23 November 2012

Time to disestablish the Church of England

The Anglican Church, as the nation's officially "established" church, has had a privileged position in England since the Act of Supremacy in 1534. It isn't called the Church of England for nothing. For example, the 26 most senior bishops of the Church have by right a seat in the House of Lords. The head of state must be a member of the Church and may not marry a Catholic (although presumably he or she might marry a Muslim, Hindu or Jew). Monarchs are required to swear that they will "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion [the Anglican Church] as established by law."

The connection to the state is strong. Archbishops, bishops and deans of cathedrals are appointed by the monarch on the advice of the prime minister. Measures proposed by the Church affecting its governance or worship must be approved by the British Parliament. Church assets are managed by 33 Commissioners, including the British prime minister, who are responsible to Parliament.

As a result of its favoured status, it has prospered mightily. In 2007, its land, property and stock market assets were valued at $9-billion, generating $285-million in annual revenue. Its investment fund originated in money accrued by Henry VIII and given to the Church in 1704 by Queen Anne.

Despite its status as the established church of the nation and its great wealth, it is losing its credibility among the British people. Although it has nominally 24 million members, only 1.1 regularly attend weekly services. Attendance declines as the average age of churchgoers increases.

This week the Church fell further in the esteem of modern Britons when its house of laity voted against the ordination of women bishops. (The house of bishops, to its credit, voted massively in favour.) Politicians from all parties expressed their displeasure and Prime Minister David Cameron lamented, "The church needs to get on with it and get with the program."

The Church may simply have been taking instruction from St Paul: "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence," (1 Timothy 2:12). However this bit of misogyny no longer has credibility even with Christian women, and the Church's failure to "get with the program" should have consequences. It is an appropriate time to take the long overdue step of ending the Church's special relationship and attendant privileges with the British state. It is time to disestablish the Church of England.

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