Calls grow to disestablish Church of England as Christians become minority
So ran the headline to an article in the Guardian, following yesterday’s news about the 2021 UK census.
But surely Christians, especially Anglicans, ought to resist these calls, right?
Not according to political theologian Jonathan Chaplin, whose latest book has recently been published by SCM Press: Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England.
I haven’t read the book, but I have attended not one but two webinars over the past week with Jonathan Chaplin. What follows is my own personal summary of some of the key points expressed in those webinars.
First, who cares?
Why stir things up? Aren’t there more important things to worry about? Isn’t the country basically happy with the established status of the Church of England? And doesn’t it give Christians numerous pragmatic advantages?
Clearly, not everyone is happy, and that might well reach a tipping point in the not-too-distant future. Now is the time to do some serious thinking about establishment.
Isn’t establishment a good thing?
The Church of England is deeply embedded within the life of the nation. We have a sense of vocation for the nation as a whole, and for everyone within the nation. Why throw all that away?
Here, Chaplin draws on a distinction between earthed and high establishment.
Earthed establishment refers to the organic embeddedness of the Church of England within the nation. This is indeed extremely valuable.
But this does not depend on high establishment, which is a way of describing the constitutional status of the Church of England – for example, bishops in the House of Lords, links with the monarchy, and the status of church law as public law.
High establishment could be dispensed with, without affecting earthed establishment. However, it would need to be done well. We mustn’t be caught on the back foot.
What is actually wrong with establishment?
Establishment is unjust. Why should one small denomination of one minority religion have such a privileged role?
Establishment is inappropriate. It is not the role of the state (Chaplin argues) to express a view about matters of theology.
Establishment is a hindrance for mission. In an increasingly secular country, the Church of England is under enormous pressure to conform to the culture, rather than to speak prophetically and live distinctively within it. We can continue to exercise transformative influence without establishment. (Compare the influence of Methodism on trade unions and the like.)
What should be done?
Establishment is a complicated thing. Disestablishment needs to happen one step at a time. (Chaplin has a ten-year plan.) Perhaps the first step could be for the bishops in the House of Lords to voluntarily relinquish their seats?
No doubt. But certainly worth thinking about.
I might even buy the book.
Antidisestablishmentarianists probably won’t.
(Sorry, couldn’t resist!)