‘Staying in the room where it happens’? A response to Lucy Winkett’s defence of establishment

A 2003 survey found that 42% of Anglican clergy and 35% of laity favoured a complete severance of constitutional ties between the Church of England and the state. Whatever the comparable figures today, it is reasonable to assume that a substantial minority of English Anglicans continue to harbour significant doubts about the church’s established status. One would not remotely suspect this from the contents of Church Times’s Platinum Jubilee double issue or the subsequent one providing extensive further coverage, even though the events were also celebrating the Church of England’s longest-serving Supreme Governor, a cornerstone of establishment. Aside from a brief letter in the latter, the paper allowed not a peep of dissent on establishment across the entire combined 112 pages of these issues.

The topic was not ignored: on the contrary, the editorial page featured a robust two-page defence of establishment by Lucy Winkett, Rector of St. James’s Piccadilly (whose predecessor but one, Donald Reeves, was known for his radical politics). I would guess that her stance is representative of the vast majority of the church’s leaders today, at least those prepared to declare one. Even Giles Fraser deployed the same argument in a defence of bishops in the House of Lords after ministers hinted that the Lords Spiritual’s number might up in revenge for their unanimous denunciation of the government’s Rwanda policy.

To her credit, Winkett does not rest her apologia on the pragmatic case against disestablishment, that ‘the energy needed to change it would not be energy well spent’. Whether that is the case, of course, depends on how much of a problem you think it is. Rather, she offers ‘principled reasons’. But on close scrutiny, these are all problematic.

One is that Christianity ‘is a religion founded on the messiness and complexity of incarnation’. I have lost count of the times defenders of establishment reach for this doctrine to justify it. ‘Incarnation’ may well imply an acceptance of ‘messiness and complexity’, but the Church of England is hardly the only one embracing them. ‘Incarnation’ may, perhaps, affirm the importance of ethnic, national and local ‘particularity’: God creates, sustains and redeems us in, through and for the particular cultural contexts in which we find ourselves. So a church living ‘incarnationally’ will certainly embody what Winkett calls ‘an embedded religious presence in the issues of the day, as expressed in national and local politics’. But a doctrine of the universal church such as ‘incarnation’ does no work in justifying the highly idiosyncratic peculiarities of English establishment. On the contrary, the logic of Jesus’s own confrontations with the reigning institutions of his day – which are noted by Winkett – suggests a posture of formal independence from such institutions, so as to retain the critical distance required for fidelity to the radical call of the Gospel (as the late Bruce Kent so courageously embodied, to his cost – and, to his credit, as Giles Fraser did when he stood by the Occupy movement when it shut down St Paul’s Cathedral). And in any case, non-established churches can just as readily offer such an embedded, incarnational presence, and many routinely do.

Winkett’s second reason is that the inordinate influence of the religious right on American politics undermines the case for a formal separation of church and state: ‘The photo op in 2016 of President Trump waving his Bible at the Pope was enough to convince me that the separation of Church and state so trumpeted in the USA is not working’. It should not have been enough: however repugnant that incident was, rather more substantial evidence is needed to reach such a conclusion. Winkett laments the fact that the American separation ‘curiously makes the influence of religion on the political culture arguably much stronger than it is in the UK’, as seen in the likely repeal of Roe v. Wade. The fact that a formally secular state is compatible with a highly religious civil society has been well-documented by political scientists. But it does not offer the kind of succour to English establishment that she supposes, for two reasons.

One is empirical: if the Church of England were disestablished, the prospects of anything like an American religious right wielding overweening political power in Britain, whether on ‘moral’ issues like the ones she expresses alarm over (abortion, LGBT+ rights, assisted suicide), or on anything else, are, at best, remote. This is because English churches have vastly fewer numbers and resources than the more politically militant ones in the USA; because most English churches have been shaped by more balanced theological and ethical traditions than those American ones, leaving them much less vulnerable to wholesale partisan capture; and because the opportunities for British lobbying groups, religious or otherwise, to manipulate law-making processes are, for well-embedded institutional reasons, much lower than those of their counterparts in the USA (notable exceptions notwithstanding). A more religiously dynamic civil society might indeed be the necessary ‘cost’  of non-establishment in some settings. Or, to put the point more positively, it might, in England, be just the beckoning opportunity the church needs to freshen up its relations to nation and state.

