As supporters of women bishops nurse their grievous disappointment about General Synod’s dysfunctional vote in November, probably the last thing they want to think about is the arcane constitutional matter of disestablishment. But since senior political and even ecclesiastical figures are now seriously entertaining the prospect, the question must be confronted head-on. I want to suggest that this is precisely the moment for the Church of England to gather up its courage, revisit its theology of church-state relationships, and declare its readiness to open discussions about disestablishment.
The Church is now under intense and very public pressure from the state over women bishops, pressure which can only distract it from the serious and urgent task of picking up the pieces from the synod’s excruciatingly narrow rejection of the women bishops’ measure and deciding what on earth its next steps shall be. MPs on Parliament’s Ecclesiastical Committee are utterly exasperated, incapable of explaining to baffled and incredulous colleagues, with short attention spans for the finer points of theology, why some Synod members seemed to have broken ranks with society’s embrace of full gender equality. David Cameron was undoubtedly speaking for most MPs when he bluntly instructed the Church to “get with the programme”. Members of the Committee are openly declaring that unless the Church gets it acts together in very short order they may have to compel it to do so.
The first thing we must do is acknowledge honestly that it is only because of establishment that Parliament presumes it has the right to tell the nation’s Church to fall into line with the imperatives of the state. Sir Tony Baldry, the Church’s official spokesman in the House of Commons, didn’t equivocate: “If the Church of England wants to be a national church, then it has to reflect the values of the nation”. Rather a long way from, ‘Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed…’ (Rom. 12:2). I continue to find it astonishing that most Church leaders seem incapable of recognising that this is the inescapable price of the privileged status they seek to retain. Certainly no one should be allowed to get away with feigning shock or surprise at this outcome; it was always a train-wreck just waiting to happen.
Few Church people, never mind those outside, even know the Ecclesiastical Committee of Parliament exists. But it is the point at which the Church is most palpably and embarrassingly subordinated to the state. It is this Committee’s role to receive Synod’s legislative proposals (measures) and decide whether they are “expedient” or not for approval by Parliament as a whole. The process is by no means toothless: in 1984 the Commons voted against a measure deemed expedient and as recently as 2002 the Committee itself declared one measure inexpedient. There was already a serious prospect before last week’s vote that the Synod’s anguished and fragile compromise on women bishops might be thrown out when it reached Parliament.
It is time for Church leaders to stand back and confront the palpable incongruity that, in a society premised on the freedom of independent associations to govern their internal affairs (itself a fruit of Christianity, as Rowan Williams has pointedly reminded us in his latest book, Faith in the Public Square), the largest church in the land has to submit its convictions on how to appoint its own senior pastors – an inescapably theological question – for state approval. It is inconceivable that the Roman Catholic or Methodist or Baptist churches would accept such humiliating and intrusive political oversight.
Yet the Church of England, eager to cling on to whatever fading remnants of its historically-endowed constitutional pre-eminence it can, continues to meekly accept it. It is simply not adequate here to wheel out the self-deluding mantra that establishment isn’t a “privilege” but a “responsibility”; whatever we call it, the constraint of constitutional accountability is real and might quickly become menacing. Nor is it adequate to suggest that taking the initiative towards disestablishment would play to the forces of secularism – that (to cite another misleading mantra) it would “send the wrong signal” to the nation. Those forces are making pretty good progress anyway. But more to the point, if establishment can’t be justified theologically, or even if it has now become merely pragmatically unhelpful, then walking away from it isn’t feeding secularism but rather moving closer towards a proper Christian pluralism; or what Rowan Williams calls a “procedural secularism” that actually finds its origins in Christianity itself. The “signal” the Church actually sends to the nation in starting a conversation about disestablishment will depend wholly on the theological clarity and authenticity it can muster; and on that score it will have its work cut out. The fact that the National Secular Society will chalk it up as its own victory is entirely immaterial.
But Parliament’s actual options are few, and stark.1
One impatient MP quickly asked Sir Tony why Parliament couldn’t just introduce a short bill to force the Church to ordain women bishops. Since 1919, however, Parliament has by convention left legislative initiative to the Church. While in theory there is nothing to stop it departing from this convention it would be highly controversial to do so. Yet the longer the Church delays getting with the state’s equality programme the more likely that drastic option becomes.
