Should the Church of England be disestablished?

In a guest post, Jonathan Chaplin, a member of the Centre for Faith and Public Life at Wesley House, Cambridge and author of Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity (SCM 2021), looks critically at the Establishment of the Church of England.

The national service of thanksgiving for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee at St Paul’s Cathedral on 3 June reminds us of the powerful and intimate bonds still tying the British state to the Church of England. The Church again stepped forward to perform its well-rehearsed ‘chaplaincy’ function to the nation at a poignant moment of collective national celebration. Few noticed this, but the Church was not only celebrating the 70-year reign of the British monarch but also that of its longest-serving ‘Supreme Governor’, a constitutional status right at the heart of its established role.

The weekend’s joyous celebrations were hardly the moment to focus on the merits or demerits of Establishment. The question was entirely bypassed by most commentators, amounting to at least tacit endorsement. The Church Times’s Platinum Jubilee double issue gave pride of place to a robust defence of Establishment by a leading cleric but allowed not a peep of dissent on the matter across its entire 64 pages.

The question of the legitimacy of Establishment will, however, not go away any time soon. On the contrary, the cumulative impact of a series of extant or looming challenges will only place it under a sharper spotlight. These include: the inevitability of another Coronation in the near future and the need to revise the coronation and accession oaths; recurring demands for a reform of the House of Lords, including the presence of the Lord Spiritual; the ongoing clashes between the religious freedom claims of religious organisations and the imperatives of equality and non-discrimination law; the likelihood that surveys will soon confirm that fewer than 50% of British people self-identify as “Christian”, never mind “Church of England”; the declining capacity of the Church to maintain a genuine “presence in every community” in England (as its strapline puts it); the deepening religious pluralism of Britain; and more.

One would have thought that such challenges would ensure that Establishment was a subject of ongoing and lively debate, at least in the Church itself – that it might have elicited from the Church a substantial defence. But, although examined episodically in specialist law and religion journals, Establishment has routinely been relegated to the periphery of the Church’s field of vision, elbowed aside by what are always seen as more urgent internal questions of the moment (of which there are plenty absorbing the Church’s attention today). For much of the last century, the case for disestablishment has only ever won the support of a handful of outliers, rendering it, as one historian puts it, ‘the dog that didn’t bark’.[i]

The last extended treatment intended for the wider Church was a 2011 collection written mostly by academic historians, almost all of whom defended Establishment or were neutral on the question. The last book-length defence of disestablishment was Theo Hobson’s Against Establishment (2003), which, however, amply lived up to its subtitle, ‘An Anglican Polemic’.

On the rare occasions when representatives of the Church of England’s leadership address the matter, they mostly wheel out pragmatic defences of the advantages of the status quo or voice inchoate anxieties about the likely “secularising” impact of disestablishment. The debilitating result is that today, the national Church currently has no official theology of how it should relate to the national state. Indeed it has not put its official mind to the question since the wholly untheological Chadwick Report of 1970.[ii]

Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022) attempts to inject new energy – and some theological substance – into this debate. It argues that Establishment continues to be theologically problematic for the Church, impeding its autonomy and mission in tangible ways, and that the Church should itself take the initiative towards terminating it. The book is an argument from political theology aimed principally at the Church itself. It is not written primarily for ecclesiastical lawyers but it does address many of the central constitutional questions implicated in Establishment and shows how legal considerations might take their place within larger theological, political and cultural arguments.

The first chapter attempts to define Establishment and clarify confusions impeding constructive debate about it. It adopts Robert Morris’s definition of “disestablishment” as ‘the abolition of all privileged links between the Church of England and the British state to place [it] in the same position as any other religious body in the UK’.[iii] This is a call for an end to “high Establishment”, the constitutional architecture of the system. It also recognises another usage, ‘earthed establishment’, referring to the organic presence of the Church in local parishes and communities. The book later defends the importance of “earthed establishment” but argues that almost all of what is valuable in it would remain unaffected by termination of “high Establishment”.

The second chapter presents the fundamental normative argument of the book – a “theology of disestablishment”. It argues that Establishment has always been theologically unjustifiable and remains so today, even in its much-attenuated (“weak”) contemporary form. Establishment continues to compromise the spiritual autonomy of the Church and to breach the principle of the religiously impartial state. I offer theological justifications of these principles, by way of a critique of the notions of a “Christian nation” and “Christian state” and an examination of a New Testament ecclesiology. As an alternative starting-point for a better theology of church-state relations, it proposes articles IV-VI of the Articles Declaratory of the Constitution of the Church of Scotland in Matters Spiritual, appended to the Church of Scotland Act 1921.

