Time is ripe for Church of England disestablishment


Now that the Anglican Communion has ruled that the US Episcopalian Church will not be able to take part in its decision making for three years’ following their support for same sex marriage and their appointment of a gay bishop in 2003, it is time for us to put Church of England disestablishment back on the agenda.

Like many in the party, I had misgivings about Tim Farron’s Christian faith when he was elected leader. As a liberal Christian who campaigns for same sex marriage within church, I perceived Tim to be a conservative Christian that would be opposed to this. However, the controversy about Tim’s interview with Cathy Newman last year has rather changed my mind on this, especially when I read his May 2015 interview in Pink News. Tim called for the disestablishment of the CofE in this interview, and I think that we should make this official policy to finally dispel the view that his Christianity is a problem for his leadership. Having had a closer look at Tim Farron’s reasons for his voting record on same sex marriage, I think the problem is not that he’s a fundamentalist Christian, but that he’s a fundamentalist Liberal.

In my book Same Sex Marriage and Church Law, I came to the conclusion that the Church of England acts too much like a political party in its frequent pronouncements that it teaches that marriage can only be between a man and a woman, and that it is quite illiberal for the Church to expect its ministers to adopt a kind of collective responsibility on this issue, since the Church is a pluralistic rather than monolithic entity. (I am mainly thinking of Canon Jeremy Pemberton who was refused a licence for a new chaplaincy after he married his same sex partner, which he took to an industrial tribunal. I find it intolerable that we have a system that allows for such “legal” discrimination.)

The fundamental problem with the CofE at the moment is that they lean too much towards the word of the Old Testament instead of the spirit of the New Testament when it comes to LGBT+ issues. I think this is at the root of Tim’s problems during the Cathy Newman interview, for in the Old Testament according to Moses, it is God that pronounces homosexuality as an abomination that society should punish with the death penalty (Leviticus 20:13). It’s this one sentence in the Bible that is mainly responsible for Christian cultures persecuting homosexuality throughout the centuries.

It may be that Tim (like many other Christians) may not be able to get beyond God’s condemnation of homosexuality, and so will always see homosexuality as a sin. However, since Leviticus 20:13 is so monstrous, I think the most likely explanation is that Moses was lying when he wrote this. (Moses had other hang-ups about menstruation and bodily fluids, so it’s not surprising to find him condemning gays to death.)

It is an anachronism that we still have a state church whose rules are adopted into English law. One of the main reasons why the Roman Catholic Church is embroiled in multiple child sex scandals is because they are a law unto themselves, and English Church Law is a branch from the same root. Since CofE rules are “written in stone” by becoming English Law, this leads the CofE into adopting singular approaches to moral conscience issues such as same sex marriage. If we were to disestablish the CofE, then I believe that this would free it to acknowledge that its congregation has a far more diverse viewpoint on this issue and many others, and to reinvigorate the concept of the Broad Church. It would also provide the Archbishop of Canterbury with a welcome “get out of jail free” card if we were to subject the Church of England to the existing equality at work legislation in the face of the conservative homophobic voices from within the Anglican Communion.

* Kevin Mahoney rejoined the Liberal Democrats in May 2015, after having been a member of the party in his youth. He is the publisher and founder of Punked Books, and also work as an NHS administrator.

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  • I agree absolutely. It is a nonsense that in a modern, multi-cultural and secular state that our head of state is also “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, and that bishops sit in the House of Lords.

    It is also well overdue that the various exemptions that religious organisations enjoy from equality legislation be abolished.

  • David Faggiani 18th Jan '16 - 1:42pm

    I agree. I think this would be a good policy, and a useful distinguishing one for the Party.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Jan '16 - 1:55pm

    I in no way agree with the spiritual / biblical content of what Kevin writes.

    But I completely agree that there is a space for a political party that puts disestablishment within my lifetime on the agenda, and I feel (as a conservative Christian) that all the churches – Anglican or not – will suffer, not benefit, if this isn’t done.

    The problem for any party that does this is that this is not a ‘felt issue’ for many even of the well-engaged voters, let alone those who vote rarely. Many people have no issue with the CofE continuing like a sort of national school chaplain, vaguely existing somewhere in their heads but having no real role or relevance to them. So why bother, they feel, having a ‘nasty’ argument (because conflict is bad, folks) about changing something that we barely notice anyway?

