Disestablishment: an answer to the Church of England’s prayers?

10 February, 2023

Humanists UK patron Sandi Toksvig
Humanists UK patron Sandi Toksvig, seen outside Parliament

That the Church of England should find itself under increasing scrutiny from senior MPs and the public over its stance on same-sex couples highlights one of the main contradictions of it being an established church – that is to say, as much a part of the state as HMRC or Ofsted.

The dilemma is this: if the state has a duty to uphold equality for all its citizens, how can one of its arms continue to vocally preach, and openly practise, the exact opposite?

It was this issue which the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and Humanists UK patron Sandi Toksvig sat down to discuss over tea some weeks back, with no clear resolution.

And unfortunately for the Church, the problem has anything but quietened down, with many MPs now agitating for Parliament to step in and make the necessary changes to the Church’s internal rules themselves, in the name of LGBT equality (not something that non-state churches have to worry about).

The pressure has grown so great that the Archbishop was reported as telling a group of MPs that he ‘would rather see C of E disestablished than split over same-sex marriage’. 

A secular state seeking equality for all is something we at Humanists UK have long advocated for. We hope that more people inside the Church will recognise the benefits of constitutional reform of this sort has for them, too.

Establishment: a bind for Anglican leaders

Of course, it isn’t news to anybody that the major Christian churches are institutionally homophobic, built as they are around sacred texts written long ago by ancient peoples who were ignorant and judgmental about  human nature and sexuality. But unlike other churches and religions in our country, the Church of England faces a unique catch-22, due to both its established status and the increasingly liberal social attitudes of the British public. This latter trend is underpinned by even more rapid demographic change, which already casts uncertainty over the Church of England’s longer-term future.

Most of the Church of England’s leadership in England, and many of its rank and file members, already recognise that the overwhelming majority of people in England, along with most UK MPs, support LGBT equality. Many Christians would like to see it implemented within the Church, too. But leaders also know that the global Anglican Communion would face an instant existential crisis if it did, with overseas members (many of whom are based in countries that criminalise homosexuality) threatening to break away if the global church were to afford equal dignity and treatment for LGBT Christians. For Anglican conservatives, the church’s teachings on same-sex relationships are a matter of fervent religious certainty. And so the established church finds itself bound not exclusively to the will of its own adherents but also to the will of non-established churches overseas.

Another bind of being an established church is that MPs and the public evidently often see the establishment deal as meaning the Church has a civic duty not to tell us what our values should be (who are they to do that?) but to reflect the moral values we have as a nation. A genuine commitment to equality is certainly a value that would rank pre-eminently for the British public. If the Church of England is going to preside over all the most important state functions on behalf of the public, and claim to do so in their name, how can people in good conscience allow it to preach, and enact, discriminatory practices?

It’s this clash of values that led Sandi Toksvig to launch a Change.org petition calling for the removal of 26 Church of England bishops from the UK Parliament – a longstanding Humanists UK campaign aim – citing the discriminatory and unrepresentative nature of their place there. The logic of it is irresistibly compelling. Religious people of all stripes are already over-represented in Parliament (due to their age profile, both Houses of Parliament are already much more religious and much more Anglican than the country as a whole). Giving a ringing endorsement, and a bloc vote, to any religious denominations on top of that unfairly doubles up the voice of institutional religion – at the expense of marginalised groups and the growing non-religious population.

And while the UK’s parliamentary democracy is many moons away from the brutal authoritarian theocracy of Iran, it does say something unflattering about the UK that we are the world’s only other sovereign state to maintain the mediaeval practice of having clerics vote on our laws. It’s discriminatory and it should end.

Bringing public attention to the bishops seems like a good place to start because it’s impossible to make a good case for keeping them – along with practices like letting MPs or peers who pray reserve seats in the chamber for the day. We should expect any future political review of our unwritten constitution, or of Parliament’s upper house, to address these 14th century vestiges by striking them out.

Yet the need for disestablishment is about much more than fixing democratic weaknesses in our constitution – it’s also about having politics and public occasions in the UK honestly reflect the pluralistic society we have become.

Growing divergence in values

It seems unlikely that the present furore over same-sex marriage in the Church will be a one-off. As public identification with Anglican beliefs continues to decline rapidly, it makes more clashes of values of this sort inevitable. The latest Census figures reveal, for example, that Christians are outnumbered by the non-religious in England and Wales among all people younger than 67, with over half of people in their twenties having ‘no religion’. The upshot of this radically changed demographic picture is that any claim that the Church once had to speak for England on moral issues can no longer be taken seriously by anyone – it palpably does not. On issues like abortion, same-sex marriage, and much else, the public and the Church have already been separated for a long time, and divorced in all but name.

Much like same-sex couples, another ticking time bomb for the Government and for the major churches is likely to be schools. Admissions policies for the UK’s many religious state schools often openly discriminate against the non-religious and minority religious groups. While policies will vary from school to school, the cumulative picture is that they strip choice away from parents, reducing local options for non-Christian families, with non-religious families (particularly those who cannot afford or do not want to ‘game the system’) impacted the most. As a practice, it will surely become less and less tenable to make excuses for as numbers of Christians of parental age further diminish. (The Republic of Ireland faced a similar dilemma a few years back, until TDs took the step of abolishing the so-called ‘baptism barrier’ in Catholic-run state primary schools.)

Disestablishment would also speak to the new King’s ambitions to foster equality and parity between people of different faiths and philosophical convictions. All in all, it’s easy to see why a pragmatic divorce of church and state would be better for everyone, non-religious and minority religions included, and perhaps most of all for the Church of England. The status of women clergy or LGBT couples would revert to being merely an internal matter for parishioners and theologians. The international Anglican Communion would remain united. And best of all for Anglicans, the growing gulf between Anglican values and British values would not continue to expose it to further ruptures and cataclysms in the years to come.

As a Wales Humanists report on 100 years of disestablishment in Wales concluded, it’s easy to see how a pluralistic and egalitarian ethos between people of different religions and beliefs is better fostered from a level playing field. Perhaps a key lesson from history is that while the Church of England originally opposed its disestablishment in Wales, the Church in Wales’ leaders today see the event as a blessing in disguise – abetting much internal harmony in the century that followed.


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