Other options are being advanced by MPs to assuage Parliament’s anxieties. One is to threaten to end the right of diocesan bishops to sit in the House of Lords, if Synod doesn’t approve women bishops speedily. My own view is that this would only be putting put an end to an anachronistic privilege whose time has long gone anyway. Bishops and other religious leaders could still be (re)appointed to the House on the same basis as anyone else (i.e. on representative standing or merit; ideally both). This is not at all to suggest that bishops don’t make a valuable, and even at times publicly valued, contribution. The issue is not one of competence to speak but rather of entitlement to automatic access in a situation where practising Anglicans amount to less than ten per cent of the population.
Another option that might enter some minds is for Parliament to take a more radical step towards disestablishment by renouncing its right to approve synodical measures entirely, abolishing the Ecclesiastical committee and Sir Tony Baldry’s post in the process. Parliament would thereby exculpate itself from responsibility for Synod decisions it found repugnant. MPs could, of course, still carp at such decisions, just as they might at the Roman Catholic church’s position on contraception – or for that matter the Methodist church’s position on drones. But they would do so from a proper constitutional distance and with no power to browbeat. But of all the hypothetical options open to Parliament this is the least likely to get anywhere because it would necessarily open up a much deeper can of constitutional worms, implicating other weighty aspects of what has been called the “higher architecture” of establishment (Royal Supremacy, Protestant Succession, Coronation Oath, and more).
A third, and much more likely, option is for Parliament to remove the Church’s exemptions from equalities legislation. These exemptions allow churches and other religious organisations to (among other things) reserve their leadership positions to those who subscribe to their own beliefs – a pretty fundamental right in a society valuing associational freedom. Yet a move like this would amount to a spiteful, draconian and unnecessary assault on the right of religious organisations to maintain their own identities, and it is both astonishing and deeply disturbing that no less a devout Anglican than Frank Field should be championing it. It has been argued by defenders of establishment that the Church’s established status empowers it to resist legislative encroachments on such a right, also on behalf of religious organisations generally. But recent years have increasingly cast doubt on this assumption, and I think we have now reached the point where establishment is a positive liability in this regard. I’d wager that the Church could much more effectively defend its and others’ religious freedoms better if it were free of state entanglement.
As a longstanding supporter of women bishops, I certainly hope Synod will pick itself up off the floor and somehow find a way to approve their ordination as soon as possible (providing suitable accommodation for opponents as far as is possible - though many have suggested that opponents have just turned down the best offer they will ever get). But because of its established status the Church may now find that it ends up doing so not by its own choice but at the behest of the state, leaving it even more ashamed of itself than it is now and more politically demeaned than it has been since the Prayer Book crisis of the 1920s. Having the state force the decision on the Church would also do nothing to enhance the esteem of future women bishops (which for some was already placed in question by the wording of the measure that failed in Synod).
In fact the Church may soon find itself scrambling to halt any or all of the above initiatives that might be coming down from Parliament. Or, if it survives the present debacle, it can be sure that parliamentarians will be on standby to exploit possible same-sex marriage legislation to help the Church to get with the programme in other respects. In response to the thinly-veiled threats being issues by politicians, Tom Wright wrote in The Times: “Parliament must not try to force the Church’s hand, on this or anything else. That threat of political interference, of naked Erastianism in which the State rules supreme in Church matters, would be angrily resisted if it attempted to block reform; it is shameful for ‘liberals’ in the Church to invite it in their own cause. The Church that forgets to say ‘we must obey God rather than human authorities’ has forgotten what it means to be the Church”.
An emphatic “Amen” to all that. But I want to press the Church to follow what seems to me the inescapable logic of that affirmation. It is time for the Church to honestly confront its current captivity to distracting political pressure and itself announce a desire to extricate itself progressively (it couldn’t be done all at once) from the increasingly vexatious amalgam of constitutional privilege and political subordination that comes with establishment.
This, I admit, wouldn’t speed up the approval of women bishops. But that, of course, is the point: to have any theological integrity both the content and the timing of such a decision must be in the hands of the Church not the state. De facto disestablishment has been creeping up on the Church for a century. To borrow the exhortation of Archbishop-designate Justin Welby regarding women bishops, it’s now time to “finish the job”.
1. For a more detailed legal analysis see Bob Morris’s article on the Law and Religion UK blog, ‘Women as bishops: should parliament intervene?’
Dr Jonathan Chaplin is an independent scholar specialising in political theology. He is a member of an Anglican church in Cambridge. He is co-editor of The Future of Brexit Britain: Anglican Reflections on British Identity and European Solidarity (SPCK, 2020).