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.
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
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.
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
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
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!
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