Leading Article: Ancient and modern

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THIS IS no longer a Christian nation, far less an Anglican one. Even at the time of the Queen's coronation in 1953, Britain was only nominally Christian. Still, the religious ritual of the coronation did not seem anomalous. People were happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the spectacle, in many cases with genuine reverence. But, as we report today, that medieval spectacle is unlikely to be repeated. As we approach the third millennium, church leaders are working on plans for a new, ecumenical coronation service, one in keeping with Prince Charles's proclaimed desire to be defender of faith, rather than defender of the faith. Unlike his mother, he will not be required to swear to "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law" or to "maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England".

Disestablishment is now being discussed openly at Lambeth Palace and Buckingham Palace and in the Palace of Westminster. But not in Downing Street. For all his determination to "modernise" Britain in other areas, Tony Blair appears to shy away from the subject. It is time the Prime Minister grappled with it. For disestablishment is an historical inevitability. The Prime Minister must start planning for a Britain in which church and state are separate. Sooner or later that is going to have to be part of any new constitutional settlement.

We will not rejoice in the end of a tradition that has served Britain well, or at the prospect of a frankly secular society. It is by no means evident that an openly post-Christian Britain will be healthier or more humane than a nominally Christian Britain. But the inherent contradictions in establishment are becoming so obvious that they can no longer be ignored. At a time when the Nonconformists and Roman Catholics keep the Sabbath with greater rigour than do Anglicans, the special position of the Church of England is hard to defend.

There always were historical anomalies, but now they are beginning to nag. The Queen owes her title Defender of the Faith to Pope Leo X, who bestowed it on Henry VIII for his attacks on Protestantism - the very religion the Queen swore to uphold at her coronation. She owes her throne to Henry's later rejection of papal supremacy and his decision to nationalise Christianity. If it had not been for Henry VIII and the establishment of the Church of England - ratified by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the imposition of the Hanoverian monarchy in 1714 - Elizabeth, heir of the Hanoverians, would not be our Queen. The Church of England is her raison d'etre. The vast majority of her subjects neither know nor care about these things, though they retain their affection for the Queen. All the same the history of the past 450 years is clearly coming to an end. Henry's break with Rome - his becoming, in John Redwood's phrase, "the first Eurosceptic" - set in train a course of events that led to the creation of the English empire, or United Kingdom, and later of the British Empire. The British Empire is long gone, and now the English empire is unravelling. The moderniser Blair is overseeing a process by which Scotland and Wales will become largely self-governing (and in Scotland's case perhaps independent) and England will be regionalised. Though no one in government admits it, the impetus here is towards a Britain of the regions within a united Europe. If the Kingdom is to be disunited, as clearly it is, then the church can hardly avoid disestablishment.

The future of the monarchy will be called into question once more. James I, when urged to abolish the episcopate, said: "No bishop, no king." Is it now a question of: "No church, no queen"? Not necessarily. But it does mean that the royal makeover following the death of Diana will by no means be the last. For a few days in September 1997 the baseball cap triumphed over the crown. Since then, the British people have come to like, even to cherish, the new informal style of the monarchy. With disestablishment, however, the crown will have to adapt again, to the point where it will no longer be a constitutional monarchy in any traditional sense, but an informal "continental monarchy", a people's monarchy. Traditionalists will resist the notion, and we sympathise with them. But it is going to happen, and the Prime Minister should make coherent plans for a post-Anglican, post-Christian settlement. Disestablishment need not be a threat to the integrity of the church, however. On the contrary. With the separation of church and state, unencumbered Christianity, whether Anglican, Nonconformist or Catholic, could flourish.

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