Homophobic churches and liberal states make for unhappy bedfellows

Posted: Mon, 27th Mar 2023 by Stephen Evans

Homophobic churches and liberal states make for unhappy bedfellows

Parliament should begin the process of disestablishment rather than try to fix the Church of England, argues Stephen Evans.

A recent exchange in parliament revealed the incongruity of a state church in a liberal democracy.

Last week, a group of respected parliamentarians brought forward a bill to allow for same sex marriage in the Church of England. Unlike other religious organisations, the Church of England is explicitly banned from holding same sex marriages by parliament. This arrangement was part of a 'quadruple lock' to protect the Church from potential legal challenges when same sex marriage was legalised. This was felt necessary because, again, unlike other religious organisations, the CofE is legally obliged to marry all those who reside within a parish. There was clearly a tension between this duty and its opposition to same sex marriage.

The Same Sex Marriage (Church of England) Bill would simply enable CofE clergy to conduct same sex marriages on Church of England premises, if they choose to do so, without breaking the law of the land. This would clearly advance the religious freedom of Anglicans who support same sex marriage and see no conflict between that and their faith. The CofE's official doctrine would remain its own affair. On that basis, this is a bill worthy of support.

But by Ben Bradshaw's own admission, the intent behind the legislation is to nudge the CofE in the direction that the bills proposers want it to go. The Church's established status is being used as leverage to get the Church to adopt a more inclusive doctrine, consistent with the parliamentarians' own worldview.

This is legitimatised by virtue of the Church being established by parliament and subservient to it.

But it's this archaic arrangement that parliament ought to address, rather that the Church's doctrine. Establishment strikes at heart of the enlightenment principles of separation of church and state and freedom of religion or belief.

Prejudice against homosexuals is no longer socially acceptable in modern Britain. Religious organisations that display such prejudice are increasingly experiencing pushback when they interact with the state, through public funding or service provision such as the running of schools. Quite right, too. Attempts to impose homophobic doctrine with public money shouldn't be tolerated.

The Church of England's problem is that it doesn't just interact with the state, it's part of it. Our head of state is its Supreme Governor; its bishops are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the Prime Minister and enjoy seats as of right as lawmakers in the House of Lords. It runs thousands of state funded schools.

Speaking in support of his bill, Ben Bradshaw said with the privileges of establishment "comes a duty to serve all citizens equally".

The secular state should absolutely serve all citizens equally, but is that a realistic expectation for religious organisations with a doctrine to uphold? Bradshaw's view echoes the Church of England's own untenable vision it has for itself as being a "Church for the whole nation".

Those days over. The concept of a state church in a nation characterised by its religious, racial and sexual diversity is absurd.

The Church of England is in the business of 'proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ'. That's fine for those that want it, but it isn't a mission that accords with vast swathes of the British public.

According to the 2021 census, the number of us ticking the Christian box has fallen to less than 48%. The proportion of the population identifying as Anglican is down to just 12%. Fewer than 1% of the population attend Anglican services on any given Sunday. And 52% of the public say they do not regard themselves as belonging to any religion.

We're clearly not a Christian Country. The case for dismantling the CofE's relationship with the state is now overwhelming. Parliamentarians would do well to acknowledge this and establish a commission to untangle the ties that bind.

For the time being, such an untethering isn't something most within the Church are keen to contemplate. Particularly the bishops who enjoy the power and prestige that establishment brings. But perhaps they could be persuaded.

Opposing Bradshaw's bill, Andrew Selous MP, who represents the CofE in parliament, gave the impression that the Church was somewhat envious of the independence of other faiths.

Selous said: "Freedom of the Church of England to decide its own doctrine, a freedom that members from all parts of this House champion for religions and beliefs all over the world and one that we should therefore apply equally to the Church of England."

He said several Catholic MPs have told him how grateful they were that parliament was not "telling their Church what to do".

Well, there's a reason for that – their church isn't the state church and isn't answerable to parliament.

The Church of England can't have it both ways. To expect the all the status and privileges of establishment with all the independence of other religions and denominations is a classic example of having one's cake and eating eat. If the Church of England is disestablished, parliament will have no legitimate right to intervene. And that's the way it should be.

I wish those trying to build a more inclusive church well. It's worthy work, but it's not the job of the state – or at least it shouldn't be.

Clearly an officially homophobic institution has no business being the state church. But ultimately, it's not just the Church's prejudice that should be consigned to history, it's the whole concept of an established church itself.

Separate Church and State

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Tags: Disestablishment, LGBT, Marriage