++BREAKING: Antidisestablishmentarian Times and Telegraph reveal new danger posed by 150 year-old Liberal pledge for separation of Church and State

times tele disestablishmentIs there no actual news happening today? Sounds a stupid question. I mean, the US has accused Russia of deliberately destabilising Ukraine, affordability tests for new mortgages are going to be toughened, and the state-owned Royal Bank of Scotland has vetoed big bonuses for staff. All important, interesting stories.

Then I looked at today’s Times and Telegraph, both of which lead on whether the Church of England should remain the established state church.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s a diverting issue. A little over five years ago, in the news-lull leading up to Christmas, I asked as a poll question of readers, ‘Do you think the time has now come for the Church of England to be disestablished?’ (You said yes.)

But as front page news? Today? What next for the Times and Telegraph? Will they hold the front page for other historic cause célèbres? Major splashes on Irish home rule, the People versus the Peers, and Free Trade v Imperial Preference?

The papers’ justification for this coverage is that the somewhat arcane question of Church disestablishment is apparently at the heart of a new Coalition ‘split’. Yes, four years on journos still love a story that allows them to point out that the two different political parties which comprise the Coalition disagree with each other on some issues.

It turns out – and, be warned, the faint-hearted should look away now – that the leader of the Conservatives, a patrician, home counties, establishment type, rather likes the Church of England staying as it is. “We’re a Christian country, we have an established church,” says David Cameron.

By contrast, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, a party steeped in radical, non-conformist, anti-establishment secularism, believes in the separation of Church and State. “It would be better for the Church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the Church and the state were to stand on their own two separate feet,” says Nick Clegg.

This is the kind of shocking news you learn only from reading The Times and Daily Telegraph.

Antidisestablishmentarians are up in arms. The Telegraph’s deputy editor Ben Brogan demands to know in his morning email of Mr Clegg’s disestablishmentarianism: “will it be a Lib Dem manifesto promise next year, and will it be one of his red lines in negotiations for a Coalition Mk II is the need arises? Presumably, the answer would be no (apologies if it turns out it has been party policy for ages).”

Since you ask, Ben, I think it’s fair to say disestablishment of the Church may well be regarded as a piece of unfinished Liberal business… on the to-do list for the last 150 years or so. Try Wikipedia or Google if it’s easier.

Or, indeed, try your own paper, which warned in September 2000 of the Lib Dems ‘lurching to the left’. The reason? The party conference had voted for the separation of Church and state. Just as bad, we “also backed a change in the law to give legal recognition to homosexual relationships”. Thank goodness the Lib Dems never stood a chance of getting into government and doing such a dreadful thing, eh?

But don’t worry too much, antidisestablishmentarians. When it comes to the separation of Church and state Nick Clegg himself accepted it’s not going to happen any time soon. Which is almost enough to make you wonder why two national newspapers thought it was a scoop.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • The Conservatives could make it a manifesto promise to re-establish the Church of Ireland (at least in Northern Ireland) and Church in Wales. Repealing the Irish Church Act 1869 and Welsh Church Act 1914.

  • Gwyn Williams 25th Apr '14 - 11:31am

    What is more shocking that, even with the Scottish Independence Referendum under way , the Telegraph repeatedly refers to Britain when talking about the Church of England.Its this sort of sloppy muddled Tory thinking that stokes the nationalist cause in Wales as well as Scotland.
    The other tack of branding Clegg as a republican for advocating disestablishment is a typical election smear. I am surprised that they didn’t include a reference to the 1994 Conference debate on replacing the monarchy.

  • I do like how answering a question on a radio phone-in is a ‘Move to end the Queen’s role as head of Church”.

    Either way, thought Nick spoke very well on the issue.

    Would have been delighted for papers to drag up People versus the Peers during the attempt at Lords reform. Asquith dennounced as a traitor by the Tory benches when asserting the supremecy of the Commons.

  • Though there might be some practical objections, in theory I can see no reason that the monarch could not be the head of a disestablished Church of England — it would, however, be in a personal, rather than a political capacity, and the political and religious rôles would be more sharply distinguished; there would also be a possibility that the persons inhabiting those rôles could be different (to each other) at some future date.
    The only political repercussion of disestablishment that seems logically warranted is the removal of the bishops from the House of Lords.

  • Geoffrey Payne 25th Apr '14 - 1:17pm

    I agree although I think a LD /Labour coalition might try it, once it has got all the important things out of the way.