The third and fourth chapters “deconstruct” Establishment, showing how each of its components compromises the principles of Church autonomy and state impartiality in non-trivial ways. Chapter 3 explores Church, Crown and government, explaining why Royal Supremacy, Protestant succession, the Coronation and Accession oaths and Crown appointments breach those principles. Chapter 4 addresses the relationship between Church and Parliament. It exposes the Church’s continuing, and potentially damaging, dependence on parliamentary approval of its own legislation, assesses the problematic role of bishops in the House of Lords, and calls for an end to parliamentary supervision of the Church Commissioners.

The fifth and sixth chapters “dispute” Establishment by exposing the flaws in three surprisingly persistent attempts to defend it. The first is the “concession to secularism” defence: disestablishment would “send the wrong signal” to society by suggesting a public retreat of faith from the public square. I argue that the Church should willingly make a “concession” to what Rowan Williams calls “procedural secularism”, while confidently resisting what he terms “programmatic secularism”. The second is the “anti-neutrality” defence: given that states cannot be religiously neutral, disestablishment would open the field to some other privileged public confession such as “secular liberalism”. I argue that this need not at all follow from the religious impartiality of the state.

The third is the “national mission” defence: disestablishment would amount to the abandonment by the Church of its sense of responsibility for the spiritual welfare of the nation as a whole. This third defence comes in two parts. One argues that disestablishment would mean relinquishing the Church’s pastoral openness to all comers and cause it to lapse into “congregationalism” and “sectarianism”. I argue that the Church should not lean on links to the state to keep it from losing its openness to all who seek its ministry. The other holds that disestablishment would signal the Church’s retreat from national political engagement. I argue that nothing of the sort would follow from the termination of “high Establishment”: the Church would remain as free as any non-established church to take up whatever political issues it wished, although it would have to earn its right to be heard and no longer profit illicitly from privileged access to power. Disestablishment could also free it up to adopt more critical, ‘prophetic’ public stances towards nation and state, if it wished.

The book closes with a proposed trajectory towards disestablishment, identifying a series of key legal and other steps towards that goal. It suggests a 10-year process commencing in 2024 and culminating in 2034, the 500th anniversary of the first Act of Supremacy – sending a truly “pregnant” signal of renewed self-confidence to a nation it still wished to serve.

Jonathan Chaplin

[i] Matthew Grimley, ‘The Dog that Didn’t Bark: The Failure of Disestablishment Since 1927’, in Mark Chapman, Judith Maltby and William Whyte, eds, The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (London: T&T Clark, 2011), 39–55.

[ii] As Jeremy Morris puts it: “contemporary support for Establishment lacks confidence in the authenticity of the Anglican Church’s apprehension of its truth, resting its case finally on pragmatism”. (‘The Future of Church and State’, in Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick, eds, Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity (London: Continuum, 2003), 176–7). An exception is Malcolm Brown, ‘Establishment: Some Theological Considerations’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 21 (2019).

[iii] R. M. Morris, ed., Church and State in 21st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 193.

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Cite this article as: Jonathan Chaplin, “Should the Church of England be disestablished?” in Law & Religion UK, 8 June 2022, https://lawandreligionuk.com/2022/06/08/should-the-church-of-england-be-disestablished/

9 thoughts on “Should the Church of England be disestablished?

  1. Pingback: Opinion – 8 June 2022 | Thinking Anglicans

  2. In 1920 the Church in Wales was disestablished. For over 100 years that Church has not had the supposed benefits of “high establishment”, but has continued to maintain its presence in every community. I find it surprising that nowhere in this article is there any reflection on what has been the experience of disestablishment of an Anglican Church within the United Kingdom.

    • Personally, I am rather more interested in the benefits of ‘low establishment’ (i.e., the establishment at a local level which was finally terminated with Fowler’s Local Government Act 1894 after repeated legislative assaults on the connection) than with ‘high establishment’, which I consider to be largely ornamental (and therefore largely insubstantial and inconsequential).

      As to the CiW providing a presence in ‘every community’, I am not certain that this is now the case. Anglicanism is fading very fast across the principality. The number of regular attendees is not much more than that of a struggling English diocese (between 15,000 and 20,000 per week, overwhelmingly elderly – indeed, very elderly). There have been a great many closures (which can be effected by the RB, which received title to the buildings when all existing ecclesiastical corporations were abolished under the terms of the 1914 Act, without the obligation to follow the consulting process under the English Pastoral Measures 1968-2011). For example, in central Wales the Church has disappeared from much of east Merionethshire and west Montgomeryshire (Llanymewddwy, Llanuwchylln, Llanycil, Llangower, Llanfawr, Llangar, Gwyddelwer and Bettws Gwefil-Goch, leaving only the new church of Christ Church Bala around the whole of Lake Bala, in east Merioneth, and Langynog, Llanwddyn, Hirnant, Llanfihagel-yn-Ngwnfa in west Montgomery). Therefore, it is possible to travel 20 miles (as the crow flies) with every single Anglican parish church closed, left to rot (as at Llanymawddwy), turned into a house (as at the vast former parish of Llanfawr) or about to be turned into a house (as at Llangower, lately auctioned for residential use). All ancient parishes. In Ireland, the fate of the Anglican church after 1869-71 has often been even more disastrous: in the diocese of Kilfenora, for example, the only extant church (of which I am aware) is now the cathedral itself (and even being a cathedral has been no guarantee of survival after disestablishment as the examples of Aghadoe, Elphin and Emly attest, although there was also the unhappy pre-disestablishment example of the Rock of Cashel).

