It is no secret that the United Kingdom, or rather specifically England, has an Established Church, the Church of England, which has officially served the nation for almost 500 years along with its sister Churches, (more recently) the Church in Wales and the Church of Ireland.
Today of course, there remains a sword of Damocles suspended above the head of the Church: the sword of secularism. Whilst there are legitimate arguments in favour of the separation of Church and State, it has been the preserve of conservatives since Burke’s time to defend the advantages of having an established religion. To eagerly bat away a 500-year-old tradition for the sake of modern conceptions about democracy is at best callous and at worst destructive. There are risks involved in disestablishing the Church of England, but since the Churches of Ireland and Wales have already gone the same way, the Church of England has become increasingly plagued by values which may soon make it less of a church and more of an apostasy.
Edmund Burke was the first to defend the concept of a State Church, criticising the French Revolution’s disregard for traditional institutions in society and lambasting their attempts to create a secular republic. It was his opinion that without religious guidance, the state would swiftly descend into moral degeneracy and directionless self-interest.
Indeed, in the case of the French he was correct, and it eventually led to the rise of authoritarian rulers such as Napoleon. For most of the 19th century, this argument was used to defend the establishment of the Church, yet debates about separation of Church and State did not abate. In fact, it gave us the longest non-scientific word in the English language: antidisestablishmentarianism, to refer to the ideology of those who opposed the disestablishment of the Churches of the British Isles.
But in the modern world, it is not disestablishment by political means that appears to be the immediate threat to the Church of England, but rather by the very fact that soon there may be no members of it whatsoever. In 2011, 60% of the UK population described themselves as Christian (2011 Census), with roughly 36% being Anglicans. Now it is thought (based on several British Social Attitudes Surveys) that roughly 42% of the population identifies as Christian, with only 17% being Anglican!
Obviously with such a dramatic decline, there is every chance the Church will not survive, but what I think is far more damaging is what the Church has been doing in order to try and ensure its survival – which may actually be driving people away.
There is a curse to having a Church linked to the Establishment, which is that just as the Church has a role in influencing the moral outlook of the political Establishment, so too can that political force influence the outlook of the Church. Indeed, I fear this is what we are seeing today in the development of the Anglican Church’s relationship with its congregants.
When a political Establishment becomes affected by a progressive bias, it is natural for all parts of the Establishment to begin espousing that bias. It seems to me that the Church of England, worried at its declining congregations and afraid of its future has decided to adopt this progressive mantle in order to try and save itself from destruction.
Justin Welby’s comments regarding refugees, comparing the birth of Jesus Christ to the homeless, apologising to the LGBT community for causing them “hurt and pain” for not permitting gay marriage within the Anglican communion and claiming that he’d “love to see a change” in how marriage is conducted, has proved him to be little more than the Primate of a failing Church scrabbling for every last bit of popularity that he can get for it.
Meanwhile, priests like Giles Fraser are elected Stonewall’s “hero of the year” (in 2012) and resign from positions within St Paul’s Cathedral over support for protestors who defamed the sanctity of the Church by hanging banners opposing “capitalism” outside its gates (Occupy London Protests 2011-2012).
It’s true, Jesus Christ preached love and acceptance of those whom society rejected, but he did not tolerate the defacement of holy places, nor did he question the validity of traditional marriage. It seems to me that whilst respect is deserved by all, the use of Christian love to justify socially liberal, “progressive” political manoeuvres is a forced affectation, a reductio ad absurdum which makes the Church seem either desperate or theologically corrupt.
So what can we do? Well, sticking to traditional practices and doctrine’s might be a start. After that, the Church has to remember its position within the fabric of British society. We have certain values which the Establishment is endowed with the power to protect, one of which is Christian faith itself. The attitude of the Church of England today is one which will almost certainly destroy itself if it is not careful.
It is not trying to avoid the sword of Damocles that hangs above it, but rather actively encouraging others to plunge it into its heart in the hope that its sacrifice might save some higher vision of Christian belief. But the Church is not Christ, and it cannot rise from the dead.
What’s so popular about left-wing politics anyway? That was so 1997. So perhaps the Church should consider this – I think it would almost certainly attract more followers if it was more conservative, more scripture-focussed in its social outlook and in its liturgy. The popularity of this has been shown by the increase in interest from Christians in alternative, more conservative Bible-based denominations such as Presbyterians and Baptists. In 2011 (according to the census), 6% of Christians belonged to alternative “Reformed Christian” denominations. Today, that has risen to 17% (BSA survey). If the political events of the past year have proven anything, it is that progressive politics is not what the people want, and it is certainly not something the Church has traditionally promoted.
The attitude towards religion in education is also important, since in most comprehensive school, hymns are not sung in assemblies, prayer time is being replaced with “quiet moments” and age-old traditions like saying grace before eating are no longer seen as relevant. Regardless of religious faith or not, the respect and reverence for things received and the privilege of education itself that this instils is undeniable. It’s loss is disappointing, and shows a wider symptom of the decline of Christianity as a mainstream faith in the United Kingdom.
Now, I am no theologian, and I am not trying to prove the existence of God or posit that Christianity is better than other faiths in this article. That is a separate matter. However, if we are going to take the social benefits of an Established Church seriously, then it only makes sense that we must take the fundamental tenets of that religion seriously. As bitterly upset as it makes me to say it, from what I can see at the moment, the Church of England is becoming more and more of an incoherent theological hodgepodge.
As an important part of the traditional community the Church has the power to bring people together and galvanise their desires into something greater, and begin to built that “togetherness” which so embodies a nation state. The way things are going now, soon enough the Church may become so irrelevant it might as well be disestablished. Perhaps that would not be such a bad thing in the end – it might imbue a sense of independence at last, and make the Church the bastion of morality and social cohesion that it seems to have forgotten it should be.