Recent interventions in welfare debates by churches and the new Archbishop of Canterbury have dramatically illustrated the fact that the Church of England is no longer ‘the Conservative Party at prayer’. However Wyn Grant suggests that, in spite of the tendency towards political criticism which has emerged as a consequence, there is little appetite for the complex legislative undertaking of disestablishment.
On a sunny but very cold Easter Day I drove to an isolated hamlet in Warwickshire, a village that had been largely abandoned after a plague outbreak in the 17th century. I managed to find the concealed entrance to a narrow lane. I drove up it and after half a mile it widened into a rudimentary car park. To one side was a beautiful Georgian hall, to the other side a field of sheep. In front of me a small church, the bells summoning a quite large congregation to Easter communion.
Among the predominantly elderly congregation was the widow of a former Conservative minister and the lady from the hall, a widow whose husband had been a prominent Conservative member of the county council. Yet the celebrants were a political scientist who had been Labour leader on Warwick District Council and a woman reputed to make the case for social justice in her sermons.
Earlier that day a number of churches had issued a statement condemning the so-called ‘bedroom tax’ while the new Archbishop of Canterbury lost no time in criticising government policy on welfare. Ed Miliband met him some weeks ago and urged him to get more involved in politics, not that it should be assumed that there is any cause and effect.
The Church of England is no longer the Conservative Party at prayer, at least in terms of the leadership of the church. The breach probably came in the 1980s when it was joked that Anglicans were the SDP at prayer. I remember attending a dinner in Cambridge in the 1980s at which quite a few Japanese were present. The junior minister who was the after dinner speaker tore up the speech carefully crafted by his private secretary and launched into an attack on the Church of England. Puzzled, a Japanese diner leaned across to me and asked, ‘Why is the minister attacking the bishops?’
There is no doubt that these renewed criticisms from the churches are an irritant for the government, not least when the CoE has a platform in the House of Lords. The very presence of the bishops always raises the question of establishment. There is a consensus for change, although an advantage of a state church is that its services are available to all citizens, a right I exercised on Easter Day. Norway and Iceland have established churches; Finland has two; Sweden has disestablished. Disestablishment would make reform of the House of Lords look like a tea party in terms of legislative time.
Ed Miliband seemed to support establishment in a recent interview with The Times, “I think the Church of England is fantastic actually — think about America where there is supposedly a division between Church and State but religion is an incredibly vexed political issue. The Church of England, which is an established church, is broadly speaking incredibly tolerant. Of course it’s about faith, but it goes beyond that. It’s part of the fabric of the country.”
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Wyn Grant is Professor of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick. He joined the department in 1971 and was chair of department from 1990 to 1997. In 2010 he was presented with the Diamond Jubilee Lifetime Achievement award of the Political Studies Association of the UK at their Awards Ceremony. He was elected an Academician of the Academy of Social Sciences in 2011.