God's gift to the English people?: Andrew Brown argues that there is no good case against disestablishment of the Church

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THE ROYAL separation has started people talking once again about disestablishment. At first this was because it seemed impossible that Prince Charles could become Supreme Governor of the Church of England while separated or divorced.

Then, after people realised that the Supreme Governor of a Church founded by Henry VIII could get divorced as often as he liked, this laxity came to seem an argument for disestablishment. The Church of England dreads disestablishment, not least because it has no very good argument against it. Only a few high-Tory romantics, such as Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, would nowadays argue that God planned the Church of England as His special gift to the English.

Many of these people, such as Mr Moore himself, have been so disgusted by the General Synod's decision to ordain women that they may become Roman Catholics. Then they will start preaching that God planned the Church of Rome as His special gift to England.

Otherwise, the arguments for establishment, from all quarters of the Church, are pragmatic. They boil down to the assertion that disestablishment would involve a tremendous amount of fuss for very little reward. When examined closely, the structure of establishment breaks up into three or four archaic laws and nine centuries of habit.

Twenty-six Anglican bishops sit in the House of Lords because medieval bishops were rich and powerful landlords, as important to the running of the country as other barons. Until 1829, the bishops of Durham had a right to a private army to keep out Scots.

There is no single law saying that the Church of England is an established Church. Instead, there is a mixture of religious obligations on the monarchy and political obligations on the Church. The monarch (and, until recently, the Lord Chancellor) must be a Protestant and must not marry a Roman Catholic.

Perhaps most importantly, Church law, as made by the General Synod and approved by Parliament, is the law of England, and the final court of appeal on matters not touching doctrine is the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. In exchange, the Prime Minister, acting on behalf of the monarch, has the right to appoint bishops and other senior clergy.

Throughout this century, the Church of England has attempted to weaken this network of mutual obligations while retaining its privileges, and has been largely successful. Parliament has been reduced to a rubber-stamp on synodical decisions. The Synod, set up in 1970, has replaced Parliament as the source of Church legislation. Parliament can only accept or reject legislation proposed by the Synod, not modify it.

The choice of bishops is still formally in the hands of the Prime Minister, but he must choose from a shortlist submitted by a Church committee. A recent attempt to extend this system to cover the appointment of assistant bishops and senior cathedral clergy was defeated.

A few MPs still take an active interest in the affairs of the Church of England and regard the General Synod with profound suspicion. Frank Field, Labour MP for Birkenhead, argues that the place of the Prime Minister's office in the appointments mechanism safeguards diversity in the Church.

For most defenders of establishment, its value is symbolic. To disestablish the Church would send out the message that this was no longer a predominantly Christian nation, and accomplish very little else. Yet the symbolic position of the Church of England gives it numerous practical and social advantages which are deeply resented by other Christian denominations.

One way around this difficulty would be to try to ensure that the Church of England represented, so far as possible, the religion of all English Christians rather than a minority. Mr Field has suggested that there be formal Catholic and Free Church representations on the committees which nominate senior churchmen. It is difficult to know whether this would more horrify Anglicans or Roman Catholics.

A minority of Anglicans believe that disestablishment would release huge energies in the Church of England, and free it to become better at its real task. But their voice is small. The pragmatic evangelicals who are coming to power in the Church are happy to exploit the privileged platform of establishment without feeling constrained by it.

These discussions are logically separate from the question of disendowment. The Church Commissioners' assets of more than pounds 2bn could continue to be administered on behalf of the Church of England whatever might happen to establishment.

Yet if the Church of England were to lose its link with the state, the next step would surely be the conversion of the great English cathedrals into national monuments rather than remaining the properties of one sect among many.

(Photograph omitted)