Debate over same-sex marriage in the Church of England has brought the question of Anglican establishment unexpectedly to the top of at least some MPs’ agendas. Why should a Church that is part of the state, established by law, and ultimately regulated by Parliament, be permitted to discriminate in ways that other parts of the state are not? And if it won’t move with the views of the people of the state, shouldn’t it cease to be a state church? It’s a good question, but it didn’t need the question of same-sex marriage to come along for it to be asked.
It has been a long time since the Church of England reflected the religious views or practices of the English people. This year’s publication of new Census results showed only a minority ticking ‘Christian’ for the first time, while the British Social Attitudes Survey records that 88% don’t identify as Anglicans. The levels of Christian belief and practice are even lower and in the old Anglican preserves of weddings and funerals the English people have long since moved on. Most funerals are now non-religious and only 10% of weddings are Anglican. In no sense apart from that of heritage in some parts are we a Christian country.
And yet, no other European country has such a religious set-up as we do in terms of law and public policy, while at the same time having such a non-religious population. There are 26 unelected bishops in the House of Lords who provide a large voice which is skewed on particular questions. Only one bishop supported equal marriage in 2013 (with nine voting against) and just last week, the Bishop of Southwark was the only peer, bar the Government spokesperson, to speak in opposition to a Bill that proposes making RE more inclusive of non-religious worldviews. It’s unfair that bishops make moral declaratory statements from a position of power and privilege where other voices, which are more prominent on such questions and are more reflective of the views of society, are not represented to the same extent in Parliament.
Establishment in our constitution encourages religious discrimination in a number of spheres, from the requirement that Parliament starts its business with prayers each day, giving MPs and peers who attend a chance to reserve their seats for the whole day, to non-religious people not having the same access to pastoral care in hospitals and prisons. This imbalance can be felt most strongly in our education system which allows public-funded schools to operate discriminatory admissions policies and permits them to carry out collective worship, Christian in character.
Disestablished in Ireland in the 19th century and in Wales in the 20th, the Church of England’s disestablishment in England in the 21st century could be the answer to the Church’s own prayers. Humanists like me think it unsustainable for an established institution not to reflect the beliefs and values of the people. But believing Anglicans have just as much a right as to ask why they should have to sacrifice their beliefs and values for secular reasons. Separation between Church and state would make the Church’s affairs their own – and, if we genuinely value freedom of religion or belief, quite rightly.