      What matters is not whether the sovereign is Anglican, or bishops sit in the legislature, but whether the parishes – the bedrock of the Church – can be sustained without public subventions. Based on my experiences, they cannot, save in a relatively few cases, once the current cohort of regular attendees dies off, as it will within the next 5-10 years.

      The argument could be made that, by vesting the stock in communes (the ‘lesser’ or parish churches) and in central government (the ‘greater’ churches) in 1905-07, France has a more genuine ‘establishment’, despite the 1905 law, than England or Scotland. In Scotland, where the Kirk was effectively disestablished in 1921-25, the greater part of the stock is in the process of being immolated as part of the 2019 ‘Radical Action Plan’ (only 12 out of more than 30 churches in Shetland being retained, for example). In France, by contrast, the stock is preserved for actual or potential Christian worship and for public benefit (subject to highly variable levels of care) in perpetuity.

  3. Presumably, James, you are not suggesting that disestablishment was the primary cause of this decline?

    • Many thanks! Apologies for not having read the 2022 book. Personally, I doubt disestablishment has made significant difference to the trajectory of decline in Ireland or Wales. However, partial disendowment may well have done so.

      In Ireland, disendowment was part of a wider assault on the landlord class, which culminated in the Wyndham Act and the Land Commission: the liquidation of the landlords courtesy of the long agricultural depression and land reform had a far more profound impact on the sustainability of the CofI (where, in many places, the parish church was the ‘big house’ at prayer) than disestablishment. Indeed, the CofI was able to make up the worst of its losses via the charitable drive led by Beresford, Trench and Abercorn, before agricultural prices collapsed and Parnell’s plan of campaign.

      I think that the loss of pre-1662 assets left the CiW with only one eighth of its pre-1920 capital, although the final settlement worked out by the Welsh Church commissioners meant that the damage was less severe than had been anticipated, and was of course partially offset by Edwards’ Million Pound Fund.

      The latest available annual report of the RB (2020) has its asset base as about £0.8bn, a large part of which (the ‘designated funds’) comprises churches, parsonages, etc., so is largely illiquid. However, had the CiW retained most of its glebe and other financial assets after 1920, it would presumably have been able to invest more in mission, so as to slow the rate of attrition (although that is assuming the RB would have received all the glebe assets, since in England it would appear that freehold incumbents liquidated large amounts of glebe prior to 1976 in order to limit the impact of vanishing tithe rentcharge receipts, tithe annuities and of inflation on stipends).

      I think that it is the impact of disestablishment and disendowment on the parish which is far more important and consequential than, say, the loss of bishops from parliament. The so-called benefits of establishment strike me as being fairly limited, and might even amount to liabilities, as far as the reputation of the Church in the wider community is concerned. The most consequential changes to the status of the parish have been the loss of compulsory church rate (1868), the impact of agricultural depression after c. 1870, the loss of tithe rentcharge (1936-77), the progressive dissipation of glebe and the great resettlement of parish finance (1995-98) which, together, have thrown congregations onto their own resources, with only the hope of intermittent public subventions from the HLF and other sources. Some of these amounted to a species of local disestablishment (such as Russell’s resolution of the church rate question or Baldwin’s resolution of the tithe wars).

      • Thanks, James, that is very instructive and indeed somewhat sobering. My argument is based on the assumption that the British state today would not insist on punitive disendowment settlement with the Church of England. I hope that is a reasonable assumption but we can’t be sure, of course. In the book I float the idea that the state/Crown, might, for example, insist on retaining direct jurisdiction over Westminster Abbey (as a royal peculiar, and a kind of national museum) and suggest that, while regrettable, that would be a tolerable loss, given that St Paul’s is just down the road and can host a decent party.

