By Jonathan Chaplin, Theos (from July 2012)
Three issues vexing the Church of England right now, and two more that could lurch into view very soon, suggest that the time has come for the Church to initiate steps towards disestablishment.
The Church is already embroiled in two controversies which bring to the fore the irksome constraints on its freedom of action that even our diminished form of establishment still imposes. The first is its increasingly angst-ridden struggle to approve women bishops. The decision on 9th July to defer a vote on the substantive issue until November gives the Church a breathing space to craft a more judicious accommodation between its deeply divided wings than has so far been available. Now one might have thought that this is a dilemma for the Church to resolve entirely through its own internal decision-procedures. But by virtue of establishment the Church doesn’t have purely “internal” decision-procedures, since the legislative proposals (“Measures”) of its governing body, General Synod, require parliamentary approval, first by the Ecclesiastical Committee and then by both Houses of Parliament (at which point the Measure becomes an Act of Parliament). Members of this Committee are now openly warning that if the Church doesn’t approve women bishops in ways compliant with the state’s equality laws, Parliament may overrule it. This is not a fanciful prospect, since it blocked or delayed other Measures as recently as 1984, 1989 and 2002. An exasperated Sir Tony Baldry, the MP charged with officially speaking for the Church in the Commons, has also warned that Parliament might decline to retain bishops in the House of Lords if the Church stalls any longer.
But whatever one’s view of women bishops (I am in favour), the mere fact that an organ of state should have any say at all either in the substance or the timing of such a profoundly theologically contested decision is surely at best faintly ridiculous and at worst constitutionally offensive. The Church should seize this moment to insist on full control of its own decisions and move to end parliamentary accountability entirely.
The second issue is the imminent prospect that the state will legalise same-sex marriage. Warnings of a constitutional train wreck in which the theological authority of the Church might be dramatically pitted against the political authority of the state may have been overblown. But if Parliament changes the general legal meaning of marriage by redefining it as a union of only “two persons” rather than of a man and a woman, it will thrust the Church into the position of having to function as registrar of “marriages” it currently cannot recognise. Both opponents and supporters of same-sex marriage should be alarmed at the prospect of the Church being required by the state to act against its considered theological convictions. Those who today might rejoice at the Church being pressed against its will to implicitly sanction a “progressive” view of marriage, might tomorrow lament its being blocked from, say, pursuing a “progressive” investment policy by a right-wing competition law.
Read the opposing view in Part 2 of this series: Why the Anglican establishment is good for a liberal society by Nigel Biggar