Universe Column June 16th 2002
By David Alton
In this year when we celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee relations between Church and State have, not surprisingly, come under renewed scrutiny. Most notable have been the calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England.
Following a House of Lords debate on this subject there is no doubt that prompt action on two matters would help kill the ongoing debate about the position of the established Church.
Firstly, the Act of Settlement should be repealed and the Bill of Rights amended so as to remove from the statute book all measures that discriminate against Catholics. In the House of Commons Kevin McNamara has been calling for this.
Secondly, the appointment of the Archbishop of Canterbury should be made the responsibility of the Church of England Commissioners and not the Prime Minister of the day. A simple way to achieve this would be for the Prime Minister to ask for only one nomination from the Commissioners, the nominated individual in effect representing their choice.
I have written to the Prime Minister outlining this proposal.
We certainly do not need to disestablish the Church of England to secure these two modest changes. It is important that we do not allow ourselves to confuse the issues involved.
Disestablishment would give the signal that religion, and more particularly Christianity, no longer matters.
Those who argue for disestablishment seem content for religion to become a purely private matter that should not interfere or impact upon public life. Martin Luther King described that as a “dry as dust” religion.
Christianity is woven into the fabric of our nation, and can be seen in the symbols, rituals and stories that pervade public life and that people cling to at times of national celebration, crisis and mourning.
Disestablishment should be recognised as part and parcel of the secularist agenda. Already there is a drive towards the removal of blasphemy laws, the removal of prayers in Parliament, the removal of prayers and RE from schools and challenges to the role of chaplains in prisons, hospitals and the army.
Thirdly, establishment is broadly welcomed by other faiths and other Christian denominations, albeit that its precise form may well evolve. People like Dr. Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, believe the public affirmation of Christianity through the established church can give others the courage to witness publicly to their beliefs.
When secularists argue that we live in a religiously plural society, they usually don’t actually want to take those religions seriously at all. Today, no belief is regarded as true except the belief that no belief is true – and that has become a new dogma.
The clarion call is ‘inclusivity’ but this is often so much rhetoric. Being socially included is becoming a mask for enforced conformity. The truth is that because many have lost the faith of their fathers, some insist that we must lose the faith of ours.
The Church of England will need to consider new ways of meeting the contemporary challenge but to destroy a relationship that has served our nation well would be foolish and dangerous.