Who cares whether the Church of England is established or not? The answer to that question is probably that very few people do – apart, that is, from a select group of campaigners who have grown long in the tooth echoing opinions they heard in their youth. Yet, if we were to have a better-informed debate, the answer would be the majority of citizens. Almost all of us are affected by the relationship between Church and state, and the way it operates in this country.
The question of establishment is not simply about the correctness or otherwise of the Prime Minister choosing the next incumbent of the seat at Canterbury from names submitted to him by the Church. To view the debate in such terms is simply to mistake an obscure manifestation of establishment for what establishment really represents.
All of us, whether we are Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu or of no faith at all, have a religious side to our nature. This country, like most others, has traditionally represented this religious side of our being in an arrangement between the Church and the state which we call the "establishment". In our case it was the Anglican church simply because it was once the largest denomination, covering most people living in this country.
Unfortunately, the phrase "establishment" is misleading in practically every sense. It suggests a static relationship, as if it were set in stone like the laws brought down by Moses from Mount Sinai. In fact, the establishment in this country has similar origins to much of the British constitution in that it developed over time in response to the needs of the community. That development will no doubt continue, spurred on by the latest debate about who should be the next Archbishop of Canterbury.
There is a tendency when talking about the relationship between Church and state to see it solely in terms of high politics. After all, a clash between Church and state, the role of the bishops in the Lords and the like, makes for good newspaper headlines. But it is at a grass-roots level that establishment has made, and continues to make, its presence felt in a way which practically everyone believes to be good and beneficial for the country.
The established Church in Britain once carried out functions that, over time, have been taken over by the state. The development of the welfare state, of hospitals, of schools and universities, cannot be understood in isolation from the established Church. Indeed many of these services were developed at a time when the separate way we now see Church and state simply would not have made sense to English men and women. In these areas, the impact of establishment is still felt strongly.
Establishment provides an easy channel, although not an exclusive one, whereby moral teachers can gain access to us as well as providing moral instruction to those who govern us. Had there not been a race on for Canterbury, few of us would have heard the views of Rowan Williams on the Afghan war. He is not a politician, and he is not subject to all the pressures a prime minister feels, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. Establishment provides an effective platform on which to set out the moral imperative that should underpin day-to-day politics.
We should also recognise that today, unlike a hundred years ago, there is not much demand among other denominations for disestablishment. In fact, their leaders see the crude cry for disestablishment as yet another means of marginalising the proper recognition of the religious side of human nature.
Much more important to most people is the way churches operate at a local level, and how they provide both religious and material services to people in their own neighbourhoods. The only professionals who now live over the shop, so to speak, are Anglican and Roman Catholic priests.
Within local communities, the established Church has provided those public services that signify the great rites of passage: birth, death and marriage. The call for these services, and the way they are provided, is something that is constantly changing. It is in this respect that what so crudely goes under the title of establishment has its biggest effect on our lives as we try and express elements of the unknowable in a tangible form.
To view disestablishment in high political terms misses the point in two respects. Even if the Church were disestablished overnight, the same old gang would be there running the show. To look at it through the prism of high politics also misses how people feel about this first nationalised industry in a local context. In some strange, intangible sense, many people feel it is enough to be able to call on the established Church's services when they are needed, without feeling any sense of inferiority. Which other national service can claim that?
The writer is the Labour MP for Birkenhead and a former member of the General SynodReuse content