One question quite frequently raised in the aftermath of General Synod’s inability to agree legislation making women eligible for episcopal orders is that of disestablishment. Some are proposing removing bishops from the Lords; others are protesting about the naked Erastianism of Parliament telling Synod to get with the programme.
I’m pondering what in practice disestablishment might mean. I don’t see the Welsh situation as a precedent, since it was cocooned in the established churches of the greater part of the state (England and Scotland).
In a nutshell, the vision behind establishment was that the Crown in Parliament governed her subjects under God, entrusting the charge for their spiritual peace to the bishops and clergy and their temporal peace to the magistrates.
Historically that was probably a late mediaeval polity which was being applied to an early modern nation. (Theologically the kindest thing that can be said about it is that it was a seriously over-realized eschatology.) It is unsurprising that it failed early on, yet was sufficiently substantial for everyone to act as if had succeeded. Over the succeeding centuries Parliament removed one legislative slice of the salami after another, until today it is at least as much illusion as substance.
However, the tendrils of establishment are wrapped around a great many things, and to talk of disestablishment is to ask which ones definitely need to be cut away. Essentially it would seem the answer must include those which presume the Church of England has a unique place in the constitution, and conversely those which presume being an English citizen is to be a member of the Church of England.
I think that list would have to include removing the following:
- the place of the Crown as Supreme Governor and Defender of the Faith, and instead giving the monarch and consort the right to make any faith commitment or none.
- the ex-offcio presence of bishops in the House of Lords, the provision of an Anglican Speaker’s chaplain, and Anglican prayers before each parliamentary session
- any presumption of Anglican (perhaps Christian) chaplaincy in the Armed Forces, prisons and hospitals, together with compulsory church parade etc.
- any presumption of Anglican (perhaps Christian) leadership on national occasions such as Remembrance Sunday and royal events.
- the right of any person to be baptized or married in their parish church solely by virtue of residence in the locality rather than membership of the church
- the right of any person to be buried in the churchyard of the parish where they die
Are there other things which are essential to undoing the compact of establishment which treats an English citizen as a member of the English Church, or are some of these not as essential as I think they are?
As Cranmer reminded me on Twitter, I have somehow ignored the elephant in the room. Surely any move to disestablishment would also need a negotiated property settlement: to whom do the church buildings belong?