Carey's message is one salvo in 15-year war: James Cusick looks back on the regular tussles between Church and Tory state

  • @indyvoices
IF THE Archbishop of Canterbury's Easter message has surprised Tory MPs and threatened to cause a new rift between church and state, then Conservative politicians must have relatively short memories.

Criticism levelled by the established church in England at the murky domain of professional politicians has been not so much a rare surprise, but more a regular and expected tussle.

The Church of England became the established church when the Act of Supremacy was passed by Henry VIII in 1534. Verbal battles have gone on ever since. But in the last 15 years, with Margaret Thatcher's market-dominated governments and now with John Major, the Church has not walked away from what it sees as a moral duty.

No sooner had the age of the micro-chip been heralded than the Church in 1979 warned the Government to be 'wary of the job benefits of the new technology'. In the same year, the reputation of the Church as leaning towards the left seemed justified when the National Federation of Self Employed said it was concerned about the Church's 'Marxist drift'.

A year later, the focus shifted to race relations. The Government was not pleased when the Synod, the Church's decision-making body, said the 'sus' laws were damaging race relations. The Church also called on the Government to reveal details of arms sales 'to allow personal decisions on the morality of the international arms trade'.

Maybe the onslaught was having an effect. In 1980, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Geoffrey Howe, moved his Budget day to avoid a clash with the enthronement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Robert Runcie.

Regardless of the Budget move, the Church urged the Government to make job creation 'a priority'. It was a call that would be repeated.

The next year, the Church's Lambeth Conference said it was worried about the Government's 'winner-takes-all' philosophy. It also expressed concern over multilateral nuclear disarmament, tax relief and the size of mortgages. Mrs (now Baroness) Thatcher had held back from returning the initial fire. But on multilateralism, she told the Church to mind its own business. She would later repeat the phrase over employment, monetary policy, the miners' strike and just about every other area of government policy. The Church, after the British victory in the Falklands, openly condemned what it saw as needless triumphalism over the celebrations in St Paul's cathedral. The Prime Minister was described as angry.

Criticism of the established church surfaced when a survey revealed that most in the nation did not belong to the national church. Mrs Thatcher's feud grew when another poll revealed that the Church of England was 'no longer the Conservatives at prayer'. Polls showed the Social Democratic Party as leading among the Anglican clergy.

In 1984, Professor David Jenkins became Bishop of Durham. In one of his first speeches, he criticised the Government's handling of the miners' strike. It did not help that some months later a Christian magazine portrayed Father Christmas as under arrest for collecting money for miners. In 1985, a crisis arose when the Archbishop of Canterbury backed a report on Britain's inner cities. The report was denounced by one Conservative minister as 'pure Marxist theology'.

The following year, against the background of Kenneth Baker - then Secretary of State for Education - calling the Church 'negative and out of date', a report called on the Government to inject 'new vision and idealism into the welfare state'.

The Synod's 1987 programme rocked the boat again, being described by critics as a 'predictable political agenda'. It was countered by Mrs Thatcher claiming the Conservatives were 'the party of morality and Christianity'. The Church was not amused. One bishop awarded her a 'gamma minus in philosophy, theology and morals'.

On the offensive, the Government accused the Christian churches of failing to teach the young the difference between right and wrong. The Church retaliated, saying the Government was 'starving church schools' into 'deep depression and appalling conditions'.

In 1988, the Bishop of Durham again caused outrage by describing the Government's planned reform of welfare benefit rules as 'wicked'. The tit-for-tat confrontations continued. The conflict was perhaps mocked in 1989 when Dr Runcie told a Commons meeting, 'You need us more than we need you.'

In 1990 Dr Runcie was replaced by Dr George Carey. There was a lull after the end of Mrs Thatcher. But in 1992 the Bishop of Durham described the pit-closure programme as 'much ideology' driven by a 'mad' government.

Hostilities were reopened last year when Dr Carey, pointing his finger at government policy, said that 'nationalism' was causing 'endless suffering'. He also attacked consumerism and praised European centralist policies.

Tensions between church and state have led to calls for disestablishment - breaking the constitutional links which make the Queen head of both institutions and give 26 bishops the right to sit in the House of Lords. Legislation pased by Synod is also the law of the land.

Last year disestablishment caused concern in the Synod because of the prospect of a divorced head of the Church following the separation of the Prince and Princess of Wales. Others have argued that an established church has no place in a multi-faith society.

(Photograph omitted)