Case for disestablishment “compelling”, say Anglicans at NSS event

Posted: Thu, 16th Feb 2023

Anglicans and non-Anglicans united to make the case for separation of church and state at a National Secular Society event yesterday.

Case for disestablishment “compelling”, say Anglicans at NSS event

Anglicans and non-Anglicans united to make the case for separation of church and state at a National Secular Society event yesterday.

Three speakers joined the NSS's online discussion on the future of church and state to argue why disestablishing the Church of England would benefit both the UK state and the Church itself.

The Church of England's established status has recently come under increased scrutiny over its continued discrimination against LGBT people and women.

The Census results for England and Wales published in November, which revealed that Christians are a minority for the first time, have also called the Church's privileged position into question.

The three speakers at last night's event called for an end to the CofE's many privileges, including automatic seats for its bishops in the House of Lords, having the head of state as its supreme governor, its role leading national ceremonies, and Christian prayers imposed in parliament and schools.

Losing political privilege 'is a sacrifice the Church should make'

The discussion opened with Dr Jonathan Chaplin, Anglican theologian and author of Beyond Establishment. He said there is a "growing awareness" that the Church's presumption that it can serve as a 'national church' "is looking more and more threadbare".

He said that because the Church is "significantly diverging from society" on issues such as same-sex marriage, and because fewer than 3% of English people are actively involved in the Church of England, it "seems increasingly anachronistic for it to think it can symbolically represent the entire nation".

Dr Chaplin outlined theological arguments for disestablishment, and pointed out that it would "safeguard the spiritual autonomy of the Church from improper state intervention".

He added that losing bishops in the House of Lords would give the church more resources to train laypeople.

He said a disestablished church would lose its guaranteed platform in parliament, but this is a sacrifice the Church should be willing to make "as a statement of its commitment to the principle of political equality".

Church itself makes "persuasive case" for disestablishment

Dr Chaplin was followed by Biblical Studies researcher and author Dr Katie Edwards. She said the Church of England has constructed "a persuasive case for itself" to separate from the state.

Dr Edwards said the CofE fails to serve citizens' needs, pointing to recent controversies over child abuse scandals, women's ordination and same sex marriage. She added that the CofE is also "on very shaky ground moralising to anyone given its track record" on these issues. She said its "no wonder that those identifying as Christians continue to decline."

She disagreed an established church is necessary to protect other religions, because it "doesn't seem to offer the same privilege, platform and authority to all faiths".

Dr Edwards also criticised the Church for being happy "to take advantage of its platform in parliament" but not for parliament "to have any say over their decision-making". She said: "It's fine for the Church of England to be independent its decision-making – as long as it isn't the established state religion".

"We have religious freedom, but we don't have religious equality"

The final speaker was academic and theologian Dr Martyn Percy, who is also an ordained CofE priest. He said there is a "compelling case for meaningful separation of church and state".

He defined establishment as a "nexus of power, privilege and authority". He said the Church is one of only five public institutions that evade the seven Nolan principles of public life (selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership), because it is hierarchical, autocratic and unaccountable. He said new generations want to see institutions operate in "fair, equal, accountable" ways, and the consequences of ignoring this are "extremely serious".

Dr Percy said the privileged position of Anglicanism in England means "we have religious freedom, but we don't have religious equality".

He called the presence of CofE bishops in the House of Lords "anachronistic" because they cannot represent Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales. He criticised the bishops for nevertheless interfering with affairs in these countries, including in debates around abortion law in NI.

Dr Percy said establishment conflates divine power with political power, and that "democracy sits uneasily with theocracy" . He added that establishment is incompatible with pluralism as "one denomination cannot possibly represent everybody".

Pointing out that the UK is the only other country besides Iran which has bishops in its legislature, Dr Percy concluded that the case for change in the UK is "enormous".

The discussion closed with a question and answer session, which attracted so much participation from attendees that the event had to be extended.

NSS chief executive: "The calls for disestablishment are gaining momentum"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans, who hosted the discussion, called the event "truly encouraging".

He said: "For a long time, the Church of England's importance and relevance to the UK has been waning. Yet church and state retain strong ties – to the detriment of both.

"Last night's speakers perfectly expressed why increasing numbers of people, both outside and inside the CofE, want to see the Church lose its privileges and gain independence.

"It was truly encouraging to see so many people actively participate in this debate. It shows the calls for disestablishment are gaining momentum.

"A huge thank you to Dr Chaplin, Dr Evans and Dr Percy for so eloquently putting forward the case for separating church and state and generating such profound discussion. It's crucial that we keep talking, and politicians and church leaders alike keep listening."

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