The City Debate‘By Law Established’
What Future for the National Church?

The City Debate, 27th June 2002

I feel particularly privileged to have been asked to write something about our latest City Debate. I start with a confession; my attendance at this event was more to do with the stature of the speakers than the topic to be debated. However, by the end of the evening I found myself feeling rather passionate about the whole issue.

The panel for the debate divided neatly into two in favour of disestablishment of the Church of England and two against.

George Austin

The first to speak in favour was the former Archdeacon of York, George Austin. George gave us some historical insights into church state relationships including the assassination of Thomas Becket and of a former archdeacon of York, the finger of suspicion for the latter pointing to the then Archbishop of York! He quoted from the Magna Charta, which proclaimed freedom from state interference in the affairs of the church, a freedom that he considered to be far from the reality of the present situation. He questioned the oath that all new bishops have to make to the Queen when taking up office and also spoke about the whole thorny issue of the appointment of clergy to senior posts within the church. He made the telling point that Parliament has the unfettered right to legislate for the Church of England.

Clifford Longley

This journalist of, in my opinion, deep religious insights took up the debate where George Austin had left it. He started by speaking of some of the absurdities of the Established Church. He remembered his local Conservative parliamentary candidate including the ordination of women in his canvassing literature. He also objected to the ‘interference’ into the marital affairs of members of the Royal Family brought about through the existing relationship of church and state. He quoted George Carey as having said that disestablishment of the Church of England would be the beginning of the end of English civilisation - but what of the present situation, Clifford asked. What in practice has the Church of England done to remedy the ills of our present society? What is so awful about our country that we need an established church to preserve its civilisation when so many other countries in the world appear to manage very well without such establishments? Clifford also considered that by having an established church you rate the other denominations as somehow second class Christians. He also considered that the process of disestablishment could be expedited with relative ease should there be the will for it to happen.

Jayne Ozanne

Between these two addresses we heard from Jayne Ozanne, a member of the Archbishops’ Council. She was the first of our speakers to be in favour of the Church of England remaining established and based her argument on an analysis of how things are today. We have a monarch who is committed to serving all her people and to her role as head of the Church of England. We have an heir to the throne who is also committed to the spiritual role of the monarchy having publicly stated that he would want to be ‘defender of faith’. We have a national identity which is predominantly Christian although, according to Jayne there are strenuous efforts being made to subvert this by over emphasis on a ‘multifaith’ society. A rather contentious area and I am not sure about the soundness of Jayne’s reasoning on this point. In returning to this subject later she said that the Truth could so often be compromised in the name of tolerance. We have a parliament that has passed a number of laws that are against Christian, indeed religious, ideals. We have a media that by and large is humanist and pursuing its own agenda. And then we have the Church of England, ‘by law established’. What of the future? In the sovereign we have a respect for the authority of God, therefore we would do well to avoid separating monarchy from faith. She considered that there is a place for an established church but, and this for me was a very telling point, we need to be known for our faith.

Stuart Bell MP

The final speaker was the Parliamentary Spokesman for the Church Commissioners. He spoke as having a foot in both camps i.e. church and state. His approach to the debate was a pragmatic one. If the Church wanted disestablishment then parliament would not stand in its way, however there is a rich tapestry of church state relationships going back over 500 years which cannot easily be unwound. In his opinion church and state are not in conflict and he preferred to concentrate on the question of how the church-state relationship can be improved. He gave examples that endeavoured to show the relationship working well. Of course he spoke as a politician, but that did not detract in my mind from what I perceived to be his commitment to the Church of England.

The debate continued with questions from the floor, ably and entertainingly chaired by Andrew David from BBC Radio Nottingham and also on General Synod. There was much discussion about the process of disestablishment and, not surprisingly, the panel was split on the question of how easy or difficult this would be.

The final question raised was: what sort of church would a disestablished Church of England be?

I am not so sure that we got a satisfactory answer to that question at all from the whole of the debate. Yes, the church would be able to make its own appointments and yes, once Synod had passed a measure it could be implemented straight away rather than having to go through the time consuming and uncertainty of the parliamentary machinery. We might even jettison some of the archaic rituals and practices that somehow seem to jar with the modern world in which we live. But what significant difference would it make?

  • Would the church, freed from the shackles of the state become a far more prophetic, gospel proclaiming and serving community?
  • What is preventing the church from being that today?
  • The church could spend much time and effort discussing and going through the process of disestablishment, but at what cost?
  • Can we not as a church look at what our role could be in today’s society and strive to achieve that vision?

Being established does give opportunities that can and are used. For example, how many people watched the Queen go to St Paul’s Cathedral as part of the Golden Jubilee celebrations? Among all the pageantry and ritual these words, spoken by George Carey, were heard by those millions of people:

For the Christian call to service is not just about a willingness to make sacrifices for others. It is also about joy, a joy that flows from a deep engagement in the marvellous richness of human experience and potential. It is at heart a labour of love. It finds in love - expressed in the sacrificial gift of Jesus Christ - the fundamental impulse of God's creation’.

These are my recollections of, and reflections prompted by, the debate. Others who were there no doubt came away with different thoughts. A vote taken at the end of the evening was split exactly half and half on the question of disestablishment. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and even if it just sparked some passion about the role of our church into the writer of this piece then surely it was all worthwhile!

John Puxty
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 9th August 2002