What does being the 'established' church mean?

When the Church of England was invented in the 16th and 17th centuries, there was no clear separation of church and state. People took it for granted that every state would have a religion; religious frontiers preceded national ones and to a large extent determined them. To enjoy the full rights of a citizen you had to subscribe to the state's religious doctrines. Indeed, the state was prepared to burn those, known as heretics, who flouted church law on doctrine.

The present position of the Church of England is a hangover from those days. Until 1828, it was impossible to vote, to become an MP or to hold any government office unless you were prepared to subscribe to the church's doctrines. As recently as the 1970s, the law was changed to allow the Lord Chancellor to be a Roman Catholic. Now, only the monarch and his or her spouse are required to be Anglicans.

However, Church and state are still entwined. For example, bishops sit in the House of Lords ('Lords Spritual') and have the same voting and speaking rights as the 'Lords Temporal' provided they wear robes in the chamber. (The Bishop of Chester was turned away last year for being improperly dressed in a suit.) The Archbishop of Canterbury crowns a new monarch.

In these and other senses, the Church of England is still a 'state' church. But it is also a 'national' church in the sense that its laws require a priest to marry, bury or christen anybody living in his parish, regardless of whether they or their relatives are regular churchgoers.

What role does the monarch have?

The monarch swears at his or her coronation to uphold the Church of England 'by law established'. As head of the church, the Queen must approve all its new laws and regulations. The monarch used to appoint all bishops but this power passed to the Prime Minister.

Until 1977, Downing Street had a free hand to appoint diocesan bishops and archbishops. Since then, the Prime Minister has had the right to opt for one of two candidates chosen by the Crown Appointments Commission, which includes his or her appointments secretary, as well as the Archbishops of Canterbury and York, representatives of the general Synod, and representatives of the diocese concerned.

This is not just a matter of form. Margaret Thatcher is believed to have blocked advancement for John Habgood (now Archbishop of York) and for Jim Thompson (then Bishop of Stepney) because she considered the latter too left-wing.

What role does Parliament have?

Big changes in church law, known as Measures, are put forward by the General Synod. Examples include proposals to ordain women and to adopt a new Prayer Book or form of marriage service. Once approved by the monarch, such Measures then have the full force of statute law, in the same way as an Act of Parliament. The laws, binding on the clergy, are enforced by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical courts which have the power to call witnesses and, in theory, can use the resources of the secular state to enforce their judgments. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the final court of appeal in matters not touching worship and doctrine.

The General Synod also proposes canons and other more detailed ecclesiastical regulations which have to be approved by the monarch, but not by Parliament.

The Church Commissioners, who administer the Church of England's estimated pounds 2bn assets in land and investments, are accountable to Parliament.

Can the Church of England still justify its position as a national church?

Only with difficulty. On an average Sunday in 1990, 1,142,600 people, or about 2.4 per cent of the population, went to Anglican services. Even at Easter, less than 4 per cent of the population attends. Many more people attend Christian services for other denominations - about 1.2 million people go to Roman Catholic churches, and 900,000 to the Free churches. Contrast this situation with 1851 when 5.2 million people or 21 per cent of the population attended Anglican services.

The church's best claim to 'national' status is that it still consecrates the union of more than one in three couples annually (120,000 out of 346,697 in 1989) and christens more than a quarter of the children born in England. As Dr Habgood put it in a letter to the Times yesterday, 'beyond the ranks of regular week-by- week Anglican churchgoers, there are millions who instinctively regard the Church of England as 'our' church and who seek its ministry . . . at times of stress or trouble or thanksgiving in their lives'.

Do other countries have established churches?

Generally not. In the United States, for example, the separation of church and state is enshrined in the constitution. Yet religion plays a greater role in most people's lives than it does here. The idea of a religiously neutral state was first proposed in Rhode Island in 1638 by Roger Williams, a Puritan so extreme that he thought no earthly government could be pure enough to enforce the true religion.

Even in countries such as Poland and the Republic of Ireland, where Roman Catholicism is part of national consciousness, the church is not formally established. In France, the Roman Catholic Church was disestablished during the Revolution but restored by Napoleon in 1801. The state finally repudiated the union in 1906.