  • I agree with Clegg and I wish he had done something about it over the last four years.
    If he had reformed the House of Lords, as he was meant to do under the Coalition Agreement we would have at least got rid of those bishops from the legislature.
    But he failed on that as he failed on so much that was agreed to by the party when it voted for the Coaition Agreement.
    The Coaition has done plenty of things that were not in the Agreement; at Clegg’s insistence these things that were not in thenAgreement were voted through by our MPs ( things such as the madness of Hinkley C. ).
    How did all those Tory priorities outside the Agreement got Clegg’s support but not those Liberal Democrat priorities written into the Agreement ?

    This from the New Statesman —

    In an increasingly atheistic and multi-faith society, a secular state, which protects all religions and privileges none, is a model to embrace.
    As the 2013 British Social Attitudes Survey showed,
    48 per cent do not belong to a religion, up from 32 per cent in 1983,
    and just 20 per cent describe themselves as belonging to the Church of England, down from 40 per cent in 1983.
    The UK is home to nearly three million Muslims, a million Hindus and over 250,000 Jews. 

  • Stephen Hesketh 25th Apr '14 - 7:23pm

    An Established Church, the (any) Monarch of the day as its head, Bishops in the House of Lords by virtue only of their occupation and all in an increasingly secular and multi-faith society. Totally anachronistic, illogical and illiberal. And let’s have a fixed spring public holiday while we’re at it. I have absolutely no problem with people following a faith but they should no longer be able to carry a disproportionate influence upon those of other faiths and none.
    48% and counting.

  • As a priest of the Church of England and Liberal activist since 1974, I have slowly come round in favour of dis-establishment. What was logical for Ireland in 1869 and Wales in 1914 is now true, I believe, for England. However, this topic is far more complicated than most people allow.

    First, there are different types of establishment Churches. For example, the C of E is not a state funded Church in the way that the Lutheran Church is in Sweden and elsewhere. Nor do we have the same much looser form of establishment enjoyed by the Church of Scotland (which is Presbyterian).

    Secondly, there is a lazy assumption that establishment necessarily equals privilege. Beneath the pomp and ceremony of big State occasions involving the C of E and the participation of bishops in the House of Lords, there is an establishment of service. When I was Vicar of a north London parish between 1998 and 2005, I was amazed by how often non-Churchgoers would seek me out for pastoral reasons on the basis that, quite rightly, they had a claim on my time. Two occasions stand out. A man on the run from the police called at the Vicarage because he wanted me to accompany him to the police station so that I would ensure fair play when he handed himself in. He was insistent that it had to be the Church of England Vicar who went with him. Likewise another non-Churchgoer asked me to be his spokesman at an NHS enquiry into his wife’s death “because you’re the Vicar”. Anglican clergy are not simply chaplains to their congregations which explains why the C of E, as the established Church, retains a presence in the inner cities and rural areas long since vacated by other institutions and churches (unless that faith has a significant presence). Disestablishment threatens this in the longer term. The argument has also been made that the Church’s interventions under Mrs Thatcher (‘Faith in the City’ and ‘The Church and the Bomb’) made their powerful impact precisely because the dissenting voice came from within the establishment.

    Thirdly, we need to be clear about what we mean by “secular society” which, like establishment, comes in different forms. Do we mean a society which is effectively hostile to religion and removes it from the public square (don’t forget that the Soviet Union allowed “Freedom of Religion”) or do we mean a society in which different religious and philosophical stances are equal in terms of civic participation. It is easy to imagine an unofficial establishment of aggressive secularism.

    Fourthly, what will happen to the Church’s assets? This would need to be negotiated as was the case when the Church of England in Wales became the Church in Wales. For example, should the State return the land and buildings given to it by the Church as part of the Butler education reforms in 1944?

    Fifthly (and I’m being a tad pedantic here!), the Queen is not the Head of the Church of England. She is its “Supreme Governor” which means that she is responsible for its temporal well-being. The last Head of the Church of England was Edward the Sixth!

    Dis-establishment needs to be part of a wider constitutional reform involving the Monarchy and the House of Lords. It should be an aspiration for Liberal Democrats (partly,in my view, because of the Church’s internal incoherence no longer makes it fit to be a national Church and partly because of the decline in church going) but let’s not allow this to become a cover for aggressive anti-religious sentiment.

  • It was good to read that the Rev Paul Hunt is an Anglican priest who favours disestablishment. Although I am merely a lay-person, baptised and confirmed into the C of E, who is a regular communicant, I feel entitled Mr Hunt’s position. Indeed, I have favoured disestablishment for many years; decades even.

    Yes, of course, there will be complex arrangements to be sorted out (perhaps unsorted would be more accurate!). Nevertheless, I feel that disestablishment will be better for England and for the Anglican faith.

