Antidisestablishmentarianism

Yesterday’s report from the ONS showed that less than 50% of the population of England and Wales identified as Christian in the 2021 Census. This had led to calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England. It also gives me the opportunity to use the longest word in the English language. The fact that the word dates back to the 19th century shows that there is a long history to the call to reduce the formal role of the Church of England in public life – and opposition to it.

Note that disestablishment only relates to the Church of England. It does not refer to the worldwide Anglican communion, which includes the Church in Wales, the Scottish Episcopal Church and the Church of Ireland. To confuse things further, we all noticed that at his Accession King Charles sign a declaration of protection of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian and not Anglican.

A personal disclosure – I am an active member of the Church of England. However, as you will see, that does not mean I support its current political role.

I imagine we all know the 500 year history of the origins of the Church of England. Henry VIII enacted the Brexit of his day, and separated the English branch of the church from its Roman “masters”. Of course, the English Church had existed for over a thousand years before that, in its former Catholic form, and had had a huge impact on the culture, from its amazing buildings, its ancient learnings, its art and music, to its moral direction. However, Henry politicised the church in a way that hadn’t happened before.

Whilst the history is fascinating it has led us to a situation which in some ways is not in tune with today’s values.  The established church in England is central to many aspects of our cultural life including major public ceremonies from Remembrance Sunday to Coronations, and there is a question mark over all of these. In August the House of Commons Library published a briefing paper on The relationship between church and state in the United Kingdom. It covers all the attempts at reform over the past century.

However the current arguments for disestablishment tend to focus on two areas – membership of the House of Lords and compulsory worship in schools.

On the latter, when I was at school I used to hate morning assembly with its hymns and prayers. As a Christian I thought that a compulsory act of worship was a contradiction in terms, was disrespectful to the God I knew, was disrespectful to those of other faiths (who could opt out, but not influence the content) and, because it gave a false impression of what Christian worship was like, was counterproductive.  I am astonished that it still exists, if in a watered down form. I don’t think there is much opposition from within the church and without, to abolishing it.

Some 26 senior bishops in the Church of England hold seats in the House of Lords as the Lords Spiritual. They do not include representatives of the Church in Wales, the Northern Ireland parts of the Church of Ireland or the Church of Scotland, or indeed of any other Christian denomination. In recent years they have been joined by the leaders of other faiths, but they are there by appointment, not by right.

For over 100 years Liberals/Liberal Democrats have supported the reconstruction of the House of Lords as a fully elected Upper House, which would not include the bishops by right. The House of Lords Act of 1999, which removed most of the hereditary peers but kept the Lords Spiritual, was acknowledged as a step along the path towards full reform. In 2012, as part of the Coalition agreement Nick Clegg introduced the House of Lords Reform Bill, which would have made the House an almost entirely elected body, but would have still included a reducing number of bishops. It was, sadly, abandoned after opposition from back bench Tory MPs. Antidisestablishmentarianism, which is inevitably entwined with support for a traditional House of Lords, is still alive and kicking, at least in the Conservative party.

As Liberal Democrats we should be supporting the disestablishment of the Church of England along with the reform of the House of Lords. But we should be doing it while acknowledging the historical and cultural contributions that the church has made to life in the UK, and in particular its championing of the poor. It has a unique position amongst the various Christian denominations, in that it is present in every single part of the country.  Recently the Archbishop of Canterbury has very publicly sided with the poor and issued veiled criticisms of Government policies and inaction. Whilst he has not been held back by his established position, disestablishment would allow him even greater freedom to lead public debate on issues of social justice.

 

 

* Mary Reid is a contributing editor on Lib Dem Voice. She was a councillor in Kingston upon Thames, where she is still very active with the local party, and is the Hon President of Kingston Lib Dems.

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16 Comments

  • James Moore 30th Nov '22 - 2:59pm

    The decline of the influence of religion on our national life is not something to be celebrated.

    Faith gives us moral guidance and a sense of duty to our fellow human beings. The appalling standards that we see in public life today suggests that such guidance is needed more than ever.

    Faith offers community and a sense of self-worth to millions. How much of our mental health crisis is caused by the aggressively secular, materialistic world that has so little concern for the value of each individual human life?

    Historically, Liberals tended to support disestablishment because of the discrimination (implied and actual) against dissenters. Today the Free Churches and Anglicans are closer than ever and usually collaborate very well at local level, especially on questions of charity and social work. I struggle to see how undermining the Christian voice in parliament will make for a better world – although there is a strong case for giving a greater role to the Free Churches and the leaders of other faiths in the Lords.

