Owen Jones’ appeal for the separation of church and state showed a deep respect for Christianity in general and the Church of England in particular. But he failed to explain how and why disestablishment would be an improvement. Throughout the article, I only read one serious criticism of the status quo: that it is an ‘anachronism’.
Perhaps so – the relationship between Church and state in Britain is certainly illogical. The monarch swears in the Coronation Oath to maintain the “Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”, but Britain doesn’t have an established Church. England has one, and Scotland has a different one, more thoroughgoingly Protestant than the curious part-Catholic hybrid south of the border. No kirk celebrated Holy Week like we did at St Martin’s in Salisbury, with prostrations before the Blessed Sacrament and kissing of the cross. Wales, like Northern Ireland, gets by without an established church.
Indeed Northern Ireland argues against disestablishment as a means of promoting good relations between faith communities. The Church of Ireland was disestablished fifty years before Northern Ireland’s creation, and was in any case the minority Protestant tradition in the new state. That didn’t prevent a horrendous history of state-sanctioned anti-Catholic discrimination, nor a descent into thirty years of ethno-religious violence.
In this week’s Big Issue, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim leaders are all quoted opposing disestablishment. “The Church has been exemplary in its interfaith work… It doesn’t say, ‘This is the only way’”, said Sugra Ahmed, President of the Islamic Society of Britain.
Nor need Church schools be exclusive. One Catholic comprehensive in Lancashire, for example, is in the process of transferring to Church of England management not because its students are mainly Anglican, but Muslim. In the Diocese of Salisbury, only 2 out of 196 Church schools accept a majority of pupils on faith criteria.
Rigid official separation of faith and state hardly guarantees religious tolerance. In France, laicité is cited by newly elected National Front mayors as grounds for taking halal meat off school dinner menus. Ed Milliband and Nick Clegg can be confident and honest atheists as party leaders, while half of Americans would refuse to vote for an atheist Presidential candidate.
The United States raises a more serious issue: If Christianity were no longer even the nominal source of the UK’s values, what would take its place? America’s founding ideal of liberty is one that most of us support on principle, but few would want to adopt in its really existing form. American liberty has long been interpreted as meaning the freedom to be malnourished and denied proper medical treatment. Recently, the Supreme Court has interpreted liberty as meaning rich individuals and corporations can spend as much as they want in an attempt to buy democracy.
In Britain, the alternative to Christian values, even ones honoured often in the breach, is more likely to be a functionalist and utilitarian rationalism. That was on display in the proposed welfare reforms, derailed in 2012 by peers from across the political spectrum, led by Church of England bishops. The leaderships of all three parties, in contrast, cowered in the face of media demonisation of the most vulnerable.
It is that ugly utilitarianism that underpins the abandonment of working-class communities which Owen so passionately speaks against. Christianity argues for the value of every human being as a treasured creation of God, sharing this commitment to human value with other faiths and people of no faith. The Church of England, though its parish system, is committed to being a presence working for the flourishing of every community, including those where Anglican churchgoers are few.
Another core Christian value is the rejection of revenge. Lord Runcie, cited so positively by Owen, caused outrage when he prayed for Argentina’s war dead at the national memorial service for the Falklands War. In doing so, he was merely speaking up for basic Christian teachings. His prayers echoed the words of Bishop Bell of Chichester, who spoke out against the bombing of German cities even when wartime passions are at their height.
In a quest to get rid of an ‘anachronism’ Owen risks weakening voices like these in national life, without being entirely sure what would replace them.