Whose nation, whose church?: The Church of England has, at last, begun to rethink its links with the State, says Andrew Brown

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The Independent Online
Wittingly or not, the Archbishop of York will have nudged the disestablishment of the Church of England a little further last night when he said something interesting and sensible about it on television. Dr Habgood told his interviewer that the coronation service would have to be revised to take account of the fact that we live in a much more ecumenical and, indeed, multi-faith society than was the case in 1953, when the present Queen was crowned.

One senior official of the Church of England, who was anxious not to be named, was prepared to expand on the Archbishop's reasoning. The last coronation service, he said, had really involved only the Archbishop of Canterbury. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland had played a bit part, but there was no role for representatives of Roman Catholicism or the Free Churches. 'In important respects, this would be anachronistic, anomalous, and out of key with the way society now is,' he said.

Given that Anglicans now represent only about a third of devout English Christians, the involvement on some level of Roman Catholics and Free Churches in the next coronation seems inevitable. But why stop there? 'Realistically, we would have to have the Chief Rabbi and the leaders of the Muslim community present. Otherwise they would feel excluded and marginalised. It is virtually inconceivable that there would not be any Muslim representatives present,' he continued.

Such arguments show how central elements in the Church of England intend to defend the established church. They do not do so on the grounds that establishment is a good thing which would need inventing it if it did not exist, but on the grounds that it is useful and does no real harm. This suits the other religions of the country well enough: it is convenient for everybody to have an established church that is not unduly concerned with religious matters, but can be relied on to represent the interests of those who are.

If the role of the established church can be reduced to proclaiming that morality and intimations of transcendence matter in public life, without being too specific about whose morality and which intimations are involved, then the case for keeping the Church of England established becomes difficult to answer. The substance of establishment would continue to be hollowed out - as it has been with increasing speed all this century - but the form of words would remain.

Until recently, the position of the Church of England could be seen as running parallel to that of the monarchy: both appeared to have preserved their position while reducing their power. Indeed, the idea of a 'constitutional Church of England' to accompany a constitutional monarchy seems to sidestep all the tricky and potentially disruptive doctrinal questions raised by a link between Church and State.

What is not certain is whether the Church of England could be so attenuated in meaning and whether it wants to be. The dispute over women priests has shown that there is still an unnerving amount of life left in doctrinal quarrels, and these bear closely on the nature of the church and the way it understands itself. Many opponents of women priests would feel that the idea of a Church of England alone, able to decide things without reference to the rest of the world, was an absurdity.

In its origins, the established church bears witness to a society in which religion and politics were almost as closely intermingled as they are in Iran today. It was necessary to be a member of the Church of England to be a full citizen. Nowadays, only members of the Royal Family are so confined, which is one reason why their marital troubles have constitutional implications.

The other area in which membership of the Church of England is an advantage is if you want to be a member of the House of Lords. It is generally admitted to be absurd that only Anglican bishops sit in the Lords as of right. But their position there is not noticeably more absurd than that of most of their fellow-members, and it is difficult to imagine a reform of the Lords which changed only its religious composition.

For most purposes, though, establishment as it existed at the beginning of this century has been almost eviscerated. Officially, the law of the Church of England is still the law of the land, enforceable in the last resort in the courts - which is one reason why it is such an absurd and expensive business to evict an errant vicar. However, it is no longer Parliament which frames these laws, but the Church's General Synod. Parliament can only accept or reject them, and has never rejected an important measure.

It may or may not be true that the Church's moral influence has diminished sharply. But it is indisputable that its self-confidence has been tremendously reduced over the past 25 years. One reason why the Princess Royal was remarried in Scotland is that in 1957, Archbishop Fisher, alarmed by her Aunt Margaret's romance with Group Captain Peter Townsend, drove through a canon forbidding remarriage of divorced people. The present Archbishop, Dr Carey, might like to do the same thing. But there can be no doubt that he would remarry the Prince of Wales if asked to do so.

Even if all that remains of the establishment is a cobweb of symbolism, this may prove, like a cobweb, extraordinarily strong for its weight. The constitutional arrangements, of which an established church are the last vestige, enshrined a view of Britain as a world power indomitably hostile to Catholic Europe. The romantic sort of Tory, to whom establishment is still a living reality, is likely also to take a Thatcherite view of foreigners. Inside the Church of England, many still feel a value in being part of a national church. But few - clergy and laity alike - are certain that identification of Church and State serves that purpose any longer.

(Photograph omitted)