A chance for the C of E to throw off its chains

Far from signalling a turning-away from Christianity, disestablishment could be a force for good, argues Andreas Whittam Smith
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I hope that the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr George Carey, knows how to handle the crisis which he said the other day would be created if Prince Charles were to announce that he was to marry Camilla Parker Bowles. Because the Church holds the view that a divorcee should remain single while his or her original spouse is still alive, Dr Carey would find himself in a dilemma. The Archbishop would either have to say to the Prince: "If you remarry and succeed to the throne, then we would not be able to accept you as `Supreme Governor' of the Church of England" - or he would have to give up the principle.

Challenging the Prince on this issue would be a poor casus belli. For, if pressed, the Archbishop would have to admit that the Church could accept the monarch's divorce or admitted adultery; it is just remarriage while the original spouse is still alive that the Church could not take. But Dr Carey would also be forced to explain why so many marriage services involving a divorcee already take place in the Church of England. Roughly one in 12 is of this character. Some of his clergy are even prepared to bless gay marriages. In a public disagreement with Charles, the Church would lose the argument so far as public opinion was concerned, and appear weak and confused.

Then, consider Dr Carey's difficulties if the Prince refused to heed his admonition. The monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England because it is the state church; because it is "established". What this really means is that the prime minister of the day is in effect the Supreme Governor; it is he or she who can exercise the right to advise the monarch - for instance, to veto the Church's choice of senior bishops. So to say to the Prince that we could not accept him as "Supreme Governor" is to say to the Government that we cannot remain the "established" church.

But this is not at all what Dr Carey wants. He believes that the great advantage of establishment is that it puts the Church close to political power: it allows it to retain its standing in Whitehall and Westminster. He wants the next monarch to be crowned in Westminster Abbey during the traditional coronation service; he values the right of senior bishops to sit in the House of Lords. Equally, though, to mute the Church's disapproval of divorce and remarriage in order to retain its political status would be distasteful. That would be to trade principles for secular advantage.

What, therefore, starts out as a warning by the Archbishop to the heir to the throne becomes, in my view, a warning to the Church itself that its established status is becoming untenable. It is the ludicrous nature of any battle with Prince Charles that makes the point.

Church leaders argue that disestablishment would be a statement that this country is turning its back on the Christian religion. I don't believe that disestablishment need convey this message. It should be presented as the removal of anachronistic limitations on the power of the Church of England to run its own affairs. It would be freedom. For the first time since St Augustine came to convert the English in 597, the Church would not be subject to state interference. It is incredible that this situation has lasted for 1,400 years. Moreover, the necessary legislation would be tabled by a government led by a prime minister, Mr Blair, who is a member of the Church of England and a regular churchgoer. This would surely help to place the change in a favourable light.

I also doubt whether the Church of England is, in any meaningful sense, at the "very heart and structure of our nation". It is at the very heart of state ceremonies, such as the annual Remembrance Day service or thanksgivings for Falklands victories, and will, no doubt, play a leading role at certain millennium festivities. It will bury the Queen and crown her successor. But this is form without content.

Much more significant is what the Church should see as a startling omission. Bishops have not been asked by any recent government to head inquiries or lead investigations into social issues in the same way that businessmen and judges are often invited to perform such tasks. As authoritative, politically neutral figures, they appear to be ideal. But Church leaders have few entries on Whitehall's lists of the Great and the Good. If my own experience is any guide, I am not surprised. The minor bishop who agreed to participate in an inquiry into youth homelessness which I chaired last year failed to attend a single meeting.

The power of the Church of England is an illusion; it has dwindled to prestige. This is the one remaining advantage of being the established Church. Indeed this prestige has value. It gives the clergy some standing and makes it a bit easier for them to confront a largely irreligious population, especially the younger age groups, with the message of Jesus Christ. Consider what a hard and lonely life the clergyman leads; consider what stores of faith are required to keep going. To begrudge the vicar in his parish a little prestige seems churlish.

Yet I believe the Church of England would gain great advantage from ceasing to be the national church. Disestablishment would bring to a full stop a long period, measured in centuries, during which it has been on the defensive. All religions have lost ground, but in the case of the Church of England the setbacks have been particularly painful and relentless. It has always found itself supporting the status quo and, except in St Augustine's day, has never in its history been an insurgent religion, as even Roman Catholicism was when it was able to return in force to this country in the middle of the 19th century.

For the Church of England to be on its own, self-governing, free from parliamentary oversight, uninvolved in Prince Charles's affairs, would be a liberation. It could shake off its innate conservatism. Bishops could address their congregations and the wider world without inhibition. They would lose prestige but might, paradoxically, gain self-confidence and speak with greater conviction. The Church of England would be more of an adventure, and all the better for it.