Sunday, 14 August 2011

Disestablishmentarianism and all that!





Having had a staunch Welsh nonconformist upbringing, and despite a more recent appreciation of all things Anglican, the notion of an established Church of England has not been something which I've ever really begun to appreciate. Indeed, the disestablished Church in Wales has often been seen as a good example of the benefits that might accrue from the process of unhitching the Anglican church from the State, an experience to emulate!

Reading Mark Chapman, Judith Maltby and William Whyte (eds), The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (London: Continuum / Affirming Catholicism, 2011), over the past few days has provoked me to think further about the whole issue of an established Church. The book is a collection of eleven essays, published under the Affirming Catholicism imprint, an organisation that aims to make the catholic voice better heard within the Church of England. There are a mix of essays, historical, political and anthropological, most of which interact with present day questions relating to establishment, as well as engaging with the historical dimension too.

In a sense the historical chapters are the easiest to comment upon. Matthew Grimley provides a helpful overview of the failure of debates over disestablishment since the Prayer Book controversy of 1927-8. The reasons for this he argues have been the virtual disappearance of confessional politics in the twentieth century, and the stability of Britain's institutions of State, following the granting of universal suffrage in 1928. Even more recent constitutional changes have been incremental, cautious and limited. But perhaps more importantly, he argues that it has been the 'plasticity', for which read adaptibility of the Established Church, 'as both as instrument of patriotism' and a 'critic of government policy', which has enabled it to withstand England's transformation into a modern multi-cultural society (p. 54-5).

Andrew Atherstone examines the attitudes of evangelicals to disestablishment, focussing in some detail in the later parts of his chapter on Colin Buchanan's championing of the case since the 1960s.

Mark Chapman's chapter on Anglo-Catholic attitudes towards Establishment was a particular highlight. Largely historical in approach, Chapman, argues that 'the logic of Tractarianism leads towards some form of self-government and a degree of disestablishment' (p. 62). An institution that claimed to possess the authority of the Holy Spirit could hardly submit to the secular State. Chapman also draws upon the writings of the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who has argued in the past that Christianity should grow to accept its minority position. Establishment merely hides or disguises that. Indeed, 'becoming a minority is part of obedience to the gospel' (p. 73). In the title of his chapter: there should be a free Church within a free State. Remarkably this stress on the uniqueness or specialness of the Church suggests considerable common ground between Anglo-Catholics and some evangelicals, at least over Church-State questions.

Other chapters in the book look at the question of Establishment from other perspectives. Judith Maltby uses the debates over the ordination of women priests to examine the changing attitude of parliament to the Church of England. Elaine Graham looks at Establishment and multiculturalism, and engages quite closely with the role that the Established Church has played in recent times combating extreme right-wing politics, and facilitating inter-faith relations. Others chapters look at the attitude of Roman Catholics and Methodists towards Establishment.

Despite a chapter arguing that there are in fact different kinds of Establishment in the British Isles as a whole, its concentration almost exclusively on the Church of Scotland, was something of a missed opportunity. There's very little on Wales in this book. After a long and bitter campaign, the Church of England was disestablished in Wales in 1920. Despite the fears of many, that did not prove to be the death knell to Welsh Anglicanism. Rather the Church in Wales, as it very consciously became, redefined itself as the ancient church of the Welsh people, rather than the imposed Anglican establishment it had once been perceived as being. The rapid decline in Welsh nonconformity in the twentieth century has enabled the Church in Wales to become the single largest, and therefore influential, Christian body in Wales. Disestablishment has been positive, even the making of Welsh Anglicanism!

The book finishes with an excellent concluding chapter by William Whyte, who takes the long view and looks at the future of the Established Church. I found his stress here on the difference between a 'high' establishment and an 'earthed' establishment, an establishment from the bottom-up if you like, very helpful. His challenge to present day Anglicans is to quit mourning for and hankering after a golden age that never really existed, and find new ways of engaging with the State. Again, the example of the Church in Wales might have been telling here!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The disestablishment would mean the end of the christian church in England. The welsh church cannot be used for comparison since it was disestablished in a completely different time. Today, the church of England can only wield any influence in society by having the status of being the established church. Look at the church of Sweden which was disestablished in 2000. Now they have no voice in society, and despite being a non-established church, it has a greater decline than the CoE. Please, do not do the will of Satan, and fight for the christian church instead of supporting satanic liberals.