    It’s the right thing to do. But how to sell it?

    and Kevin, selling the idea properly so that all parties are on board means not risking muddling it into being seen as an attack, either on religion in general, or more particularly – as I feel you run the risk of – on conservative Christianity in particular.

  • Very good point of view Kevin , lots to think about. First things first , I think there can be no truck with fundamentalist anything , for Liberals , including Liberalism ! If that s an issue for our Tim , he needs a swift dose of social democracy , the centre lefts antidote to fundamentalist socialism too !!!!!!! Secondly , as a Liberal , I find Tim s strand or type of Christianity a bit surprising , either he is more of a liberal Christian than we know , or I wonder , as many must , why not ? There is plenty of precedent and prevalence with regard to such a Christian view , in the Anglican Church and especially amongst Quakers and Unitarians . The case for a liberal minded interpretation of the views and stances of Jesus is a strong one , Arguably the very basis of his purpose was a different direction , either for Judaism , or something wider .Moses , nor any other great biblical prophet should be taken as written two or three thousand years ago !If the bible is , to be read as literal , that is not liberal !!! Anyway , anybody who does so has a job to do so , the bible faces so many ways and says so many things no one could possibly support , stoning , etc .And when shall the day come when people realise Jesus did not say one sentence nor a single thing about homosexuality !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!However , the third thing is we must not promote a policy of Church of England disestablishment as a vindictive attack . It s been a Liberal policy for much of modern Liberal history , and must be advanced as part of a modern constitutional settlement .It should be part of a pro our modern constitutional monarchy , allowing future monarchs the same religious freedom as anyone else , and , as such , for King Charles to be Defender of Faith , or of faiths , as he wants , not of , The Faith !

  • So Christians have a diverse viewpoint. Do other religious believers and what teachings do they follow? Do they dare say anything against them? I see more and more Christianityphobia to use the current trend! Attack the views of all religions not just one. Religion should have no part in policies but I am seeing that this is beginning to apply only to Christians. Which religions have the worst homophobic and sexist views? There are more than one. At least the Cof E has female vicars and bishops! It appears that only Christians are attacked for their views and beliefs. I speak as an atheist looking in.

  • P. S. Can a member , perhaps through our party s Christian Forum , from personal understanding , knowledge and experience , let us in on our party leaders actual sort of Christianity ……..

  • Nick Baird

    Disestablishment is long overdue but:

    “It is also well overdue that the various exemptions that religious organisations enjoy from equality legislation be abolished.”

    So a Mosque should not require that the Imam is a Muslim? Or Richard Dawkins should be able to be Archbishop of York?

    There will always need to be an exemption for religions from some parts of equality legislation as they employ people to spread their religious belief. Legislation has to be practical, to remove any exceptions would be seen as an attack on religion for no good reason.

  • Psi

    “So a Mosque should not require that the Imam is a Muslim? Or Richard Dawkins should be able to be Archbishop of York?”

    So I obviously had in mind discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexuality etc.

    But hypothetically beyond that, surely it’s about meeting the job description. Are you sufficiently familiar with the Quran or Bible? Are you prepared to do the tasks set out by your superiors e.g. spreading the good word etc.? It would not be discrimination to exclude Richard Dawkins from the short list for the post of Archbishop (should he apply) if you had a pool of better qualified candidates.

  • David Evershed 18th Jan '16 - 3:21pm

    Is there a protection society for the word …..

    …. antidisestablishmentarianism ?

  • Following on from Matt (Bristol)’s comment – I also agree that disestablishment is long overdue, but also disagree completely with both his and Kevin’s other points.

    I also have to take issue with Psi’s reasoning behind allowing legal exemptions for religions. Any organisation is perfectly entitled to only employ someone qualified for the job without falling foul of anti-discrimination law, so there is no need for any special treatment in order for a religion to demand that people in leadership positions are suitably qualified and/or experienced.

  • The problem is many think there is already a separation of church and state and don’t realise there is a need for reform.

  • Conor Clarke 18th Jan '16 - 4:39pm

    Matt from Bristol is completely right.

    It won’t win us any votes, it might lose us a few, and as far as I can tell the concrete benefits are marginal compared to other causes we could spend our energies on.

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Jan '16 - 4:42pm

    An article which has intolerance of traditional Christian teachings, and those who still adhere to them, as a default.

