The one advantage for the Church of England of being the official state religion ought to be that it has some influence on national life. But George Carey, who has delivered his last sermon as Archbishop of Canterbury, has achieved something worse than being disliked; he is ignored.
That is a shame, because he is well-regarded by the Anglican Communion abroad, has modernised the church bureaucracy and prevented a break-up of the church over the issue of women priests. He has not been as dogmatic as his evangelical supporters hoped. But he has always been better at talking to people who go to church rather than the majority who do not.
The Church of England's special status does not make up for Dr Carey's lack of intellectual firepower. Who could say that his criticism yesterday of the Government's policy towards Iraq carried an extra sting because he was speaking as head of the national church?
In any case, it would be wrong if politicians – or anyone else – took more notice of him because he was head of the state church. The force of the church's contribution to national life ought to depend on the strength of its arguments and the depths of its insights into the human spirit – not on its institutional privileges which are accidents of our national history.
Some of those vestigial privileges still matter: in particular the right of some bishops to sit in the House of Lords and the discriminatory laws of royal marriage and succession. But they are more likely to be given up by a church which is confident it can influence national life in its own right.
Dr Carey's successor, Rowan Williams, has already shown the ability to reach out and the courage needed to begin to reverse the church's decline. He made his opposition to war on Iraq plain when he was still a candidate: before the Prime Minister had signed off the letter to the Queen, but also before President George Bush and most of the British media's keyboard generals had decided that the United Nations was the right route after all.
Believers and non-believers alike should look forward to the Church of England making a return to relevance under Dr Williams.
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