Disestablishmentarianism is no longer a dirty word

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The Independent Online

Last week a report commissioned by Jack Straw challenged the ancient constitutional links between the Church and state in this country as the Government took the first tentative step along the road to the disestablishment of the Church of England. The exciting news spread quickly through Britain's factories and housing estates. "'Ere, Brian, have you heard? A Home Office report has suggested that minority faiths may be historically disadvantaged by the preservation of a Protestant hegemony."

"At last! The politicians are finally tackling the concerns of ordinary people."

The survival of a national religion may not be the question that will set alight the next election, but it is every bit as symbolic of Britain's outdated institutions as hereditary peers and repeats of Last of the Summer Wine. Most other Western democracies do not have one religion enshrined above all others in their constitution, and it is all the more bizarre that this should be the case in Britain when we are one of the least religious countries in the world. The most popular denomination in this country is "dunno really". If pushed, most people would probably say they were C of E, or to give it its full title, "Church of England, I suppose". Despite this, as in Iran and the Vatican, the head of state is also the head of our Church.

At the moment this passes unnoticed because our monarch is a typical English churchgoer: an old lady in a funny hat. But one day Charles will become king. Not only does he not seem like natural C of E material, but he also has a Catholic girlfriend, and under English law, no monarch may become a "Papist" or indeed marry one. Charles also decided to cause a little controversy a while back by suddenly announcing that he does not wish to be defender of the faith but the defender of faith. At which point everyone scratched their heads and said, "Sorry, I think I missed something there."

If the monarch is to genuinely represent the religious orthodoxy of the nation, then the Queen should only go to church once a year; to midnight mass as a drunken afterthought when the pubs are closing, where she can stagger in late, eat her kebab and sing "Hosanna in ex... CHELSEA!" The rest of the year should be spent reflecting the multi-cultural nature of our society. We are now a nation of many faiths and the Queen should take turns to be the figurehead of all of them. This would mean a spell of Her Majesty becoming a Muslim, Hindu, Rastafarian, and maybe an hour and a half as a Zoroastrian. Then she can end the year as a Jewish mother, using the Queen's Chanukah broadcast to introduce her son: "He's done so well, he's going to be king, you know." Maybe the Duke of Edinburgh could try his hand at Buddhism, explaining the wonders of reincarnation to animals before he shoots them.

In this era of constitutional modernisation it's very hard to see any reason why we should continue to hold up one particular religion as the accepted national faith and thereby marginalise and denigrate other beliefs. It seems central to the concept of religious freedom that church and state should be separated. What is so surprising is that a government that has shown no ideological aversion to selling off nationalised industries has been so slow to spot the last great privatisation that is staring it in the face. First there was Telecom, then BP, British Gas, and now, finally, the privatisation of the Church of England.

There will be a high-profile advertising campaign: "If you see God, tell him!" There will be a spectacular unveiling of the share price - perhaps the clouds could part and a couple of angels could descend with harps, halos and the freephone hotline for share applications. Lots of voters will pocket a few hundred quid and then, in a few years' time, there will be complaints that these new contract vicars that were hired on the cheap from Heathrow Cleaning Services are nowhere near as sensitive and spiritual as the old ones.

The disestablishment of the Church of England will have to come sooner or later, and it would be better to tackle it now before it is forced upon the Government in a constitutional crisis. The reform would chime with the spirit of New Labour's modernisation. It would be a kind of theological devolution, with religious control being released from the centre so that everyone could feel equal worshipping the god of their choice. As long as that god has been formerly approved by an interview at Millbank, obviously.

Though change is long overdue, in a way you have to feel sorry for the traditionalists. It's not as if they can organise any protest against the reform. Because every time they have a demonstration, the whole thing is ruined by one of the anti-disestablishmentarianists suddenly shouting "Gimme an `A'."

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