    I don’t accept the characterisation of Tim’s views nor do I accept the characterisation of marriage as an ‘Old Testament’ problem.

    As the meeting between primates of the Church of England was primarily called to affirm the catholicity of the church and to avoid a schism – because one church simply went it’s own way and redefined a key doctrine unilaterally – the call for disestablishment is superfluous in this instance.

  • I agree with Helen Tadcastle. I’m relaxed about disestablishment because I want Christian leaders to preach the Gospel and spend less time being politicians. But the complexity of how it would work in practice would be a fearsome task and would make the party many enemies and few friends. We need distinct issues but hard to see how this would be a great campaigning issue.

    However the rest of the article seems a thinly veiled attack on Christianity and its teaching and we should make no apologies for standing up for freedom of speech and expression as Liberals.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Jan '16 - 4:54pm

    Conor, I don’t think I was as negative as you make me sound.

    I was trying to say, yes, let’s campaign for disestablishment, as soon as we can, but if we’re going to do it, count the cost, lay the groundwork, solve the problems that obstruct forward progress, get others on board and don’t pick pointless fights with those whose support we need, which is what Kevin seems – to me – to be at risk of doing.

  • Jenny barnes 18th Jan '16 - 4:54pm

    “Marriage can only be between a man and a woman”… Once the new X gender designation is available, will they be allowed to be married by the CofE? They are already hopelessly confused over trans people. If for example a trans woman wanted to marry a cis man in the CofE they wouldn’t know whether to object because they think it’s a same sex marriage or because they don’t think the trans woman counts as a woman. Weird.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Jan '16 - 5:07pm

    Just to throw something out there almost no-one will agree with, I – for one – can envisage a future federal constitutional settlement in which English regions have equality as devolved bodies with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the continuation of the Anglican settlement and the ongoing state relationship with the Church of England is devolved to regional referenda. So the relevant section of the CofE could be the ‘state’ church of, say, East Anglia, but not of London, f’rinstance.

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Jan '16 - 5:39pm

    ‘ They are already hopelessly confused over trans people.’

    Mmm… well that might be less surprising than first thought. According to the following article on gender identity theory, there are 37 genders and gender really doesn’t exist, it’s how you feel on a given day:


  • Ben Jephcott 18th Jan '16 - 5:46pm

    As a lapsed Catholic, I support dis-establishment of the Church of England but after that I part company with this piece, which has a deeply ingrained intolerance of both traditional Christianity in multiple denominations and the historical understanding of religious belief and scripture. Not many Christians take a literal authorship view of every word in the Bible, but that quote is nothing to do with the position of the Anglican communion or most other denominations on what they have always understood Christian as opposed to civil marriage to mean.

  • Julian Tisi 18th Jan '16 - 6:21pm

    Where to start with this article? Probably best to ignore it and move on. I’m reasonably ambivalent about disestablishment and can’t say my views either way on it are particularly strong, mainly because I don’t really see it making much difference to anything either way. But the rest of the article is so full of intolerance and misunderstanding in just about every sentence that it’s difficult to know where to start, so I won’t bother.

  • I don’t understand why people get worked up about this. Most of the links between church and state are now ceremonial or tokenistic; little actual power of any kind is involved. So I’m not sure why anybody would see this as a pressing issue.

    @Nick Baird
    “So I obviously had in mind discrimination on the basis of gender, race and sexuality etc.”

    So you’d be happy to prosecute a mosque for – say – segregating its members on the basis of gender? I’m sure that would go down well.

    @Kevin Mahoney
    “The fundamental problem with the CofE at the moment is that they lean too much towards the word of the Old Testament instead of the spirit of the New Testament when it comes to LGBT+ issues. I think this is at the root of Tim’s problems during the Cathy Newman interview, for in the Old Testament according to Moses, it is God that pronounces homosexuality as an abomination…”

    I’m not sure how accurate that is. If you read Matthew 19, you’ll find a Jesus who comes across as what we now might call “conservative” (marriage is for men and women and there should be no divorce); in fact he actually criticises Moses for being too liberal!

  • One of the wisest things Alistair Campbell ever said was, “We don’t do God”.

    It’s just the sort of minefield a battered residual party with 7% support ought to avoid if it doesn’t want to be whittled down to 4% after next Sunday. Religion ought to be left to consenting adults in private.