    Finally, may I be permitted to comment on the near-nauseating spectacle of our beloved PM’s Damascene conversion on the road to Kings Norton? The Guardian cartoonists have exposed Mr Cameron’s appearance of insincerity, most appositely.

  • The old Liberal party supported disestablishment of the Church of England in order to retain the support of Non Conformist Protestant Christians but strangely never abolished the tithes which nonconformists resented having to pay. No doubt they wished to keep the pot boiling as long as possible. Tithe rent charges were abolished by the Conservatives in 1936 and pressure for disestablishment evaporated as a serious issue. The Church of England performs a useful role at little or no cost to the state. If it were disestablished there would be pressure for some secular equivalent of the Rector to be established which would soon cost a great deal of money as I cannot see many secularists dipping into their pockets unless they were forced to do so. My parents were Nonconformists but as they got older they began to see the value of the established church although they preferred nonconformist services.

  • David White 26th Apr '14 - 1:06pm

    Again, I’ve been liberally moderated – which the name of our/my party suggests is the right way to do such things. Thank you. But why did nobody draw attention to my error? I do know that Kings Norton a is suburban Birmingham, while our beloved PM feels more at home, philosophically, psychologically, theologically and literally in the Chipping Norton area.

  • “[A} society in which different religious and philosophical stances are equal in terms of civic participation” is clearly not what you get when you have an established church; indeed, quite the opposite.

  • Robert Wootton 27th Apr '14 - 10:18am

    I have read the above comments while watching “The Big Question” on BBC tv. The question being debated is “Is Islamism the biggest threat to the modern world?”

    The fear is it seems to me is that there is a movement to establish Sharia law in Western countries.

    Would maintaining an established Christian Church of England be a bulwark against this fear and/or threat?

  • Helen Tedcastle “Perhaps the decline in church attendance in the Cof E is partly a reaction to the church being seen to be on the side of privileged interest and indeed in the past reinforcing that view.”

    Why would we spend our Sunday mornings in a cold, draughty place sitting on hard seats with some sanctimonious person preaching at us when we can do what we are now – lounging in our pyjamas in front of Murnaghan with copious cups of tea and lovely hot buttered toast, and all the Sunday papers spread out in front if us and the chatter of family all around us? Bliss! 🙂

  • Ian Sanderson (RM3) 26th Apr ’14 – 8:26am
    “….The Queen is an Anglican in England, but on crossing the border is transmogrified into a Presbyterian in Scotland.”

    I respect Ian Sanderson because his comments are always serious and polite. So I am straining to make a comment which does not offend him or any of my religious friends.

    But how can I do other than treat with contempt the idea that a sincere religious belief suddenly switches when the Queen is crossing the border?
    This from the wife of a man who “transmogrified” from Greek Orthodox when it was convenient to do so, just as his sisters became convinced Nazis when they both married senior members of that belief system back in the 1930s.

    What happens when the Queen crosses the borders to one of the other 15 countries where she is Head of State.?
    Does she also switch to whatever is the going religion? Does she adopt Maori religious beliefs when reaching the coast of New Zealand?

  • Ian Sanderson
    Ian, thanks for your response. The Maori experience of colonialism was very different from that of some other countries. Although I am told that the rights which they once enjoyed have been eroded I recent years. I once worked with a young lawyer from New Zealand who spent a couple of years working in the divil service here in the UK. In New Zealand he had worked for the government enquiry into the foreshore and seabed controversy. One view was that Māori have a rightful claim to title. These claims are based around historical possession and the Treaty of Waitangi.
    On 18 November 2004, the New Zealand Parliament passed a law which deems the title to be held by the Crown.

    I know nothing about Maori religious traditions and was just using them as an example to illustrate my rant about royalty and religion. I could easiy have picked an indigenous Canadian religion instead; although I assume that the unique position of Quebec means tht the royals have had to be a bit more careful with their traditional anti-Catholic position. I have never quite understood how even after recent changes in the UK we still have specific anti-Catholic laws relating to the royal family.

  • Toby, I think you are struggling against the line put out by the bishops (presumably motivated, at least in part, by a desire to preserve or increase their own influence). I have encountered the same arguments from other religious people of other denominations, too. By arguing for secular education, we are depriving them of their ‘right’ to a religious education for their children – but their is never any recognition of the fact that the non-believers who live close to any of the one-in-three schools which are religious must either like it or lump it, or bus their kids to alternative schools. Yet they want their kids bussed to religious schools at the taxpayers’ expense.
    For the record. most sceptics/atheists/humanists that I know are immensely protective of freedom of conscience. Yet you would be hard-pressed to recognise that from the propaganda put out to the faithful.

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