children?). People think it’s fine to be pluralist and relativist but it is not remotely fine (merely polite and diplomatic!). The harvest of relativism is gruesome. Hence: truth.

        • re: “if you have a worldview and a system that is the correct and accurate one (i.e. Christianity), why would you make that more distant rather than more central from the way things are done?” Answer: (i) because, in making it more central, you are allowing the State authority over the actions of the People of God (ii) in making it more central, you corrupt those who should be spokespeople for Jesus Christ.

        • Christopher, the issue here is not what we would like or what we think advantageous; the issue is what the NT teaches about the nature of the Church (that’s THE CHURCH, not any local manifestation) and the relationship of that Church to ‘the World’ asrepresented by all kinds of states everywhere. And as I see it, in rejecting the option of being a military conquering Messiah for the option of an ‘ekklesia’ of voluntary faith, Jesus has necessarily rejected any special privileged position for the Church in any of the world’s states. The Church is international or indeed transnational/supranational; not in the business of running worldly states but precisely in the business of being a ‘counterculture’ setting a better example and calling people out of the world into God’s people. Any formal relationship with the state compromises that.

          Another often overlooked aspect is precisely the international implications. To give just one example, at the moment a Muslim looking at the UK sees our head of state simultaneously as ‘supreme governor’ of a national church AND as commander-in-chief of armies which may be fighting wars in Muslim countries and killing his fellow Muslims. And one consequence of that is that Christians in Muslim lands (and not just the Anglicans) can face extra and really unnecessary suffering and persecution from being seen as allies of what the Muslims will see as ‘Crusaders’.

  4. To talk and think about disestablishment is a sad and complete waste of time while Archbishops, Bishops, other Ministers and Laity disagree about the very fundamental truths of Christianity.

    Phil Almond

  5. At the conclusion of the Falklands War Margaret Thatcher had no alternative but to have an Anglican service led by the Archbishop. With an outcome she found challenging and uncomfortable.
    Disestablishment would have given her the choice of using Christian leaders who fitted her bill. Just as in the USA Presidents ally with Christian leaders who will support their cause, eg Trump & Franklin Graham.
    I see the problems of Establishment, but it does mean that the state has no choice but to work with an historically earthed and responsible version of the faith that has powerfully formed our history.

  6. Further to my previous comment, I would take issue with ‘Nations don’t need chaplains, they need prophets’. Prophets speak from outside; chaplains have double loyalties both to the institution but also with the faith they represent – so they don’t speak ‘to’ the institution but seek to be in dialogue withe the institution in shaping it. A less dramatic but maybe more demanding and in some cases more constructive role.

  7. Yes, it should disestablish. The idea of a Christian church whose head is the head of State is unbiblical; what has Babylon to do with Jerusalem?

    I found the article thoughtful and honest.

    It is clear that the established church has not prevented secularisation. It is clear too that the forces that influence government do not come from the church. The church may be wheeled out it it suits but only if it suits. I doubt if establishment plays any meaningful part in evangelism. If it did we might expect the NT to advocate it.

    The truth is the NT never calls upon the church to look for any political power in society. Along with cathedrals, pomp and circumstance, political power is just the Judaising of the church. When men no longer believe in the power of the gospel to save and transform they try to do so by other means – by means which are weak and beggarly.

    Come out and be separate – not simply from the State but from those in the church who corrupt it (often those who lead it).


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