  • Kevin Mahoney 18th Jan '16 - 9:44pm

    Obviously I disagree with Helen Tedcastle that my article is intolerant, especially since I am a member of the Anglican Church. One of my main points is that the Church of England is a very broad church, in which many members do not support this “key doctrine”. Having such key doctrines is the very thing that causes the strife and arguments that you oppose. The Bible was written by many diverse people over the centuries with wildly differing viewpoints, while still sharing the same faith, and arguments such as these were happening in St. Paul’s time. In my detailed examination of the Bible, I have found ample Christian scripture that speaks of equality and not favouring one set of people above any other. Although I am appalled by some ‘conservative’ Christians’ treatment of the LGBT+ community, I will still share communion with them, because this is what Christ commanded me to do.

  • Kevin Mahoney 18th Jan '16 - 9:45pm

    tpfkar – I don’t mind clergy being politicians. In fact, I welcome their political intervention. However, intolerance of LGBT+ doesn’t really help the CofE when they’re campaigning on other social justice issues. Although I am opposed to these conservative Christians’ intolerance of the LGBT+, I will never deny them their freedom of speech. It is they who are denying the Liberal US Episcopalian church a role in decision making for three years. Such conservative Christians claim a scriptural basis for their views, but I’ve made a comprehensive counter argument in my book that is equally based on scripture.

  • Kevin Mahoney 18th Jan '16 - 9:58pm

    I agree with Matt (Bristol) that disestablishment should not be presented as an attack on the Church of England (especially as I am an Anglican), but as a very necessary reform of our constitution, and one that Justin Welby himself might welcome. Since disestablishment is already policy, we have a firm basis for it beyond conservative Christianity’s intolerance of the LGBT+ community. It’s just that it is this issue that is disenchanting people the most from the CofE at the moment, especially as very many Anglicans such as me despair at such intolerance from many of our church’s leaders.
    As to whether we might lose votes on this position… Well, we would never do anything if we were in fear of losing votes. We’ve probably already lost the votes of conservative Christians by legalising same sex marriage.

  • Matt (Bristol) 18th Jan '16 - 10:04pm

    Kevin, I think what I would like to ask you is: is disestablishment something you are seeking for its own ends as a good in itself, or are you using it as a proxy to fight a battle you are having inside the Anglican church?

    If its the first I’m with you — if it’s the latter, I’m sceptical.

  • The bishops may be well intentioned but the House of Lords needs reforming sooner rather than later and this is why the question of Church State relations is important.

  • Great shame more cannot separate church and state themselves, individuals like Sarah Teather , a fine person and able politician , why she needed to tie herself in knots on gay marriage , or even Tim for a brief moment on these issues , I do not know .No one should support forcing churches to do anything , and if Kevin is wanting state meddling in such matters it would be wrong . Yet what is wrong with someone having a positive attitude to religious traditional marriage , and yet at least not have a negative attitude to secular equal marriage ?!

  • Mark Frankel 19th Jan '16 - 8:55am

    I’m a Quaker but I rather like having an established CofE. Firstly, it gives a spiritual tone to the public domain and eases the secular/spiritual divide. Is community and public life significantly better in Wales and Scotland, which don’t have established churches? I suggest that relations between faith groups and the state are much better in England than in France, an aggressively secular state, and in the US, where religion is expressly banned from government. Secondly, an established church is more amenable to secular moral pressure. Look how far the CofE has come on women compared with the Roman Catholic Church! We need to be patient on same-sex marriage. Quakers have embraced it and the CofE will eventually, though given conservative pressure from elsewhere in the Anglican Communion it could take generations.

  • David Evans 19th Jan '16 - 9:16am

    Manfarang, sadly saying the House of Lords needs reforming sooner rather than later is simply repeating what has been said for over 50 years. Conservative and Labour are not interested because it removes their ability to reward those who are ultra loyal to the leader, and we didn’t even get close to reform when Nick was nominally in charge of constitutional reform for five years – I say nominally because Cameron and the Conservatives quickly showed who was really in charge. Indeed, quite quickly we simply joined in with the others giving gongs for senior party workers, large donors, gallant but loyal losers in the carnage that followed, and ended it with long serving MPs and the leader’s bag carrier. Appointment of Bishops in contrast looks like the height of sanity.

