The Conservative case for the Established Church of England
The Labour vultures of disestablishment are circling above the ashen English Church and fiercely advocate euthanasia to end its suffering. And none less than the Archbishop of Canterbury declares that it would be ‘by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears’. Into this destabilising fusion of Labour’s propensity for constitutional vandalism, the Archbishop’s ignorance of history and the Church’s theological ineptitude, Mr Hannan makes a small ‘c’ case for for small ‘c’ conservatives to support the Prime Minister’s continuation of Tony Blair’s ‘Year Zero’ agenda for the British Constitution. And his reasoning is essentially that the nationalisation of airlines, car manufacturers and banks has historically yielded nothing but complacency and inefficiency. Ergo the complacency and inefficiency of the Church of England is a product of its nationalisation.
This is too superficial an analysis and too dangerous a generalisation for any true Tory (or Whig) to make at this time.
It is wrong to assert, as Mr Hannan does, that ‘hostility to organised religion in general, and to the primacy of the Church of England in particular, is in the DNA of the British Left’. There are many on the Right who habitually deride the Church of England and earn their living by ridiculing its bishops and archbishops. They chant their sectarianism from the sidelines like Celtic fans, and blame the bishops for a lack of clear leadership. Yet where there is Anglican orthodoxy, it is derided for being ‘anti-Catholic’. Such hostility is much more deeply engrained in the DNA of some of the Roman Catholic Right who have a pathological loathing of the consequences of the Reformation and the ensuing via media of the Church of England than it is for anyone of the political Left to pontificate with their here-today gone-tomorrow crass agenda for ‘equality’.
Mr Hannan is persuaded that disestablishment is a Thatcherite pursuit, for it will create a ‘free market of denominations’ such that churches will ‘compete for congregations.’ And thus ‘those congregations in turn compete to raise their ministers' salaries’ resulting in full pews because ‘people are often more loyal to what they have chosen than to what they have been allocated’.
Cranmer hardly knows where to begin.
Empty pews are not a product of national ministry, but ineffectual leadership. As the Church’s leaders have been feeble in propounding its core beliefs, they have contributed to the perception that they are ashamed of the gospel of salvation. It is noteworthy that the Evangelical churches which have remained faithful to Scripture have grown while the liberal Anglican churches have seen falling attendance. The Church of England has lost the Right because it has pandered to and been occupied by the Left.
The Church of England should serve as a spiritual national health service. Any agenda to privatise it wholesale will yield all manner of blows which will see the end of England as a Christian nation in any sense. Setting aside the constitution (for Mr Hannan prefers to deal with economics), what would happen to the Church’s assets? How would one sell off Westminster Abbey, which presently belongs to the nation? And what if the highest bid came from the House of Saud? Would Mr Hannan be content to see this magnificent structure ‘enhanced’ with a minaret? How would he prevent this? Create another quango – Ofchurch – to ensure adherence to the conditions of sale? Does he propose that each church should produce glossy brochures and send them to parishioners – who would have ceased to be parishioners – in order to attract them to their life-giving spring with money-back guarantees of tasting the water of eternal life? Such is likely to lead to the worst aspects of pseudo-Christian spectacle, and church would become nothing but light entertainment (which, for many, it already is).
But to the theology.
Faith is a gift of God and a work of the Holy Spirit. It is not inculcated with a free-market approach or invigorated with competition or choice. To assert this is to fall for the postmodern deception that marketing is all, and one may pick and mix theology and spirituality with impunity.
Disestablishment may not be ‘the end of the world’, but it would be the Church of England’s Armageddon.
And the Roman Catholics are divided on this. The most moderate see that it is ‘unfair’ in a modern democracy to discriminate against Roman Catholics, but they are content to endure a little residual anti-Catholicism in order to sustain a Christian expression at the heart of government. It is not ideal, and it may all have a very shaky foundation, yet it is the English tradition. But the extremists and reactionaries demand repeal of those foundational Acts which perpetuate this injustice, and are wholly in favour of constitutional vandalism if it would end the perpetuation of the Protestant Crown (albeit Anglo-Catholic, or God-knows-what in the imminent reign of George VII).
The Catholic extremists have more zeal than sense. They dismiss those who support the Act of Settlement as ‘bigots’, and harp on about Anglican orthodoxy as being ‘anti-Papist’. They might recognise the irreconcilable tension in having a Roman Catholic Monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but they offer no solution. Presumably, since Anglican Orders are 'absolutely null and utterly void', the Pope or the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminister would need to officiate at the coronation of a Catholic monarch, yet they do not address the theological or political implications of this. They may find it ‘insulting’ that the Monarch may not even marry a Roman Catholic, but they never address the undeniable fact that not only may the Pope not marry a Protestant, he may not marry at all. And they are mute upon the Catholic requirement to raise one’s children in that faith, which would then create an exclusively Roman Catholic royal house, to the discriminatory exclusion of all others.
Both the Queen of the United Kingdom and the King of the Vatican are heads of state, and both positions place certain limitations upon their liberties. Why accept the constraints of the latter if those of the former are ‘insulting’ or ‘unfair’? The occupant of each throne, with the grace of God, accepts the limitations imposed by their respective offices. And if this is not a vocation, they are at liberty not to accede to their thrones or to abdicate.
The wisest English Roman Catholics recognise that the Establishment of the Church of England - and the retention of those foundational Acts which sustain its position and that of the Protestant Crown-in-Parliament - are beneficial to the nation. The moment one seeks to undo one thread of the intricate quilt which is our Constitution – such as the Act of Settlement 1701 – this fragile and priceless work of art will unravel.
The disestablishment of the Church of England would eliminate that residual expression of Christianity from our nation which is cultural. Certainly, it may not save souls, but it is a bulwark against those politico-religious forces which are gathering to fill the void. And Cranmer is not only talking of aggressive secularism. Militant Islam is knocking at the door, and its 95 theses have already been sent to Downing Street. And Downing Street has listened and granted a number of Shari’a-compliant exemptions from the laws of England & Wales even though they are manifestly inimical to the principles of Christianity and liberal democracy. And they have done so because they fear the consequences of not doing so.
The gradual erosion of Christian expression from the public square has already damaged the social fabric of the nation. Morality is relative, values are negotiable, norms are no longer normative, and trust has been destroyed. This has led inexorably to the obscuring of human dignity, the elimination of the notion of the sanctity of life, and the obfuscation of the true meaning of freedom which was derived from the Bible's teaching that man is made in the image of God; that all are equal and may approach him directly.
The break with Rome is central to the history of England, and the schism lies at the very heart of Britain’s development as a modern nation. It should be remembered and celebrated – even on November 5th – by all Christians, for it is a reminder that the nation is vulnerable and prone to attack from without and within. A liberal democracy certainly ought to grant minorities the freedom to practise their religion. But this does not involve the diminution or destruction of the majority faith which is the one by which minorities are granted the liberties they enjoy and by which they freely worship.
The fusion of the Church of England with Monarchy and Parliament has yielded three centuries of religious tolerance and political stability; it has carved out what is unique about English identity, English civilisation and English values. Protestantism is not ‘equal’ with other faiths; its contribution to public life has been immense – spiritually, socially and economically. To disestablish the Church of England would be to abandon the rock upon which the English edifice is constructed.
It is no surprise that this amoral Labour Government wishes to destroy this foundation. And neither is it any great surprise that some Roman Catholic journalists and prelates or Anglican clerics seek to do so. But Conservatives?
As Hugh Gaitskell once said (and Mr Hannan will appreciate): “You may say ‘let it end'. But my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.”