Most European countries follow the example of Switzerland, which adhered to Cavour's principle of 'a free church in a free state'. Sweden does have a state church whose parishes are responsible for registering citizens for tax and voting purposes - but it plays little role in the nation's spiritual life.

Within the United Kingdom, the Anglican Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920, after a quarter-century of argument and postponement. The church in Ireland was disestablished in 1871.

In Scotland, the established church is still the Church of Scotland. But it is quite different from the Church of England. It is a Presbyterian or Calvinist church which does not accept the authority of bishops and which differs from the Anglican church on important doctrinal questions. Indeed, the Episcopalian (Anglican) church in Scotland was suppressed by law for Jacobite sympathies throughout most of the 18th century.

Establishment in Scotland means little in practice - except that the Church of Scotland accepts the duty to marry and bury its parishioners regardless of their churchgoing record. Since 1921, the church has had autonomy in matters of worship, doctrine, discipline and government. The Queen is a member of the Church of Scotland and is transmuted from an Anglican to a Presbyterian as soon as she crosses the border. She or a representative attends the Kirk's General Assembly.

What about the Anglican Church overseas?

Though no other Anglican church is established in the way the Church of England is, Anglicanism is the fourth-largest Christian denomination in the world. In many countries, among them the US, Anglicans are known as Episcopalians.

George Bush and Chief Buthelezi are both Anglicans - but this tells little about either man. The organising principle of the Anglican communion is 'provincial autonomy', which means that no church or province can be told what to do by any or all of the other ones. The only sanction against churches that break the rules is a refusal to invite them to the Lambeth Conferences - at which all the diocesan bishops of the Anglican Communion disagree courteously and agree to meet again in 10 years.

What does the Church of England believe?

In the words of the Apostles' Creed, 'in God the Father Almighty . . . in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead and buried, He descended into hell; the third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven . . .'

You may believe this in almost any sense you like. This echoes the origins of the Church. Henry VIII's break with Rome, though it coincided with the Reformation on the Continent, was nothing to do with doctrine. Henry was a devout Catholic to whom the Pope awarded the title Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) for attacking Lutheran beliefs. Even after his break with Rome, he burnt people for Protestantism.

Henry quarrelled with the Pope when he sought an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. He first limited and then abolished papal powers in England, making himself supreme governor. His son, Edward VI, introduced a more distinctly Protestant cast and the first Prayer Books in English. Catholic doctrines were repudiated, and Catholic believers persecuted. Mary restored a Catholic theology and burnt several hundred Protestants. Elizabeth I attempted a middle route, in which a Catholic church order, with bishops, priests, and deacons, was combined with elements of Protestant doctrine and services in English.

The essence of the Church of England to this day is that it claims to be both Protestant and Catholic. It is Protestant against papal claims to supreme authority and against the Roman Church's errors in doctrine and practice. It is Catholic in retaining the ancient creeds, the authority of bishops and the sacraments. Hence, the references to a belief in 'one holy Catholic and apostolic Church' in the creed chanted in many Anglican churches every Sunday.

Nobody pretends that the result is coherent. The Anglo-Catholics (or 'High Church' Anglicans) prefer to emphasise the Catholic part of the Church of England. They believe in the importance of ceremony and sacrament in bringing people closer to God. The Evangelicals (or 'Low Church') emphasise the Protestant part. They believe that religion should be personal, simple and accessible to everyone and set great store by the Bible.

The liberals (or 'Broad Church') rejoice in . . . well, the liberality and broadness of it all. The point about the Church of England, they say, is that its members agree on just a few fundamentals and accept differences on numerous other matters. They argue that this must be so if it is to remain a national church.

So who really runs the church?

Nobody. Since 1970, the church has, in theory, been governed by the General Synod, a sort of parliament with three houses - for clergy, laity and bishops. Once the Synod (subject to approval by Parliament and the Queen) has made laws, bishops have executive powers to carry them out and to ordain clergy.

