The bells toll once more for the established C of E

Divorcing church from state used to be a cherished cause for reformers. Its time may have come again
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In Harley Granville-Barker's 1907 play Waste, dazzlingly revived by Sir Peter Hall at the Old Vic earlier this year, the hero Henry Trebell is a charismatic MP who stakes his career on introducing a bill to disestablish the Church of England. Everything about Waste is wonderfully modern: the power-play within the Cabinet, an upwardly mobile parliamentarian brought down by the pregnancy of his married mistress, the hero's inner conflicts between ambition and principle. Everything, that is, except the subject which Trebell makes his life's work. Through much of the 19th century and up to the First World War, disestablishment was a cause cherished on the reforming left. Now it has a pleasantly archaic flavour: it's hard to see what all the fuss was about. And it isn't easy to imagine, in 1997, a radical politician making his name by campaigning to sever Church from state.

Not yet it isn't, anyway. But this is a cause whose time may have come again. When Tony Wright MP, a fellow proto-moderniser of Tony Blair's and PPS to the Lord Chancellor, vigorously denied in a radio interview that "the sky is going to fall in" if Prince Charles marries Camilla Parker- Bowles, his remarks were slightly misunderstood. First, he was assumed to be carrying a message from Mr Blair that the PM would advise the Queen when the time came that the marriage would be a good idea. He wasn't.

Wright is an intelligent politician, perfectly capable of thinking for himself. Second, the widespread fascination with the question of whether the heir to the throne will marry his mistress eclipsed the other important point Wright was making. This was that the only reason that there was a problem at all about Prince Charles's marital plans was his role as Supreme Governor-designate of the Church of England. If the monarch wasn't Defender of the Faith, a third of the Anglican clergy wouldn't have said in a recent survey that they would not swear allegiance to Charles if he became king. As Wright put it, either Charles gets married or he is told by the established church that he can't - "in which case we shall have a constitutional crisis and it will end in disestablishment".

There are other issues. One is a bubbling dispute over whether the main focus for the more spiritual side to the millennium celebrations should be a service at St Paul's attended by the Queen, or a more "inclusive" event in keeping with Prince Charles's desire to be Defender of "Faiths". Another is the idea, floated with great tentativeness by Jack Straw this week, of a law against religious discrimination. Such a law, if it ever came to pass, might raise some tricky constitutional questions about the privileged status of the Church of England. Could there, for example, any longer be a bar on members of the Royal Family marrying a Roman Catholic - or on Catholic bishops sitting in the Lords? And finally, there is the long-term future of the Lords. What place would any appointed bishops have in a truly democratised chamber?

It's really rather odd that modern constitutional reformers - the Charter 88 tendency - have never taken much interest in the special status of the Church of England. The outstanding exception is Tony Benn, who has repeatedly questioned what on earth the state is doing in deciding Church affairs. But most politicians prefer to shrink from a debate which was part of the common currency of political life a century ago. Establishment, after all, is one of the unseen bonds which has traditionally held together what used to be called the ruling class. In particular, it is what invests the Royal Family with some of the ancient mystique which at least some constitutional reformers would like to strip away. The result is that most of the modern case for disestablishment has been made by churchmen themselves. There are, of course, two views. Some, led by the present Archbishop of Canterbury, argue that it would be a "statement that this country is turning its back on the Christian religion", and that establishment puts the Church "at the very heart and structure of our nation". Others point out that the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland (in 1869) and of the Church of Wales (in 1914) took place precisely because only a minority were practising Anglicans, and that this is true of England now; that neither of those countries became less religious because of disestablishment; that the Church has forfeited its control of its own affairs, not least to prime ministers who can and do appoint their own preferred candidates as bishops; and that separation from the state would, if anything, reinvigorate the Church, not to mention give it more political freedom to attack the government - for example, on its policies for the poor.

As it happens, there is a halfway house. The (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland is "established" but in a sense very different from the Church of England. The monarch is charged by the 1707 Act of Union to "maintain and preserve inviolably" the Kirk. But she isn't a member of it (indeed she is obliged constitutionally to be an Anglican). And control of its affairs rests entirely with the venerable Assembly of the Church itself. Vernon Bogdanor, in his book The Monarchy and the Constitution, doubts that the doctrinally much less uniform Church of England would hold together if it was separated from civil authority in the way the Church of Scotland is. But not everyone in the Church of England would agree - and anyway, that's a matter for the Church. Ministers would certainly worry that even partial disestablishment on these lines might be an unravelling too far of the British constitutional settlement. But it would be strange, with an administration already embarking on the most comprehensive programme of reform this century, and a difficult Royal problem looming on the horizon, if the issue did not creep back on to the political agenda.