by Anthony Archer, Central Member of the Crown Nominations Commission, member of General Synod and trustee of the Ozanne Foundation
To be established or not to be established, is that the question?
The Church of England is having a torrid time, for reasons most will understand and regret. Certainly, at the level of the National Church, including General Synod, few are proud of what is going on. A Church that increasingly defines itself by those it excludes is hardly a potent missionary symbol. For all that, at the parish level much good is evident, even without the “missing generations”. It will be left to church historians to make something of this confused picture.
Against the background of the issues, including the unmet needs of victims and survivors of non-recent sexual abuse, the injustices towards those who identify as LGBT+ and ongoing discrimination against women in ministry (masked in the name of mutual flourishing), there are calls for the Church of England to justify its privileges and precedence.
Since the Reformation, the Church of England has been described as ‘the church by law established’, a phrase not as precise as it sounds. The Queen is its Supreme Governor; bishops (and some deans and others) are appointed by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister; General Synod approves Measures (which, on receiving the Royal Assent, have the force and effect of Acts of Parliament), they first having been declared expedient by the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament. Synod legislates itself by making Canons on such issues as worship and doctrine, largely unfettered, save for example by not being able to dispense with the Book of Common Prayer. In terms of rights and duties, apart from the Church crucially being a visible presence in every parish, a primary duty is that the Archbishop crowns the Sovereign, and that there are prayers in Parliament before every session.
Significantly and more publicly, 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords, with five places reserved for the archbishops of Canterbury and York, and the bishops of London, Durham, and Winchester. The other 21 go to the remaining diocesan bishops who have served the longest time in office, with recent provision for women bishops to jump the queue for a transitional period of ten years. Constitutional reform watchers might be forgiven for wondering why there are still so many Lords Spiritual given the efforts of successive Governments to reform the House of Lords, but that is not the subject of this blog post.
Those who take aim at establishment usually go for the Lords Spiritual and there have been two recent examples in Parliament. Lord Taverne introduced his House of Lords (Removal of Bishops) Bill in January. It remains to be seen what progress it might make. It does not seem to be a swipe at the Church of England per se, but part of the broader agenda of the National Secular Society and its adherents. The views of peers will become apparent when it receives its second reading. More pointedly, Ben Bradshaw MP recently engaged with the new Second Church Estates Commissioner, Andrew Selous MP, over the House of Bishops’ ill-advised Pastoral Statement on civil partnerships. He said:
“It is bad enough that the Church still treats its LGBT+ members as second-class Christians, but to say to the child of a heterosexual couple in a civil partnership that they should not exist because their parents should not have had or be having sex is so hurtful. Will he tell the bishops that unless this nonsense stops serious questions will be asked in this place about the legitimacy of the established status of the Church of England?”
The removal of the bishops from the House of Lords would represent an Exocet strike at establishment. A less direct strike, but potentially more controversial, would be an attempt by Parliament to remove the right of clergy to solemnize a marriage, until such time as the Church permitted marriage of same-sex couples. That would create a level playing field, with all couples being required to have a civil marriage and obviate the need for the quadruple lock in the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
For all the chatter about establishment over the years, there has been no focused work on the Church/State relationship since the Chadwick Commission, which reported in 1970. It came at a time when the Church was frustrated at the continued role of Downing Street in appointments to bishoprics, and the fact that matters of worship and doctrine were yet to be reserved to the new General Synod. The Commission agreed on little, other than that greater distance should be set between Church and State. There were a wide variety of views, and some dissent from the main report – views which might well be held today. Is the Church of England’s established status a handicap to mission? Does it invest the Church with an aura of privilege which impedes missionary work among those who resent privilege on principle or because they lack it?
Mervyn Stockwood, Bishop of Southwark, regarded the debate at the time as being empty:
“Perhaps the next commission on Church and state will produce more helpful recommendations if it bears in mind some deeply disturbing comments of its predecessor. There is talk of “the Church” and of “the rights of the laity” but what is “the Church” and who are “the laity”? According to the report: “The figure for Easter communicants are a little over four per cent of the population.” As for the laity: “We do not know the present social composition of the House of Laity, but it is a fair guess that it does not, even today, contain the five per cent working class members recommended by the Selbourne Committee in 1918.” If this is true, then the Church of England might be better employed in finding ways and means of making the Church a reality in the life of the state rather than concerning itself with constitutional proprieties. Should this happen, the next commission may attract members and testifiers better qualified to represent the interests and outlooks in our national life.”
Stockwood went on to note that the report gave the list of the members of the commission and those who gave evidence. “Neither list includes a carpenter, a fisherman or even a secretary of a trades union!”
Chadwick eventually led to the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 and more significantly the creation of the Crown Appointments Commission (now CNC) in 1975. Not much developed thereafter, save for Gordon Brown’s Green Paper The Governance of Britain published in 2007 which inter alia included the decision that going forward Downing Street would only request one name for a diocesan bishopric, thereby leaving the decision entirely with the Church – the same convention that has applied for suffragan bishops for ages.
Where does that history leave the Church of England today?
When I suggested putting down a Private Member’s Motion in General Synod on establishment some 10 years ago, those I consulted took the view that is was not for the Church to initiate a debate. Should Parliament wish to do that, that was its clear right. Given the state of the Church today, despite the recent shots across the bows, it seems that few think a debate on establishment would represent time well spent.
The Church needs to sort itself out.
The problem with that thesis is that many are doubtful that it has the capacity to do that, whether in the context of safeguarding or same sex marriage.
Expect more discussion in the very near future. Might disestablishment be part of a much needed “pruning of the vine”?