Faith & Reason / Visions of a future Church of England

The Church of England should be actively participating in any debate on its disestablishment argues Paul Handley, the editor of the Church Times. Otherwise, who knows what may happen?

It has not occurred to me before to liken Dr Carey to the paparazzi. But this image came to mind on hearing from his office this week that no, he had not been involved in any discussions with the royal family about their headship of his Church. He might do better to stand with the pack at the gates of Balmoral, hoping to catch a snatch of the conversations which have apparently been going on.

The reluctance of the royal family to disclose anything of their speculative discussions on the monarchy's future, and its relationship with the Church and the state, has encouraged rather than damped down our own speculation. With nothing to tell us how much or how little they are contemplating, our minds and our pens are given free reign. Any changes suggested by the Palace could well turn out to be modest; but by the time this becomes clear, so many people will have waved their large spanners at the establishment machinery that a more radical dismantling will be unavoidable.

This is a particular danger at the moment when the Church's establishment is so imperfectly understood. It is not an arrangement for the conferring of privilege on the Anglican hierarchy, though allowing certain bishops to prance around Westminster in their lawn sleeves must make it seem so at times, not least to them. It is, rather, an equal partnership between the sacred and secular authorities in which the Church, like the Government, places itself at the service of the people. That at any rate is what it should be and serious debate about how such an arrangement might work in a pluralist society ought to be able to polish that image up.

Were that debate not to happen - and there are depressingly few signs of it even in the Church - then disestablishment could happen very rapidly. This is the point at which speculation can really begin.

The date, then, is 24 August 2006, and King Charles III is on the throne. The Archbishop has been to see him at Balmoral, but is now waiting for a bus at the end of the drive, a disappointed man. He is broke. Charles might have conferred on him the title of Dean of Bocking, one of the royal peculiars his mother had held on to when the Church-state split took place, but he had given it just the other week to a Sikh ecologist.

Things are going badly for the Church in England. The problem is money. When disestablishment had been proposed, members of the General Synod had been swayed by the prospect of being able to choose their own bishops without interference from the state.

Nobody had believed then that Frank Field MP would carry out his threat to wrest the Church of England's historic resources back under the direct control of Parliament: but he'd done it. The ensuing court case had gone on for several months, but the Church in England was unable to prove its claim to the cash, which went instead to the refurbishment of what had once been the church's schools. The Church Commissioners were disbanded. The only bright spot for the bishops was that they, in their turn, could disclaim any responsibility for the 400 priests who had left over the ordination of women and who were still waiting for their compensation payments.

The parishes have experienced mixed fortunes since then. Because congregations now have to find the whole salary for their priests, not to mention the pension contributions, only the most prosperous parishes are staffed. Income from weddings and funerals are seriously down, ever since the Methodists, a hotel chain and several enterprising mosques started undercutting them.

But the greatest blow has fallen on the bishops and the cathedral staff, whose whole salaries had been funded by the Church Commissioners. A pounds 5m deficit is not easily made up. All cathedrals now charge, and a separate Lottery scratch card has been launched to help them out (though the Nonconformist Churches are claiming a share of the hand-out).

So far, the church buildings themselves have been left alone, but this might not last.

The Faiths Times (which saw early on the way the wind was blowing) has heard of a move by the Roman Catholic Church to reclaim any churches built before the English Reformation. The Pope is said to be working through Prince William's Roman Catholic wife.

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