Church thinks it's free already

The Royal Family is debating a new role, but just who will pay the piper - and call the tune?
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The Independent Online
The Royal Family and its advisers appear to be thinking seriously about disestablishment. No one else is. The Church of England's General Synod rejected a move to discuss it in 1994, and since then has been preoccupied with internal affairs. The public appears to be indifferent. It is difficult to be certain, because no opinion poll on the matter has been carried out in the past five years.

The established nature of the Church of England is complicated, and not secured by any single act of parliament. Over the centuries, it has been disestablished at the fringes, but the core of the relationship between church and state in England is still mediaeval. The church is more closely tied to the monarchy than to any other institution: the monarch is crowned in a religious ceremony by the Archbishop of Canterbury; swears to uphold the Church of England "by law established"; and may not become or marry a Roman Catholic.

The monarch's title of "Defender of the Faith" is a nice example of this confusion: originally awarded by Pope Leo X to Henry VIII in 1521 for his attacks on Martin Luther, it was kept by the king after he broke with the pope. The Prince of Wales suggested briefly that it be changed to "Defender of Faith", thus ridding it of doctrinal baggage, but it is not at all clear what this might mean.

The other main links in establishment are that the prime minister appoints diocesan bishops from a short-list prepared by a committee of church politicians and civil servants and that 24 of these bishops sit in the House of Lords. The Prime Minister also picks senior cathedral clergy. The church's governing body, the General Synod, is the only body outside Parliament which can make English law. Parliament must approve the laws that the General Synod passes, but it cannot modify them.

A recent row over the control of the church's assets has shown clearly that the Church of England believes that it is already free from state control in all but name. The social security select committee of the House of Commons has objected to a church plan to transfer control of the income from the church's pounds 3bn assets from the Church Commissioners, who are formally answerable to Parliament, to the General Synod, which is not. It is clear from the synod's response that it cannot accept state control of the church as anything more than a distant principle.