Given the rise of secular ideas, should the Church of England be disestablished?
David Cameron looks upon Britain as a ‘Christian country.’
His comments came in an article for the Church Times in April. It caused a furore in the press with a collection of 55 anti-religious intellectuals firing off a furious letter to the Daily Telegraph. And atheist and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg would evidently agree with them. He does not want Britain to be seen as a Christian country – at least not in the historic sense. On an LBC radio phone-in following the PM’s comments he said that he would like to see the disestab-lishment of the Church of England.
All this has brought to the surface the question of whether or not, in 21st-century multi-cultural Britain, any one religion should be given preferred treatment. Surely, Church and State ought to be separated.
Running from the argument
The argument over disestablishment has, of course, a long history. In her novel Felix Holt the Radical, the great 19th-century writer George Eliot touches on the subject with light comedy. Her book is set during the time of the Reform Act of 1832. Old Rufus Lyon, Dissenting minister of the Independent Chapel at Treby in the Midlands, is a central character. In the course of the story Mr Lyon does Sir Maximus Debarry, the local Lord of the Manor, a good turn and, touched by the Dissenter’s kindness, Sir Maximus asks if there is anything he could do for him. After some thought Mr Lyon says there is. He could arrange for a public debate between Mr Lyon and the local rector, Sir Maximus’s brother, the Revd Augustus Debarry, on the subject of the establishment of the Church of England. This is duly arranged. But fearing the debating abilities of Mr Lyon, the rector passes the buck. He deputes the responsibility to engage in the debate to his curate, the Revd Sherlock. There is much excitement. The day of the debate arrives. However, it arrives only for the Revd Sherlock to abscond. He has taken the stagecoach out of town and is nowhere to be found!
Perhaps George Eliot was aware that an argument for establishment is pretty hard to muster from the New Testament. Convinced from Scripture of independency though with a great respect for good gospel congregations still within the Church of England, many of us would find it impossible to argue cogently and biblically for the present state of affairs.
Contemporary Britain is not in the same category as Old Testament Israel. We are not a theocracy but a democracy. The only Head of the Church is the Lord Jesus, not the monarch – much as we respect her.
Atheism and establishment
Many thinkers have argued that to break the link between Church and State would be ultimately beneficial for the Christian faith.
Why is it that Europe is now so strongly atheist, yet America, also a modern society, is not? Listen to what Alistair McGrath has written in his excellent book The Twilight of Atheism: ‘The appeal of atheism in Europe rested partly on its social role as liberator from the bondage of the past and partly on the challenge it posed to the state. In Europe, the phenomenon of state churches (a relic of medieval Christianity) made Christianity an integral part of the establishment. To revolt against the status quo was to revolt against Christianity. But the social situation in North America was quite different. The constitutional separation of Church and State prevented any Christian body from exercising influence save through its function as an interest group. There was no link between Church and State to revolt against, no established church to oppose’.1
The Church/State link of establishment forever allies Christianity with worldly (and therefore failing) governments. With an established church, people can feel as if Christianity has been forced down their throats for centuries. This is one of the great catalysts for aggressive atheism.
But there is another side to this coin. In their book The Right Nation: Why America is Different, John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge write: ‘The separation of Church and State has done more than anything else to preserve religion as a vigorous … force in American life. The disestablishment of religion injected market forces into American religious life. Religious organisations could not rely on the state for subsidies in the same way as, say, the Church of England. They had to compete to survive. This was exactly as Jefferson, one of the most vigorous supporters of disestablishment, predicted. In his notes for a speech to the legislature in 1776 he argued that religious freedom would strengthen the church because it would “oblige its ministers to be industrious and exemplary.”’. They go on to state, ‘Disestablishment also lifted a huge burden from religion. What better way to distort faith than to make it dependent on the whims of politicians? And what better way to debilitate faith than to link it to the pursuit of sinecures and preferment? America was mercifully free from the local equivalents of Trollope’s parsons, who were constantly manoeuvring for official preferment’.2 .
The Queen and the Prince?
It also needs to be pointed out that at present the Head of the Church of England is Queen Elizabeth II, who declares herself to be a Christian. Many of us have been tremendously encouraged by her Christmas Day messages over the last few years which, though showing much respect for other faiths, have seen our monarch speak of her own personal trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. However, Prince Charles, her son and next in line to the throne, does not seem to have a similar Christian faith. The anomaly of having a non-Christian as Head of the Church of England is of course absurd. But it is an absurdity which was bound to happen sometime given establishment.
Long and short
However, although this writer believes that there is no biblical case for an established church in these new covenant times, and that disestablishment would have long term benefits for the gospel, I do have some misgivings for the short term.
If, eventually, Parliament does vote to cut the links between Church and State it will of course be trumpeted by anti-God brigade and the chameleons of the media as a great triumph for atheism and for ‘freedom’. It will be less mainstream than ever to identify yourself as a Christian. The majority of people in our darkened country will see this as yet another reason why they may dismiss the gospel and write off those who believe it as cranks or cultists. At the last census in 2011 some 59% of the population called themselves ‘Christian’ in some sense. That was a fall from 70% in the previous census ten years earlier. I would expect that disestablish-ment would have the effect of seeing that decline accelerate.
I also have misgivings about those Christians who think that somehow a secular State would bring about a fairer deal for evangelicals. The idea is that the secular judiciary would be neutral and be bound by law to treat all religious groups equally – a nice idea but it is a pipe dream.
According to Scripture, a position of ‘neutrality’ concerning the things of God or the people of God is a myth. Already in our increasingly secular and politically correct society we do not see other groups being treated in the same way that Christianity is treated. The blasphemies and derision allowed as acceptable against the person of Jesus in recent years would never be allowed against the Prophet of Islam. Christians are reprimanded for wearing any emblem of their faith or offering to pray with someone whereas to treat those of other faiths similarly would cause an uproar. If this is the present experience of the church then to imagine that things would improve for us once disestablish-ment occurred is hard to believe.
The Bible teaches that Christians are in a spiritual warfare in which there is no one who is disinterested. Secular lawyers and judges are just as fallen as other people and part of that fallen-ness is not only alienation from God, but antipathy to God and his gospel (Romans 8.7). So if disestablishment goes ahead I will rejoice for the long term but prepare for an even more bumpy ride for the short.
Pastor of Chertsey Street Baptist Church, Guildford and Editor of en