Anti/Disestablishmentarianism, aside from being an unnecessarily long word, is an issue that seems to trouble very few. Interest on the matter seems confined to left-wingers with a penchant for constitutional reform, atheists with a particular aversion to anything tinged with religion in public life and the handful of bishops currently nesting in the Lords.
Interestingly, this is an issue with which modern Evangelicalism has had relatively little to say. Of course, there have been the standard calls from dissenting churches for Evangelical Anglicans to flee the nest and the counter-arguments that Anglicanism is a ‘good boat to fish from’. However, this has less to do with the establishment of the Anglican church in England and more to do with issues of Evangelical purism e.g. autonomy of the local church and perceived countenance to the edicts of a largely non-Evangelical hierarchy. However, what of the establishment of the church itself?
It is the view of this blogger that the established church should no longer be. That is not to say the Anglican church should no longer be nor a call for Evangelical Anglicans to remove themselves from their denomination; an issue of conscience and preference for those within Anglicanism not a matter of any concern to those outside. Rather, this is an issue of whether any church should be established and hold a special place within Britain (or in this case, England specifically (1)).
David Ceri Jones notes:
After a long and bitter campaign, the Church of England was disestablished in Wales in 1920. Despite the fears of many, that did not prove to be the death knell to Welsh Anglicanism. Rather the Church in Wales, as it very consciously became, redefined itself as the ancient church of the Welsh people, rather than the imposed Anglican establishment it had once been perceived as being. The rapid decline in Welsh nonconformity in the twentieth century has enabled the Church in Wales to become the single largest, and therefore influential, Christian body in Wales. Disestablishment has been positive, even the making of Welsh Anglicanism!
Thus, disestablishment of the Anglican church in England need not represent the end of English Anglicanism but rather, may see it grow further by setting itself as simply a church under the rule of Christ, as opposed to the rule of the monarch.
In history, the issue of establishment was certainly more pronounced than it is today. As Derek Tidball notes:
The major difference between Evangelical Anglicans and the nonconformists [in the 19th century] lay in their civil and political positions. Civil disabilities were not finally removed from the nonconformists until after the middle of the century and consequently they were much preoccupied with the quest for freedom. Many leading minister were ardent protagonists for disestablishment, which was seen to go hand in hand with political equality. (Who Are the Evangelicals, 1994).
The special place held by the established church, and those therein, marked a point of contention across Evangelicalism. Indeed, Tidball goes on to note ‘Dissenting Evangelicals were looked on suspiciously and, in turn, looked suspiciously at Evangelicals in the established church’.
Such civil and political differences between nonconformists and Anglicans have, largely, long since gone. However, in Northern Ireland, the belief that religiously inspired principles, especially in light of the high numbers of Free Presbyterians within the ruling DUP, have influenced government policy very much remains. However, Steve Bruce notes:
It is often assumed that only secular liberals wish to separate church and states, or religion and politics, or morality and state law; that the purpose of recognizing [sic] two distinct spheres is to diminish the power of the church. But the same divisions can be appreciated by those who view the problem from the other end, whose primary concern is to safeguard religion. As the people faced with the dual responsibility of serving the church and their electors, the clergy who were involved in the DUP could appreciate, better than lay Evangelicals, that they had to keep their roles separate (Paisley: Religion and Politics in Northern Ireland, 2009).
Similarly, the American separation of church and state stems from this same conviction. Whilst secular liberals may wish to keep church and state separate to minimise the influence of the Church in matters of State, so too many Evangelicals want the same separation to avoid undue influence of the State in matters of the Church.
So what of the matter of the established church in England? Constitutionally, it seems profoundly undemocratic for unelected members, who represent a small proportion of the country, to have such a place enshrined in the House of Lords. Nevertheless, for the Church (in it’s widest sense), a greater issue exists. If we want the State to take a hands off approach to the Church and grant freedom in matters of religion, we too must forego a special place in parliament and take a hands off approach in the matters of State.
- Of course, the same argument may apply to the established Presbyterian Church in Scotland