Time to disestablish the Church of England?By Norman Bonney on 24 June 2013
The 60th anniversary of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth was marked on 4 June 2013 by a special service of celebration in Westminster Abbey, the building in which she was crowned in June 1953 in a service led by the then Archbishop of Canterbury. The anniversary service included the display and veneration of the sacred oil with which all monarchs are anointed in a service that dates back to William the Conqueror and even earlier. But what explains the strong link between the Church and the monarchy? And in an increasingly secular country is it time to recuse the Church of England from its official state roles?
Her Sacred Majesty, as she is known on some state documents, is not only head of state, font of justice and head of the armed forces but also Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Henry VIII claimed this latter position to legitimate his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and to stress that not only was he head of state but that he was also head of what had been transformed into the national Church. Even today Church of England bishops and priests on appointment still swear homage to the monarch on their appointment, as do bishops and archbishops at coronations. The structures of the contemporary establishment of the Church of England still derive from the sixteenth century statutes of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I.
The Church of England still has a monopoly on state religious ceremonial. For instance, it conducted a religious service at St Paul’s Cathedral to celebrate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and it conducts a religious service at the annual service of Remembrance for the ‘Glorious Dead’ of war at the Cenotaph in Whitehall each November.
The Church of England can also, paradoxically, be regarded as the Church of the United Kingdom. It provides daily prayers and other religious services to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, although none of the three devolved legislatures in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland have chosen to follow this example. It provides 26 bishops who sit in the House of Lords and who thus legislate for the whole of the UK on matters that are not devolved. And it crowns the monarch of the UK (and the other realms) at the coronation where it administers the Coronation Oath Act of 1688 which requires the monarch to swear oaths upholding ‘the laws of God’, Christianity, Protestantism and the privileges of the Church of England itself.
However, recently released data from the 2011 census suggests that the religion can no longer provide a unifying narrative for more secular times and that the coronation rituals of the past are no longer seem appropriate to contemporary society. It revealed that only 59 per cent of the population of England and Wales identified themselves as Christian, while 25 per cent of respondents reported that they have no religion at all.
Recent statistics released by YouGov also indicate that about 19 per cent of the population are firm atheists who ‘do not believe in God, gods or any other spiritual power’ and that about only one in three of the population of England and Wales identify themselves as members of the Church of England. Attendances at its services are much lower - in low single figure percentages at most. And civil marriage is now also the choice of the great majority of marrying couples, with only one in four couples in England marrying in a Church of England ceremony.
In an attempt to broaden the social basis of contemporary state religion the Church of England has increasingly gestured in the direction of other Christian denominations but it does not go as far as including non-Christian faiths actively in state rituals such as the coronation anniversary service. But in the first event of the Diamond Jubilee commemorations in February 2012 the Queen not only gave special state recognition to ‘eight world religions’ but praised the Church of England’s role in promoting positive inter-faith relations. This would, however, seem to be in conflict with the official state Christian mission of the Church and the obligations that fall upon the monarch as Supreme Governor and the Defender of the Faith.
The Church of England has in practice become largely autonomous from the UK Parliament which still formally retains powers to govern it. Parliament is reluctant to intervene in the governance of the Church although varying views have been expressed recently by parliamentarians about the Church’s failure to appoint women bishops. The Church’s policies on same sex marriage also diverge from those of the state. The time would seem ripe to consider a full separation of Church and state as the idea that the Church can unite the whole nation and that Parliament should determine or influence the beliefs and practices of a state religious denomination are now manifestly archaic.
The over four hundred year old settlement of established religion in the UK appears to need a thorough public review and restructuring. Perhaps the time has come to free the Church of England of its state responsibilities, rescind the Coronation Oath Act of 1688 and order the affairs and ceremonies of the UK state on a basis that recognises that religion divides and cannot unify a religiously diverse, plural and secular society and that common citizenship provides a more unifying and meaningful expression of the common loyalties, values and aspirations of citizens who are technically the subjects of the monarch.
Norman Bonney is emeritus professor at Edinburgh Napier University and writes at www.normanbonney.blogspot.com. He discusses this issue further in a recent article in Political Quarterly. Further information can be found in his forthcoming book Monarchy, religion and the state; civil religion in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth, to be published by Manchester University Press in October 2013.