        • Many thanks, Jonathan. I have attended services at about 5,000 churches in every part of the country. This is part of a systematic historical/topographical tour cum pilgrimage I have been undertaking. Less than 1% of the services I attended appeared to have demographically viable congregations. I am actually strongly in favour of partial disendowment to save the stock. In Lincoln diocese, for example, the DBF has a £4m deficit, and is being pushed by the Commissioners (as a quid pro quo for future subventions) to effect a programme of ‘reforms’, which will see a large part of the stock shuttered and/or sold pursuant to a ‘grading’ process that is currently in hand. In the old riding of South Lindsey, which has already endured significant losses since 1968, the effect will be devastating. My plan (which I wrote up in an outline draft bill in 2016) is as follows:

          1. Vest title to the pre-1829 stock (plus certain Grade I and II* units founded thereafter) in a national religious buildings agency (an emanation of DCMS).

          2. Take about £6bn away from the Commissioners (out of their £10.1bn), as a dowry for the agency.

          3. Give the Church a perpetual free right of use to the vested stock.

          4. The agency would have the economies of scale and bargaining power to procure labour and materials at discounts which ageing and fading PCCs will never secure.

          5. The dowry would neutralise the impact of the vesting of the stock on the taxpayer. However, in effect the taxpayer would be providing a backstop insurance. The politics of this could be neutralised by: (i) extracting more from the Commissioners if the dowry fell below a certain level and the Commissioners’ assets rose above a certain level; (ii) making the agency non-denominational (an inviting other denominations and religions to participate); and (iii) effecting a form of light disestablishment along the lines of the 1921 Act for Scotland. It could also be argued that the taxpayer would acquire an ‘asset’, and that the buildings could be used for a variety of activities, subject to certain safeguards, and a right of appeal (to a judge and two assessors, including one from the Church) if it was claimed that an alternative use would be inappropriate; the alternative uses could yield income that would slow the erosion of the dowry.

          6. The Commissioners would be compensated by transferring to them all diocesan assets. The dioceses would continue to exist, but chiefly as branch offices of Church House and/or as pastoral agencies.

          7. Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales could participate.

          In this way:

          (i) the stock (which was paid for by past taxation – church rate and tithe) would be preserved for public benefit and Christian worship;

          (ii) the reach of the Church would be secured in perpetuity;

          (iii) incumbents and PCCs would be liberated from the burden of the buildings, and could concentrate on their core functions;

          (iv) parish share would be less consequential, and the bishops would not be as vulnerable to the ‘suasion’ of party parishes as before;

          (v) the disendowment of the Commissioners would effectively return to the parishes in maintenance costs the capital arrogated from the parishes to the Commissioners via parish share since the 1990s (and the appropriation of glebe since 1976-78);

          (vi) the Commissioners could generate economies of scale in the management of the Church which 42 diocesan bureaucracies will never attain;

          (vii) considerable savings would be realised by obtaining discounted labour and materials; and

          (viii) bishops would be liberated from the burden of acting as amateur CEOs and could concentrate on their core functions.

          Thus, as per Lampedusa, ‘everything must change so that things can stay the same’.

          The alternative is that the Church continues to act like Mr Micawber, hoping ‘something will turn up’ or that R&R will make a difference (it won’t), and in the process the presence of the Church across much of the country will be eviscerated as congregations evaporate almost everywhere.

          If that means disestablishment, then so be it: ‘Paris is worth a mass’, etc.

          The problem with my scheme, which is based in large part on the French experience, and which was intended to improve upon the flaws evident in the French experience (specifically, the fact that small and often anti-clerical communes do not have the economies of scale to procure labour and materials at discounts) may not be plausible, because the political window of opportunity has passed. However, that is why I wanted to stress the non-denominational nature of the proposed agency (albeit with some Church representation in its top governance) and the need for disendowment to secure neutrality for the taxpayer. It was intended to square a circle since, as Paul Binski has argued, there can be no solution to the problem of church buildings without the state.

          • I should add that the analogy is with the NHS and insurance in general. The US spends nearly 20% of its GDP on healthcare, with many citizens self-insuring or having no cover. The UK, with its admittedly imperfect NHS, spends 12% of GDP. Spending in the UK is so much less because the whole country constitutes a single risk pool. The larger the risk pool the cheaper the premium.

            The Church is like healthcare in the US. Thousands of tiny trusts effectively self-insure against most of the costs of maintenance (and ministry), which results in their either having to pay intolerably high premiums or losing their cover (especially if effectively insolvent).

            The purpose of my plan is to create a national risk pool for maintenance in order to drive down costs (to preserve the stock and the Church’s reach). The authorities seem determined to maintain a system where the parishes have to pay a large and increasing premium for diminishing returns; the Commissioners are like a large industrial insurer, which (faced with deteriorating market conditions) gouges policyholders with higher premiums, driving many insureds towards insolvency, and yet provides very strict conditions to any awards.

            Another issue is that many PCCs fail (and churches close) because the fiduciary liabilities of PCC members are too onerous relative to their means. If the stock is removed to a national agency, and if the Commissioners take over most of the admin, then the PCCs become much less of an issue.

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