Religious Notes: Establishment is a pearl of great price
Tuesday 16 February 1999
Establishment, the close relationship between church and state, matters profoundly. This relationship effectively dates from the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660 and it was no mere "decorative aspect" of the constitution, as Walter Bagehot vainly believed. Eleven years earlier, Englishmen had perpetrated regicide and the country had just endured the rule of a puritanical dictatorship which euphemistically referred to itself as a Protectorate. The Anglican settlement of the 1660s, the glory of which was the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, was a solution to the problems caused by the rival claims of competing political sects; and through its implementation the nation escaped anarchy by the skin of its teeth.
The Establishment settlement, in Richard Hooker's words, declared "every man of England a member of the Church of England". This was no command to onerous conformity as membership was defined by the twin obligations only to attend church three times a year and to keep the peace. Succeeding acts of emancipation for nonconformists and Roman Catholics in 1828 and 1829 broadened this generous and liberal arrangement and guaranteed a decent set of political liberties to an extent enjoyed by no other European nation.
Establishment destroyed the power of destructive sectarianism and created the one-nation democratic reality advocated by Burke and practised by Disraeli. Establishment remains the political pearl of great price as it is a wonderfully relaxed and easy-going system of toleration for, as it says, in the Prayer Book, "all sorts and conditions of men".
It has been chipped away at since 1970 when Parliament gave the Church, through the General Synod, the freedom to write its own liturgies and ceremonies. We have seen the results in the trivialised theology and the doggerel of the Alternative Service Book. The "freedom" granted to Synod has resulted in the secularisation and apostasy by ignorance and apathy of the whole nation: an achievement not accomplished either by Cromwell's ironsides or his thought police.
A disestablished Church would not give us more democracy, but less as we should no longer be governed by an institution of proven historical competence but by the prescriptivist whims of politically correct sectarians.
The overwhelming argument for Establishment is that we all inhabit the same plot. Our institutions are natural and national; they are what bind us to this realm, which is the predominant political reality. Establishment is rooted in a common language, a shared history and a national culture. It has stood us well for 300 years because it was soundly wrought. Why try to get rid of it then?
And so, to ask for Establishment is not a sentimental act; it is to want to preserve that thing which has given us the real liberties which we have as a nation. It is to want to preserve a way of life, a life of a certain character that has been won out of extreme difficulties. It is the desire to save that which we know does us good against both hidebound and doctrinaire views of the state, it is the insistence that intelligence yet counts for something above the noise made by the modernising vacuities.
It is the desire to be moderate and tolerant, truly liberal and practical - to conserve what works in daily life. It is the desire and the need to remain religious in the English mode.
The Rev Peter Mullen is co-editor of 'Faking It: the sentimentalisation of society' (Penguin, pounds 7.99)
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