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Would disestablishment silence the Church of England?

11:44 26/04/2022
Would disestablishment silence the Church of England?

Archbishop Justin Welby’s provocative Easter sermon asserting that the government’s plan to relocate asylum seekers to Rwanda was ‘the opposite of the nature of God’ unleashed robust rejoinders from Conservative politicians, amplified by indignant cheerleading from right-wing media.

Some argued simply that Welby was wrong on the substance of the policy, which was aimed primarily at saving lives by shutting down an illegal and lethal trafficking industry. Others charged that Welby, while accusing the government of irresponsibility towards asylum-seekers, was himself being irresponsible by loftily proclaiming a theological ‘principle’ of welcome for the vulnerable, while leaving the messy ‘details’ to politicians. Still others – not only on the political right – held that Welby, while within his rights in questioning the policy, was deploying theological language in a needlessly divisive way.

As head of the established Church, the Archbishop of Canterbury, like other senior Church leaders and organs, frequently draws hostile fire for controversial political pronouncements. Although no prominent voices have yet used this latest fracas to push for disestablishment, the contested legitimacy of establishment always lurks behind such debates. Welby’s unusually blunt intervention raises the question in the minds of some whether this is a proper use of the privileged public platform afforded to the Church of England on account of its established status.

This is one of many mounting concerns voiced by critics of establishment. But no full-length case for disestablishment has been offered for nearly twenty years. Beyond Establishment offers such a case. It questions the theological legitimacy of establishment, critiques the main arguments mounted in defence of it and calls for the Church itself to take the initiative towards disestablishment.

One set of arguments defending establishment assumes that the Church of England, as the Church of the nation, must be a unifying presence. At the parish level, this means that the Church must welcome all comers irrespective of their degree of commitment to the Church and whether or not they sign up to the Church’s official doctrine or ethics. Many Anglicans would support such a welcoming stance. But there is a widespread misunderstanding that disestablishment – the severance of privileged constitutional ties to the state – would somehow slam the doors on all but ‘activists’, fuelling an already rampant ‘congregationalism’. I argue, on the contrary, that changes in the Church’s constitutional status would have little impact on its freedom to maintain an open door policy at the parish level, if it so wished.

At the national level, the argument from unity is thought to mean that the Church must articulate the shared concerns of the English nation as a whole rather than siding with any one faction, tribe or party. So the Church should graciously preside over unifying national ceremonies like royal weddings, state funerals or Remembrance Day services, acting as ‘chaplain to the nation’. But for it to intervene in partisan politics in the way that Welby did is to betray its historic vocation as the Church of the whole nation.

In fact, the Church of England has quite often intervened in politics in ways perceived by some, perhaps many, to be divisive. Indeed it’s hard to see how it could say anything interesting about fundamental issues of human flourishing such as poverty, inequality, racism, criminal justice, abortion, assisted suicide, education or the environment without risking being seen as divisive or partisan by some. The Church could content itself with issuing platitudinous bromides on any of the above – and too often that is all it does – but why would they be worth anyone’s attention? Any church that refuses to risk being politically divisive cannot claim to represent the gospel of the subversive kingdom proclaimed by Jesus Christ.                          

In the book I argue that the Church’s continuing acceptance of the role of ‘chaplain’ to the nation creates irreconcilable tensions with its calling to be a ‘prophet’ to the nation. But the chaplaincy role is baked into establishment. The Church’s acceptance of the monarch as its Supreme Governor, of Crown appointments of its senior officers, of its role in coronations, of its privileged place in the House of Lords and of its lingering legislative subservience to Parliament – all these shore up an expectation of uncritical identification with and deferential loyalty to state and nation.

While at times it can break out of that expectation – as Archbishop Welby showed – the entanglements of establishment apply constant structural pressure to tone down its prophetic voice in the supposed interests of national harmony.

For example, I argue that it was precisely such pressure that left it officially speechless during the entire Brexit process. Aside from individual interventions, the national Church stood mute while the nation tore itself apart in the bitterest acrimony seen for two generations. Not that it should have sided simplistically with Remain or Leave. Rather, it should have spoken with true prophetic radicalism. That means penetrating to the deeper roots of what was at stake for our nation’s identity and place in the world and offering serious theological reflections on how the choices confronting it should be framed. Such an intervention would have expressed the proper sense of a church’s national vocation – aptly defined by Anthon Dyson as ‘a quality of the church’s whole life giving it a critical and prophetic self-consciousness in relation to the totality of the national life in which it is involved’.

Disestablishment would not guarantee that the Church of England spoke with such radicalism. Such a voice could only flow out of its own Christ-formed soul. But it would liberate the Church spiritually and psychologically to allow itself to be better so formed, without constantly having to contend with the distracting legal obligations and political expectations created by establishment. As the late Fr Peter Cornwell put it: ‘A free church could be a selfish church, using its freedom to escape from responsibility to society … Yet if we serve the nation with the integrity of the gospel, we are less likely to find ourselves amongst the crowd of court prophets than with the prophet Amos’.

A disestablished Church would not at all be silenced politically. Nothing would stop it continuing to speak into the political realm via its bishops and archbishops, Archbishops’ commissions, General Synod, its Mission and Public Affairs Council or any of its other organs. It is true that it would lose the advantage of a unique constitutional standing. It would have to earn its right to be heard merely by the quality of its offerings. But why would anyone want it otherwise?

It is time for the Church of England, finally, to summon up the theological clarity and moral courage to throw off the residual, but still enfeebling, shackles of its compromised constitutional history and become, not the ‘Church of the nation’ but a church liberated to speak truth to the nation.

***

Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Centre for Faith in Public Life at Wesley House, Cambridge, and of the Cambridge University Divinity Faculty.

Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England is available to preorder now.