Church and State – an idiot’s guide

When matters touching on relations between religion and the state are discussed it not infrequently happens that the terminology becomes hopelessly confused and misused – sometimes by people who really should know better. So the following is a cut-out-and-keep guide to the absolute basics of Church and State.

First, there are four separate territories in the United Kingdom: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. (The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are internally self-governing Crown Dependencies outside the United Kingdom.)

Secondly, England, Scotland and Wales together constitute “(Great) Britain” and all four territories together are “The United Kingdom”. (You might think that this is dead obvious – but how many times do you hear politicians getting it wrong?)

Thirdly, there are three distinct legal jurisdictions in the United Kingdom: England and Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – though as a result of the latest round of legislative devolution it is possible that, over time, Wales will evolve into a separate jurisdiction of its own. Sitting above them is the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom, which is the final domestic court of appeal from England and Wales and from Northern Ireland and in civil matters from Scotland (but not in Scots criminal matters except in relation to “devolution issues” under the Scotland Act 1998 – for which see Schedule 6 para 1).

Fourthly, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales each has a devolved domestic legislature; but legislation for the UK as a whole and for England on its own is enacted by the UK Parliament at Westminster.

Finally, the legal position of the Churches differs in each of the four countries:

  • In England the Church of England is the Church established by law: its canon law is part of the general law of England and its judicatories are part of the general system of courts – so that, for example, the Dean of the Arches and Auditor (the senior ecclesiastical judge in England: currently Charles George QC) is required to have a 10-year High Court qualification within the meaning of section 71 of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990.
  • In Scotland the Church of Scotland (which is a Reformed Church, not an Anglican one) is the “national Church representative of the Christian Faith of the Scottish people”: see Article III of the Articles Declaratory contained in the Schedule to the Church of Scotland Act 1921. Whether or not the Church of Scotland is “established” is a matter on which there are differing opinions – but in purely legal terms it is qualitatively different from any other religious community in Scotland.
  • In Northern Ireland there is no establishment of religion: the Church of Ireland was disestablished (in both parts of the island of Ireland, the legislation predating Partition) by the Irish Church Act 1869.
  • In Wales, similarly, the territory of the Welsh dioceses of the Church of England was largely disestablished as from March 1920 as a result of the Welsh Church Act 1914, the process of disestablishment having been interrupted by the Great War [for precise geographical details, see Clive Sweeting’s comment below]. Section 3(1) of the 1914 Act declares that “the ecclesiastical law of the Church in Wales shall cease to exist as law”; however, the Church retains a very few “hangover” features of establishment nonetheless: most notably the common law right of parishioners to marry in the parish church whether or not they are members of the C in W. 

And that is what Iain McLean calls “Key Stage 1 on Church and State”. Really very simple – but all too often confused. A recent comment piece in the Church Times by Marie-Elsa Bragg was headed Britain needs bishops in the Lords – to which I responded from my Skye address, rather mischievously, that this was presumably a misprint for “England”. And the CT, very sportingly, published my letter the following week.

But what with rows about women in the episcopate of the C of E, the proposed statutory bar on the C of E and the Church in Wales conducting same-sex marriages, the future constitutional position of Scotland and, unfortunately, the current low-level civil unrest in Northern Ireland, this is not a time to be getting the basics wrong.

Cite this article as: Frank Cranmer, "Church and State – an idiot’s guide" in Law & Religion UK, 14 December 2012,