The other reason why the US case does not lend support to establishment is that it is not enough to appeal to consequentialist factors in defence of an arrangement that is inherently problematic theologically. English establishment is so because it trades, unwittingly but dishonestly, on a legacy of sixteenth-century Erastianism that it purportedly rejects. Supporters often defend establishment as an opportunity for ‘sacrificial service’ to the nation. But its central features – Royal Supremacy and the Supreme Governorship, Protestant succession, Crown appointments, the pre-eminence of the Church of England in the Coronation, the Lords Spiritual, parliamentary supervision of the church’s legislation and the public status of ecclesiastical law – continue to be founded on unique constitutional privileges and burdens deriving directly from that Erastian legacy (or at least indirectly sustained by it: the Lords Spiritual predate the Reformation). These still compromise the spiritual autonomy of the church, and the religious impartiality of the state, in ways that should matter to both institutions.[1]

Winkett asks no questions about whether a credible contemporary theology of the jurisdictions of church and state can any longer justify the state’s conferring such privileges or imposing such burdens. One reason for this is no doubt that the Church of England has no such theology: the national church has not put its official mind to the question of its relationship to the national state since the (wholly untheological) Chadwick Report of 1970. There are ample resources available to assemble one, but the national church seems disinclined to put them to work to that end.[2]

Winkett’s third defence of establishment is that it ‘can be helpful in brokering public conversations that get to the heart of the matter’. But two of the three examples she gives of such ‘brokerage’ are not dependent on any feature of establishment. Faith in the City (1985) powerfully challenged government policy but there would have been nothing to stop a disestablished Church of England issuing such a report. Indeed, non-established churches have produced documents of comparable, indeed superior, theological depth, such as The Common Good and the Catholic Church’s Social Teaching (1996). And Justin Welby’s Easter Day sermon this year (her second example) was certainly bold in declaring that the government’s refugee proposals stood under God’s judgement. But it too needed no element of establishment to make it possible.[3]

Nor is it clear, incidentally, why these are examples of conversational ‘brokerage’. The church was not facilitating or hosting a conversation but simply adding to one already well under way, offering its own emphatic, critical voice. Good on it for doing so. Nor is there any reason to suppose that disestablishment would, as Winkett fears, feed a ‘privatisation of spirituality’, or ‘cheapen the public conversations made possible by the long relationships’. Would it cause the Church of England to abandon its longstanding commitment to speaking truth to power, to shut down the Mission and Public Affairs Council, no longer to create Archbishops’ Commissions (such as the exemplary recent one on housing, Coming Home), or to discourage diocesan synods from issuing public statements? And if, inexplicably and culpably, it did, there are plenty of other non-established churches willing to pick up the conversational slack. No apparatus of establishment is needed for this to happen.

Winkett’s third example of a brokered conversation – Rowan Williams’ sermon at the 2009 Iraq war commemoration service in St Paul’s Cathedral – did indeed trade on establishment, but not in the straightforwardly positive way she implies. While there is no formal legal compulsion on the Church of England to host such services, the powerful expectations of establishment leave it with no effective freedom to decline to do so, or to insist on shaping them exclusively according to its own theological mind (where it has one). It is true that, as Winkett notes, Williams, in the presence of the Prime Minister who took us into the war, was able to challenge the ‘satisfyingly overblown language that is so tempting…when war is in the air’. But is it even imaginable to the established church that any senior church leader might have openly declared the war illegal and immoral (as many Anglicans believe), or that the service might have functioned not only as an act of commemoration but also as one of repentance? A disestablished church, freed from the enfeebling expectations of establishment, would have been better able to shape a conversation about the war by offering something more boldly evangelical.

Winkett, however, doubts that non-established churches are able to engender this kind of national conversation, in which power is held to account. Why? Because, ‘in a liberal democracy, an established religion holds open a space, whether in pulpit or parliament, for this sort of dialogue that is public, accountable, and – most importantly – rooted in a deeper perspective than the heat of the political fray’.

But first, non-established churches have proven themselves well capable of addressing national conversations from such a ‘deeper perspective’. Establishment itself adds nothing to the ‘depth’ of such encounters. ‘Depth’ derives wholly from the spiritual and moral wisdom that participants bring to them. Second, the fact that the established church holds open a ‘space’ in parliament for such dialogues rests on the problematic legacy of privilege which I already criticised. One cannot assume that when the Lords Spiritual speak, even unanimously as they did on Rwanda, that they speak on behalf of all people of faith (as is often presumptuously claimed).

But more importantly, many lay Christian members of both houses of parliament already work very hard to offer such depth, a vital contribution unremarked by Winkett. I’d wager that the invisible influence of lay Christian parliamentarians on issues like immigration and refugee policy is vastly greater than anything than the Lords Spiritual can muster. And if the church thinks its lay parliamentarians are not doing this job well enough, let it divert the resources it invests in supporting the work of the bishops to training up such lay people better. Third, the Church of England’s capacity to hold such a space in the ‘pulpit’ would be entirely unaffected by disestablishment. The church could continue to deliver whatever sermons it wishes, although I argued above that it would be much freer to speak its mind (again, if it had one) should it be invited to preside at important national services. Moreover, does anyone imagine that, on a hypothetical ‘day after disestablishment’, the government, public and the media are suddenly going to ignore sermons or other utterances of church leaders on account of changes to the church’s constitutional standing – at least, any more than they do already? In any case, should not the church be content for its public utterances to be assessed entirely on their merits and not on their being issued from a privileged constitutional platform like the Lords? Wouldn’t that be a closer approximation to an ‘incarnational’ witness?

