Church and state would be better off divorced

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The Independent Online
Parliament, said a bishop pugnaciously during a recent Church of England conclave, is "not Christian, not theological and not accountable for its decisions". But how odd it would be if Parliament were Christian. Latter-day Britain, for all our growing anxiety about morality, is a godless nation where newspaper columnists outdo Savonarola in damning popular infidelity while most citizens get on perfectly well without the benefit of clergy. But even odder is the way that unchristian Parliament, or at least its House of Commons, goes on spending hours of precious time earnestly debating the minutiae of the property and pensions arrangements of a church attended regularly by a tiny handful of the people.

Why, for example, is Jack Straw, the shadow Home Secretary, getting so worked up about the pension arrangements of curates, rural deans and assistant bishops? They are not state employees. It is because as Anglican clergy they are employees of the state church and in receipt of money which once clearly belonged to the state; so MPs feel fully entitled to get involved in their current financial arrangements. But it is odd, even so. Whether the Church Commissioners are trustworthy trustees is not the issue (as an outfit they deserve the toughest regulatory scrutiny). It's why these MPs are not equally concerned with the retirement income of rabbis or property disposals by the United Reformed Church - indeed why they are concerned with any church business at all. If the Church, as a voluntary organisation, is beset by waste and mismanagement that is a matter for its members, not for Members.

But we are now plunging headlong into the thicket of history and statute, custom and practice (very little theory) that is the British Constitutional settlement, in the centre of which, entangled by old briars, squats the Established Church. Cutting our way through it is hard work but timely: no less than the Prime Minister says this jungle is no longer out of bounds. John Major has deliberately raised the stakes in the argument over devolution by asserting, in his strangely mystical way, that ''the fate of the nation'' is bound up with the fate of the constitution. If so, this means that the constitution, in all its parts, is fit to be argued over and rethought.

The case for disestablishment is hardly new and no less compelling for being bewhiskered. William Gladstone tossed backwards and forwards on the issue. The political Establishment accepted its logic when the Churches of Ireland and Wales lost their official status after campaigns by Catholics and dissenters. The Church of England's standing as the state church is not logical or unchallengeable; it is another example of the inertia surrounding decisions by the House of Commons about its own position in the body politic.

It is important to remember that constitutional change is happening all the time: the position of the executive in Parliament has been altered in recent years, ditto that of the permanent civil service. MPs collude in these changes, but because they rarely provoke a formal vote they are not seen for what they are - significant alterations in the balance of powers in the state.

Change likewise occurs in Anglican attitudes. Long ago, that church became in effect self-governing - barring these occasional eruptions of parliamentary interest. The religious denomination of the chief officer of church patronage - the Prime Minister - has not mattered for a long, long time: those who make a fuss about the possible arrival in Number Ten of a Roman Catholic ignore the fact that Parliament and the Anglican establishment proscribed dissent for almost as long as Catholicism. That didn't stop Harold Wilson, a Methodist, exercising the nosy interest all inhabitants of Number Ten take in church matters.

Apart from Downing Street's liking for patronage and sheer inertia, are there any other constitutional barriers against outright disestablishment? There is the position of the monarchy. But the divorcing Prince Charles has made it as clear as he can that he is not keen on taking up the job of head of the Church of England, and rightly so. Then there is the bench of bishops in the House of Lords. Defenders of the status quo argue that you cannot disestablish without reforming the Lords. Quite so, we say; attack on all fronts, even if that involves some heavily defended ermine- lined dug-outs. But who is to lead the charge? It turns out, mysteriously, there are no runners in this race. Labour has steered clear of committing itself.

This is not because Labour buys the argument that establishment maintains a link between public morality and private beliefs. That argument is anyway faulty - if it implies that established Christianity is a source of moral inspiration in politics, something which is not evident. It also implies there are no moralities other than the Christian - something which few people would now accept, and Labour certainly wouldn't. No, we fear that Labour is passive on the link with the Church of England because it is a bother to undo it. Because inertia wraps its lazy coils around the whole ivy-clad, gothick-windowed issue.

And it is true that disestablishment is no life or death issue, except perhaps for the integrity of the House of Commons. The British state and the Anglican church will stagger on into the 21st century without it. But in a modest way, it matters. These big institutions should be free of one another to pursue their own destinies. Without disestablishment there can be no complete reform of the House of Lords, no real shake-up of the Church, no proper alignment of the institutions of government with the lives and interests - and moral dispositions - of British citizens. No Bishop, no King, said James I and VI, as a way of protecting his power structure. Today it's more like, no disestablishment, no full political reform.