  • Well done for getting to use ‘antidisestablishmentarianism’ into a headline – even if if left room for nothing else 😉

    re: compulsory worship in schools… My comp ignored that ‘compulsion’ more years ago than I’d care to admit! So I don’t know how many schools (other than those affiliated to a particular faith) actually do have a morning assembly’ with hymns and prayers’?
    I suspect it is one of those laws like being illegal to walk cows along the pavement – long-lapsed in practice and no pressing need for reform.

  • Massimo Ricciuti 30th Nov '22 - 4:26pm

    Thank you, Mary. Very interesting
    article!

  • Nonconformistradical 30th Nov '22 - 6:55pm

    Declaring an interest – writing as an atheist

    @James Moore
    “Faith gives us moral guidance and a sense of duty to our fellow human beings.”

    Why do you need faith for those qualities? You have a brain – can’t you work it out for yourself?

    “How much of our mental health crisis is caused by the aggressively secular, materialistic world that has so little concern for the value of each individual human life?”

    Probably a lot. But I give you the example of a very religious (so he claims) and very wealthy politician – Jacob Rees Mogg.
    https://www.independent.co.uk/tv/news/jacob-rees-mogg-money-interview-v69811dc0
    “Jacob Rees-Mogg declares love for money as 12-year-old in unearthed interview
    Jacob Rees-Mogg declared his love for money as a 12-year-old during a newly uncovered interview, shared by the French National Audiovisual Institute.

    In the footage, the leader of the House of Commons is sitting in the back of a Rolls Royce in 1982, explaining why he “needs” money.

    “I love money, always have done,” Mogg says.

    “Why? Because you need money. With money, you can make more money. If you’ve got money, you can buy things that you want. I could buy this Rolls Royce, lovely.””

    I’m struggling to see much sense of duty there.

  • Mick Taylor 30th Nov '22 - 7:21pm

    As a member of a small largely Christian sect, the Quakers, I have never been able to understand the reason for an established church somehow raised above other churches or religions. Separation of church and state is as important as separation of the judiciary from parliament. I can see no place for bishops in a reformed second chamber, nor indeed any other faiths as of right. Members of any second chamber should have to be elected.

  • John McHugo 30th Nov '22 - 9:01pm

    @Nonconformistradical

    Declaring an interest – writing as a Catholic (and a Lib Dem),

    You might be interested to see that the spirituality or, perhaps, the religiosity, of Mr Rees-Mogg has been discussed before on LDV and attracted quite an interesting discussion back in November 2019. See https://www.libdemvoice.org/reesmogg-grenfell-and-catholic-social-teaching-62549.html.

  • Suzanne Fletcher 30th Nov '22 - 11:05pm

    It isn’t the theory I have a problem with, it is how it would happen.
    it wouldn’t just be deciding to disestablish, it would be unpicking lot of complicated little bits with all the rules and regs there are. Like deciding to Brexit didn’t mean it just happened, it will go on for decades sorting out all the bits.
    The issue is time. What goes in the parliamentary timetable, and there are more important things the church ought to be doing too (and I am not commenting on what is spends too much time on now!).
    Much as I agree with the theory of Bishops in the H of L, I must say that my own Bishop, Durham, does a splendid job on asylum, refugee and child poverty issues. In fact I don’t disagree with anything the Bishops do, so that does reduce the urgency.
    We have brilliant Peers, but of course the principle remains that there needs to be radical reform.

  • Laurence Cox 1st Dec '22 - 12:33am

    Declaring an interest – writing as an active Anglican.

    Concentrating on Bishops sitting in the House of Lords is really straining at a gnat, for their limited (and fixed) numbers do not have any real effect on a Government’s ability to get its business through. Far more important are the superannuated ex-ministers and Party donors. So, let’s turn the searchlight round and shine it on the politicians instead. Even keeping the Monarch as the titular head of the Church, why should a politician, the Prime Minister, have the power to decide which candidate’s name from the Appointments Commission should go forward to the Monarch. It is not that long in church terms since Maggie Thatcher blocked Jim Thompson’s appointment as Bishop of Birmingham (and she was brought up as a Methodist).

    Similarly, in other churches, their hierarchies can decide to allow same-sex marriages or blessings of them in church, even the Church of Wales has an opt-out written into the Same Sex Marriage Act, but for the CofE it is strictly illegal; even if every Bishop called for it and General Synod passed it unanimously, it cannot be changed without an Act of Parliament.