  • As an Anglican I completely support disestablishment. I also believe that, in a similar way to remarriage of divorcees, same sex marriage should be an issue for the Priest in Charge in consultation with their PCC. We cannot force more conservative congregations to allow it in their Church, but equally they should not force more liberally minded congregations not to.

    In terms of clergy in same sex marriages there should be no issue at all with issuing licenses. Their very approach to faith would naturally limit where they could serve as they would only be appointed to a Parish in consultation with the PCC. It would no more limit them then the “flavour” of Anglican they are, for example a “Forward in Faith” Anglo Catholic Priest is unlikely to seek or be offered a job in a “Reform” leaning Evangelical Church – nor vice versa despite their shared views on the role women and same sex marriages. Clergy in same sex marriages are not going to come from either of these groupings but would be applying for positions in more liberally minded Churches.

    The CofE is a broad Church and it is not beyond the whit of man for all to be accommodated at Parish level. The problems at Diocesan level are more complex but again are no beyond solution – perhaps it is time to move away the Diocesan model into more regional solutions with a choice of spiritual lead?

    With the House of Lords there is no logical place for anyone who currently sits there making our laws as they are appointees. That said the likes of Tony Greaves were often the only Lib Dem parliamentary voices willing to remain true to the values and policies I voted for in the 2010 – 2015 Parliament. This leaves me unsure I trust political party’s to put the right candidates up, as people vote for parties more than the individual..

  • Helen Tedcastle 19th Jan '16 - 2:07pm

    Kevin Mahoney

    ‘The Bible was written by many diverse people over the centuries with wildly differing viewpoints, while still sharing the same faith, and arguments such as these were happening in St. Paul’s time.’

    Yes, the Bible is a library of books. St. Paul spent much of his time dealing with those in the various early Christian communities who were teaching erroneous doctrines or causing divisions by not sticking to the teaching Paul had passed on to them.

    ‘ I have found ample Christian scripture that speaks of equality and not favouring one set of people above any other.’

    Equality ‘in Christ.’ Paul does not suggest for instance that men and women are ‘the same.’ He teaches that, in Christ, in relationships between members of the community and importantly in the Eucharist there are no divisions. This is precisely what the primates meeting was about – learning to bear with one another despite differences.

    Further, I do not think that those who uphold the teaching on marriage in the church are always intolerant of the LGBT+ people. It is perfectly possible to believe in traditional marriage and believe in and indeed work for, fair treatment and justice for all. There are many examples of Christians who have campaigned for freedom and justice with views on marriage which some might describe as traditional.

    This whole debate is not relevant to disestablishment as the primates meeting was called to maintain the communion and not a state matter.

  • Gosh, this is getting a bit confused. Attacking the position of the C of E as the established church is in no way attacking Christianity: after all, some nonconformists have argued for disestablishment for ages and pushed for it successfully in Wales. Conversely, I can’t see that if the C of E was disestablished, it would not be entitled to preach views on moral choices including gay marriage.

    I agree with Kevin with some reluctance, which would have surprised me some years back. I’ve favoured disestablishment for ages and so do some Anglican clergy. But I’ve also seen how widely the C of E’s representatives – bishops and local vicars – are accepted by other religious groups (not just Christian) as facilitators, umpires and joint voices when one is needed. Maybe, though, that useful function could continue without the anachronistic attachment to the state.

    The position taken over the US Episcopalian Church and gay issues persuades me Kevin is right. As for Tim Farron’s beliefs, it seems to me essentially Liberal to not make an issue of his personal moral views as long as his public actions are for liberty, fairness and diversity.

  • I support anyone who wants to campaign for disestablishment. However, has Kevin considered that Moses was not lying but rather that he was simply reciting the societal rules as set by a primitive patriarchal tribe and no god had anything to do with any of it?

  • Kevin Mahoney 24th Jan '16 - 1:55pm

    Matt from Bristol – yes, I wouldn’t want disestablishment to be seen as a proxy for this debate within the CofE. My main reasons for wanting disestablishment are that it is terribly anachronistic to still have unelected bishops passing church law onto the statute book. Then again, this isn’t exactly a pressing issue, as the Lords Spiritual were still included in our House of Lords reform bill. I just think that the CofE’s treatment of the LGBT+ community will inevitably play a large part in the disestablishment debate in the future. Although I don’t think CofE disestablishment will be achieved in this parliament, as there would be a big hoo-ha if the SNP voted for it.

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