Winkett’s fourth reason in support of establishment is that it is important to be ‘in the room where it happens’ (my paraphrase). She notes that this does present a challenge to the church: ‘The meaning and success of establishment arrangements lie in the ability of those who preach to seize this privilege and run with it – to claim the freedom that lies at the heart of establishment and not become lazily vested in things staying the same’. It seems not to trouble her that this ‘freedom’ is one denied to all other churches and religious bodies in the UK. Of course, as long as the church is established, it should use that freedom to the best of its abilities (as the bishops did on Rwanda). But I would turn her claim around: the church should seek the more authentic freedom that comes from detachment from the constraining constitutional entanglements and political expectations that establishment inevitably sustains, however much the church sometimes pulls in the other direction. That would surely be a more effective way to resist being lazily invested in the status quo.

Winkett claims that disestablishment would amount to ‘withdrawal’ from national dialogues. It might result in ‘religious ideologies’ being ‘explored…in darker corners, perhaps in more toxic atmospheres’. So politicians, then, should ‘keep us where you can see us’. But again, many non-established churches (not to say many non-Christian religious bodies) are not ‘withdrawn’ from national dialogue on account of their lack of constitutional privilege. They are often very visible and audible, and, where they are not, the Church of England’s being established seems not to have brought them into view. If the specific concern is with religious ‘extremism’, there are already plenty of ways (not all of them exemplary, of course) in which the state tries to keep religious groups ‘where it can see them’. But none of them depends on any element of establishment.

Winkett’s final reason is that an established church helps ensure that ‘the spiritual and moral dimension to life is given axiomatic place and voice in political debate, affirming a holistic view of human beings’. This is a familiar refrain of defenders of establishment. As Fraser puts it: ‘the Church helps choreograph the establishment, thus introducing a moral element to our common life that would be difficult to maintain if Parliament were redesigned in a more rational way’. But I see little evidence for this claim. Establishment does not ensure any ‘axiomatic’ place in the vast majority of public or parliamentary debates, or prevent governments or other institutions from acting in ways that corrode a holistic view of human beings (they will certainly not be the ones to stop the Rwanda policy). Such claims are a form of ecclesial self-delusion. As Jeremy Morris has written:

Establishment does not preserve significant influence for the Church at the very heart of government. On the contrary, the very development of the British state over the last century and a half has almost taken for granted the Church’s irrelevance in most areas of policy. Establishment does not preserve Christian influence as an operative principle in government because the vast majority of our fellow citizens choose for it not to be so.[4]

Winkett quite rightly observes that ‘establishment’ also finds expression outside Westminster, in Remembrance services, prison or NHS chaplaincies, in responses to local disasters and so forth. These are what Wesley Carr terms ‘earthed establishment’ – part of what Winkett herself calls the church’s ‘embedded presence’ in local communities. Sustaining that presence is enormously important, and those favouring disestablishment at the constitutional level can be equally committed to it. But very little of earthed establishment depends on establishment at the national level (what Carr calls ‘high establishment’).

Establishment will thrive, Winkett suggests, if ‘we stay in the room – but be braver while we are there’. I suggest that the only way the Church of England will discover (perhaps for the first time) the deeper reserves of bravery it needs to be more consistently faithful to the Gospel in public life today is if it relinquishes the constitutional privileges and burdens of establishment that still blunt its message and sap its courage.


Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Centre for Faith in Public Life at Wesley House, Cambridge and author of Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022). He is an Anglican.



[1] I defend that claim in Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-Relations in England (SCM 2020), chs. 2-4.

[2] E.g., Luke Bretherton, Christ and the Common Life: Political Theology and the Case for Democracy (Eerdmans, 2019); Malcolm Brown et al, Anglican Social Theology: Renewing the Vision Today (CHP, 2014); Rowan Williams, Faith in the Public Square (Bloomsbury 2012); John Milbank, Beyond Secular Order (John Wiley, 2013); Oliver O’Donovan, The Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

[3] See my ‘Would disestablishment silence the Church of England?‘, SCM blog.

[4] ‘The Future of Church and State’, in Duncan Dormor, Jack McDonald and Jeremy Caddick, eds, Anglicanism: The Answer to Modernity (Continuum 2003), 167-8.

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