The Case for Disestablishment of State and Church in the UK

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The Church of England has been the established church in the UK since the time of Henry VIII, but it’s about as relevant or appropriate to have an official state religion as it is to have an absolute monarch.

Most modern liberal democracies have the separation of church and state enshrined in their constitution. In the UK, however, the Church of England continues to have the privileged status of our national religion, with the Queen as its head, bishops in the House of Lords and presiding over national ceremonies like royal weddings and coronations.

This is in spite of church attendance falling to record lows. The Church’s recently released attendance statistics for 2011 show that on an average week only 2% of people attended a Church of England service, which rose to only 5% at Christmas.[1] This critically low level of attendance shows that the Church of England’s relevance to modern Britain has declined to almost zero, throwing into question its privileged status.

In spite of these figures, 26 of the church’s bishops still enjoy a permanent seat in the House of Lords. While this is highly undemocratic, this fact is of less relevance when considered in the context of the House of Lords as a whole. More problematic is the fact that due to the church’s prejudicial policies, women, and gay people who do not wish to remain celibate (no such restriction is placed on heterosexual bishops), are excluded from these positions altogether. In modern Britain, where we have come so far for the rights of women and minorities, the time of giving privilege to discrimination should be long gone. What’s more, there is no such representation of any other religions, non-religious groups or religious groups from Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. The bishops in the House of Lords have consistently expressed conservative views on issues like abortion and euthanasia, and are the enemy of progress on these major issues, the latter of which is in particular need of urgent reform.

Last year the Church of England proved how out of touch it is by issuing a statement against gay marriage which is now seen as an inevitability by most sectors of society and was even supported by a large portion of the Conservative party, including most of its government ministers.[2] The Church’s general synod also rejected women bishops and a majority of the Lords Spiritual voted against Civil Partnerships.[3] It’s impossible to escape the fact that the Church of England is a deeply conservative organisation which promotes prejudice in a way that is not only completely out of step with modern attitudes, but also has no place being endorsed by the state through the sharing of its head and the allocation of 26 permanent places in the legislature. Many Church of England members do not themselves agree with the deeply conservative social values of their church. If the church does not even represent its own members, how can its privileged position continue to be defended?

Having an established church also fails to reflect the religious diversity we enjoy in the UK. The 2011 census showed the number of people who self-identified as Christian dropped below 60% for the first time, and this includes all denominations, ignores the leading nature of the census question that implies that people ought to have a religious identity, and also the significant proportion of people who call themselves Christian culturally, but do not accept the basic tenets of the religion. Polling suggests less than half of those who identified as Christian in the census believe Jesus was the son of God.[4] How much longer can “cultural” Christianity continue to be used as a defence for the entrenchment of a religious institution? The UK is now almost 5% Muslim, and 2011 saw increases in the other major religions too, from the previous survey in 2001.[5]

Of course, all of these statistics are irrelevant to the fundamental principal accepted by most Western liberal democracies that the state should be neutral between religions and never endorse one in particular. This would be true whether Church of England attendance was at 2% or 100%. The only other country in the world where a religious group has a permanent seat in the legislature is Iran, and it is time we in the UK moved away from the archaic remnants of this tiny group. British society has become largely secular, which has without a doubt been a good thing, but this has happened in spite of, not because of the Church of England and its status. It’s time our constitution better reflected modern Britain.

Article by Alex Chafey.



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