Whose church is it anyway?: James Fenton, in the first of his weekly columns, takes issue with the Archbishop of York over the question of disestablishment

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On Saturday, the Times published a letter purporting to come from the Archbishop of York, a letter which was clearly a forgery designed to represent the archbishop as a somewhat dim case.

For a start, the address given at the foot of the letter (which was correctly signed 'John Ebor') was Bishopthorpe Palace, Bishopthorpe, York, whereas it is inconceivable that a man whose vocation it is to preach the Gospel of Poverty should do anything so contrary to the whole spirit of the New Testament as to live in a palace. Foxes have holes, the birds of the air have their nests and the archbishop lives in a palace: that is not what the Bible says.

Nor is it likely, if we imagine the archbishop to be a wicked man who tells other people to imitate Christ while he lives like a prince, that he would draw attention to this fact in a leading newspaper. But this is not the main reason for believing the letter from 'John Ebor' to be a forgery.

The text purports to give the five main arguments against disestablishment of the Church of England. 'First,' it says, 'such a development would rightly be seen as signifying that the nation was formally repudiating the Christian heritage and was no longer prepared to pay even lip service to those Christian beliefs and values on which so much of its history and the best of its life have been based.'

The second half of this sentence implies that the archbishop would be prepared to plead: if you no longer believe in Christianity, you might at least 'pay lip service'. As if the dropping of hypocrisy were a thing to be avoided. The first half of the sentence implies that the archbishop does not know that the nation includes people who have never been Christian at all.

But the real Archbishop of York knows all about that. What he would have said is: 'The disestablishment of the Church of England is a way of giving a signal that we are not the exclusive spiritual representatives of the people, and that it's about time to cut out the hypocrisy.'

But where would that leave point number two? 'Secondly, beyond the ranks of regular week- by-week Anglican churchgoers, there are millions who regard the Church of England as 'our' church and who seek its ministry, not only for their weddings or funerals or baptism, but often at times of stress or trouble or thanksgiving in their lives.'

'Millions' is the key word in this passage, which displays what Kierkegaard calls 'the calculation which arrives at a Christian nation by adding up units which are not Christian, getting the result by means of the notion that the big number does it (my emphasis)'. He calls this 'for True Christianity . . . the most dangerous of all illusions', and goes on to say that 'a knave could not wish to find a better hiding place than behind (such a phrase as) 'the nation is Christian'.' The 'John Ebor' forger wants us to think of the archbishop as a knave.

'Thirdly,' he goes on, 'for the most part members of other Christian churches, and indeed of other faiths now present in this country, are not in favour of disestablishment. On the contrary, to a degree which is not widely enough understood, their leaders often see the fact of establishment as enabling the Church of England to be in the vanguard of action with them or on their behalf on matters of common concern.' So the Church of England is a Trojan horse for Islam] I wonder who would want to let that cat out of the bag? Not the real John Ebor.

Most people, I think, will prefer to know who it is we are dealing with on matters where politics and religion meet or conflict. Let Jews represent Jews, Anglicans Anglicans, Whirling Dervishes Whirling Dervishes. Then at least it might be clear what the interest and motives are. So, should there be Whirling Dervishes in the House of Lords? No] Not even Whirling Dervishes, and certainly not bishops under the convenient illusion that they are representing the interests of Whirling Dervishes.

The fourth argument is barely comprehensible: 'It really will not do to cite the disestablishment of the Church in Wales as an example. Given the strength of Nonconformism in Wales, Anglicanism was never a carrier of national identity in the sense in which this has been true in England.'

Hang on, I thought British Airways was the carrier of national identity. 'John Ebor' seems to be saying here that there was a pretence in Wales that had to be given up, because the Welsh were not hoodwinked into believing that they were represented by Anglicanism. Whereas a Muslim in Bradford can and should be so hoodwinked.

The fifth argument amounts simply to a denial that the real Archbishop of York was dropping hints, on a television programme a week ago, about limits to tolerance of 'royal antics'. He had said nothing about the present Royal Family and had answered a purely hypothetical question.

Well, I watched that programme and I must say I thought the real archbishop to be dropping hints like crazy. But the Royal Family is a side issue. It is true that the Duke of Edinburgh takes his cruising holidays without the Queen (which is thoughtless), that the Prince of Wales takes long drives late at night to lonely country houses (which is tiring), that the Princess Royal waited until the Archbishop of Canterbury was safely in Sri Lanka before nipping across the border into Scotland to do something that the Carrier of National Identity (as we must now learn to call it) expressly disapproves of, that the Duke of York - well, in short, it is true that the Royal Family has become a Bermuda Triangle into which marriages disappear. This is a scandal of sorts - a scandaletto. But it is nothing remotely as scandalous as the Church of England's clinging to its established status.

The real Archbishop of York has suggested that the coronation oath should be changed next time around, and news has just come from South Africa that the real Archbishop of Canterbury agrees with him, although he says there might be more difficulties than York has realised.

They both agree that disestablishment is not on the agenda, but no one seems to have pointed out to these two buffers that the next coronation could be decades away, and the Queen is the least likely person in the country to fall under a bus. But Jesus Christ falls under a bus every time the Church (or what pretends to be the Church) makes its claim to be the Carrier of National Identity. If you do not believe me, read Kierkegaard. If you do not believe him, read the Bible. If you do not believe the Bible, believe me.

(Photograph omitted)