The Archbishop of Canterbury chairs the House of Bishops and has a considerable voice in many appointments. But there is no mechanism to allow him to lead rather than persuade. For example, the General Synod rejected Archbishop Michael Ramsay's scheme for Anglican-Methodist unity.

In practice, and particularly in London, the church's laws on doctrine and ceremonial form are widely ignored. The church allows a variety of alternative services but there are limits - for example, the Latin mass is illegal. One disgruntled Anglican wanted to take his local bishop to court in an attempt to compel him to insist that his clergy used legal services. (The bishop, thoroughly in favour of illegality, joked that the clergy used the Latin mass only when he was around.) But, daunted by the complications, the plaintiff abandoned his attempt.

In the 1920s, Parliament twice rejected a revision of the 1662 Prayer Book, because it was considered too Anglo-Catholic. But many Anglican churches used it all the same until it was finally accepted 40 years later.

What about remarriage of divorced people?

A typical Anglican compromise. There was no formal ban until 1957, when Geoffrey Fisher, Archbishop of Canterbury, alarmed at how close Princess Margaret came to marrying a divorced man, drove through a canon saying that the Church prohibited remarriage of divorced people. Subsequent attempts to liberalise this rule failed, as did attempts to enforce it. In the mid- 1980s, it was agreed that individual vicars could waive the rules if their bishop approved. Of the 118,956 marriages in churches in 1989, 5,191 involved divorced people.

What would disestablishing the church mean?

Parliament would no longer have the right to vet the Synod's proposals; those proposals, if agreed, would no longer have the force of English law. The Church Commissioners would presumably be answerable to the General Synod rather than to Parliament. The Prime Minister would lose power over the appointments of bishops and deans. And the clergy would no doubt be free to refuse marriage, burial or baptism.

Disestablishment to this extent is feasible. Changes in the House of Lords - even to the extent of admitting leaders of other religious faiths, as proposed in a Church report in 1970 - are unlikely without a more thoroughgoing reform of the upper house. Uncoupling the monarchy from the church is most difficult of all. The Coronation is a religious ceremony which could not easily be made secular. It is difficult to see who, other than the Archbishop of Canterbury, could actually crown the next monarch. Equally, given the disagreements in the Church of England, it is difficult to see who, other than the monarch, could be supreme governor.

However, changing the Coronation oath, as proposed by Dr Habgood last week, to 'recognise that we now live in an ecumenical and multi-faith society', is a possibility. So is allowing leaders of other denominations and religious faiths to play some role in the ceremony, as the Moderator of the Church of Scotland did at the last Coronation.

Who favours disestablishment and why?

The lobby for disestablishment is mainly among the Evangelicals, such as Bishop Colin Buchanan, who believe that the church is compromised by its link with the state. The influence of Parliament and Prime Minister, the bishop wrote last year, 'tells the Church of England, tells the other Christian bodies and tells the non-Christian religions that the Church of England is a department of state, operating under state control, operating even to give comfort and support to the state'. Some parish clergy would welcome disestablishment because it would free them from obligations to non-churchgoers.

And who is against disestablishment and why?

Almost all leading churchmen, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, believe that establishment gives the church a platform and that disestablishment would send out a message that Britain is no longer a Christian country. In the debate on BBC1's Heart of the Matter last Sunday, the Rt Rev John Taylor, Bishop of St Albans, said that establishment was 'good for the nation because it incorporates religion in the structure of constitutional life - and good for the church because it prevents it from becoming sectarian and partisan'. Though most Roman Catholics, Methodists, Muslims, Hindus and so on probably oppose the church's establishment, some would agree with Bishop Taylor. It is convenient to have an established church which represents the interests of the spiritually-minded.

Dr Habgood, whose remarks precipitated the latest round of questions, wants to keep the Church of England as a national church, while reducing its role as the state church.

It is important, he believes, that there should be a church to which all English people can go, believing or not, and know they have a right to have their children baptised, to marriage or to burial. Establishment, he has argued, does the church little harm, and the nation much good.

* disestablishmentarianism vb (tr) the belief in the termination of the establishment; deprive (church) of state connection; depose from official position; deprive (a church, custom, institution, etc) of established status

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