Church and state discuss parting of ways

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The Independent Online
PLANS TO loosen the historic and exclusive bond between the Church of England and the state were discussed at a secret meeting at Windsor Castle last month, the Independent on Sunday can reveal.

Senior Anglican churchmen and Royal advisers agreed at the summit that other Christian denominations, including Roman Catholics, Baptists and Methodists should be given a greater formal role in the religious life of the nation.

The three-day meeting, hosted by the Queen's prelate, the Dean of Windsor, concluded that it was "inevitable" that the 450-year-old exclusive relationship between the Church of England and the state would be watered down, in keeping with the multi-cultural make-up of modern Britain.

Although the discussion stopped short of advocating full disestablishment, one clergyman who attended said the church was moving towards a "wider understanding" of establishment. "People felt that the Church of England is part of a wider thing, that other denominations should be included in the national mission of the Christian church," he said. "In these ecumenical days the way churches understand each other is much more inclusive."

This could eventually mean the monarch standing down as supreme governor, something Prince Charles has already hinted at by describing himself as "defender of faith" rather than of "the faith".

Proposals to allow representatitives of other faiths to participate in the coronation service for the next monarch, after the Queen dies, were also on the agenda.

Dr George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Downing Street, were kept fully informed about the discussions. Although Church spokesmen stressed that the Windsor meeting was an informal "brainstorming" session, officials from the Anglican headquarters at Church House were among around 24 senior clergy and academics who attended. "We knew the meeting was taking place," a Lambeth Palace spokesman said. "Clearly with a lot of things going on, like reform of the House of Lords, there is an interest in the relationship between church and state."

The summit is further evidence of a growing willingness to debate church- state relations at the highest level in the Anglican Church. Senior clergymen, including Dr David Hope, the Archbishop of York, now privately acknowledge that reform is inevitable as Britain moves into the new millennium.

Discussions have been fuelled by the Government's reforms of the House of Lords because the position of Anglican bishops as Lords Spiritual is one of the major planks of establishment. However, the Church of England has now made clear in its evidence to the Royal Commission on Lords Reform that it would be happy for other religions to be included alongside Anglican bishops in the new upper chamber.

The church has also set up a working group to consider reforming the way in which bishops are chosen by the Prime Minister, another aspect of establishment.

The Church of England has been the established church since 1533 when Henry VIII broke with the Roman Catholic Church.

The debate about reform of this relationship has moved from the fringes of the church to the mainstream in recent months. Last November, Philip Mawer, the Church of England's secretary-general, hosted a meeting with senior representatives from other churches to discuss the relationship between church and state.