Leading Article: The church's temporal bonds

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IT IS a nice question whether it would be worse for the Church of England to remain established or to undergo disestablishment. So it has become the received wisdom among the church's leadership that it should do both. The formal link with the Crown should be preserved, but a succession of quietly taken measures should remove from Parliament and from secular politicians the right to interfere in the internal affairs of the church.

The latest example of this process is the report by a commission chaired by Sir William van Straubenzee into the appointment of suffragan bishops, deans, and provosts. The majority of the commission propose to remove the influence of Downing Street from the appointment of cathedral clergy, and to formalise the process whereby good bishops consult when choosing their suffragans. This continues the line of reasoning by which the choice of diocesan bishops was largely handed over to the church in 1976.

One member, Frank Field MP, dissents fiercely from these proposals. Mr Field is no friend of the secular power; and in his role as chairman of the Social Security Committee of the House of Commons, he has done more than most men to succour widows and orphans. But he is one of those who sees that the Church of England is linked with the state, and concludes that such a bizarre arrangement must have some theological justification. Members of this minority are able to detect the working out of God's purpose in Mrs Thatcher's interference with episcopal appointments. But they are mistaken to try to preserve the link intact against the wishes of both church and nation.

Mr Field's criticism comes down to an analysis of the present powers and responsibilities of the Church of England. Essentially, the church retains the power to appoint certain members of the House of Lords, and to determine the religious allegiance of the monarch and her immediate family. These are not huge privileges, unless you are a diocesan bishop or member of the Royal Family. But they would be impossible to advocate today if they did not already exist. It is an anachronism to have only Anglican and no Roman Catholic bishops in the Lords.

In Mr Field's analysis, the church proposes to keep the privileges of establishment and shrug off its responsibilities. The political establishment represents to him a necessary reminder to the church of the demands of the vast numbers of nominal Anglicans. But that is not a function for which it was designed; nor one it is likely to perform well. The dangers of church government by a small zealotry may be real. But they cannot be averted by a Downing Street appointments secretary.

The only good argument against disestablishment is that it would send out the wrong message to the world. It would be misunderstood as meaning that Britain had become a wholly secular country. Yet the church's present situation suggests that it derives its authority from the temporal rather than the spiritual world. Whatever may be done to untie without drama the knots between it and the state should be done without delay.