In response to Owen Jones: In Defence of the Establishment of the Church of England

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.

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2 Responses to In response to Owen Jones: In Defence of the Establishment of the Church of England

  1. Muu Puklip says:

    Interesting sophistry but full of holes. I’ll point out a couple.

    Northern Ireland: You fail to show causality. That is, you fail to show how disestablishment of the Church of Ireland had any relation whatsoever to the troubles. Had you made an argument about taking religion out of the public sphere entirely (e.g. by eliminating religion from education) you could have established a point worth arguing over.

    Values: Why do you uncritically assume that Christianity is the source of the UK’s values? You are being ahistorical. Either that or your are specifically trying to promote a whitewashed version of history that suits your own ends. You also fail to square your own circle over the various branches of Christianity you mention not always sharing or promoting the same values. What you have effectively shown is that individuals promote and follow whatever values or causes that they personally believe in regardless of supposed religious affiliations. That is, people are constantly re-making their religions in their own image. Their religions always agree with their own point of view. Much as can be seen from Archbishop Tutu’s remarks about which kind of God he would or would not worship.

    You also conveniently skipped over that Cameron’s government assert that their welfare policies are an expression of Christian values. Are you going to tell us that Cameron is not a Christian because the bishops disagreed with him? Or that the bishops are wrong because the man in charge is the one who sets the rules, as was the lesson made most clear by Henry VIII? So which values are right? Who decide such matters and on what basis? Naked power?

    That should give you enough to chew on for now. 😉

  2. Josh Lord says:

    I’d be interesting to know what “Christian values” actually are. If they are the cherry-picked congenial bits of christianty that comport with modern day moral sensibilities – shared by most believers and non-believers alike – then I fail to see why they should be called “Christian values” at all. We can retain those values without the Christian tag, just as I try to treat others as I myself would like to be treated without the need for divine permission.

    If instead they relate to the arbitary moral injunctions laid out in the bible that have nothing at all to do with the well-being of conscious beings (just look at the first 4 commandments!), then the cause for abandoning “Christian” values in favour of rational, modern day, secular alternatives couldn’t be stronger!

    Are there any so called “Christian values” that couldn’t be held and extolled by a secular person or nation?

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