    The best argument for disestablishment is that the CofE should get power over itself back from the politicians. It was never given to them, only to the Monarch replacing the Bishop of Rome, and like other Royal Prerogatives grabbed by Prime Ministers later.

  • Richard Church 1st Dec '22 - 9:19am

    @James Moore “Faith gives us moral guidance and a sense of duty to our fellow human beings.” An assertion that just doesn’t stand up to the evidence. People were no more ‘moral’ when all but a tiny handful claimed to be religious. Colonialism, slavery, war, torture, oppression of women and control over who you can love have all been justified by religion. It isn’t ‘aggressive secularism’ that has done the harm, but aggressive, oppressive religion.
    Millions of people now live out their shared human values without religion. They are anti-racist, tolerant, outward looking, kind hearted and caring without religion, and many more have all those values and are religious too. We can share common values without needing to say that my values are better than yours because I got them from a god.

  • Toby Keynes 1st Dec '22 - 12:09pm

    @Suzanne Fletcher:
    The Church of England is entwined with the state in many ways and at many levels, from the House of Lords to parish councils.

    Some aspects of this are complicated to unwind, but many are straightforward, such as a simple resolution by a local authority that prayers at the start of meetings, given by one denomination, will be replaced by a time for reflection led by representatives of various religious as well as non-religious belief groups – or that it will no longer be a part of formal council business. Such changes have already taken place in many authorities (although they can also be reversed).

    Removal of the bishops is not quite so easy: it requires carefully considered legislation. But this is not particularly complicated, and it should not require a great deal of parliamentary time in either house if the will is there.

    It is also consistently supported by an overwhelming majority of the British population (including quite a few CofE bishops).

    Of course, Christian influence will not be expelled from the chamber. As long as there distinguished Christians in society (as well as well-placed time-servers who happen to be Christian) there will be Christians in the House of Lords. They will not be required to leave their beliefs at the door.

    They will simply no longer have special privileges owing their existence to the political expediencies of a brutal tyrant five centuries ago.

  • I would agree with Mary’s conclusions “Whilst he has not been held back by his established position, disestablishment would allow him even greater freedom to lead public debate on issues of social justice.
    The Bishops’ have an important voice in the social and cultural life of the UK and that role is best undertaken free of the confines of the legislative chamber.

  • As a Methodist my instincts are usually to avoid interfering in private grief. However while the influence of bishops in the Lords may be marginal, this is greatly outweighed by their presence threatening the credibility of Christianity.

  • Justin Welby is visiting Ukraine and has said “Ukraine must not be forced to accept a peace deal with Russia – justice demands that there is defeat of an evil invasion” Archbishop of Canterbury: Russian invasion must not succeed
    “The people of the west need to realise the cost of this war in inflation, in all kinds of difficulties… we need to be really tough about this. Peace is always better than war, but there are times when justice demands that there is the defeat of what we call… an evil an invasion. And I don’t regret saying that.”
    Speaking of the Bucha massacres he said “He’s got to stop lying. Lavrov and Putin,” referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. There were atrocities committed here. There will be no peace until we stop lying. We have to tell the truth however painful. There can be no way forward based on lies.”

  • Declaring an interest – writing as an active Anglican.

    My primary concern about having bishops in the Lords is the effect on the Church of England rather than on politics.

    The small numbers are never likely to give them much political clout in the Lords so, if one or more of them do influence a debate, it’s only because of the force of their argument – an argument that might equally have been made outside Parliament, for example by a leader writer in the press.

    However, it’s clear that, from the POV of temporal rulers, claiming divine sanction (which necessitates getting the religious leadership ‘onside’) must be a highly effective strategy for gaining and retaining power as it’s observed across cultures and religions. I suspect that’s the real reason we have bishops in the Lords.

    For the church however that risks confused aims for some at the top, compromises it shouldn’t be making, and probably also attracting into church ministry some with very worldly ambitions. While I don’t know how much this actually happens in the CoE, it seems likely that it does. I have certainly heard of cases, one in particular, where that seems to be a factor.

    Separately, I think the senior academics bring important expertise to proceeding so I wouldn’t want an entirely political HoL. Ditto, a few senior politicians no longer in the Commons and some form of regional (perhaps county-based) representation. But emphatically no donors!

  • Zachary Adam Barker 3rd Dec '22 - 12:07am

    “Faith gives us moral guidance and a sense of duty to our fellow human beings. The appalling standards that we see in public life today suggests that such guidance is needed more than ever”

    I must have missed the moral guidance part of burning at the stake.

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