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Theresa May with Justin Welby: The Prime Minister, a practising Anglican, regularly meets the Archbishop. Would Jeremy Corbyn do so? (© REX/SHUTTERSTOCK)


The fictional Jim Hacker defended his role in selecting a bishop in an episode of Yes, Prime Minister saying: “But I’m the prime minister. Religion has nothing to do with it; [bishops] are just managers in fancy dress.”

Church and State are joined at the hip in England. When a name is put forward to succeed John Sentamu at the helm of the see of York and the Church of England’s northern province, he or she will be recommended to the sovereign by a prime minister who may not be Anglican, or even believe in God. Technically, the PM could reject a candidate.

But while the state can shape the Church’s senior leadership, the hierarchy of influence is reversed at a coronation. It centres on a service of Holy Communion during which the new monarch is anointed with oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury and swears to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant reformed religion established by law” and “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England”.

There are those who want to pull this delicate and complex design apart. Particularly at a time of fragmentation in national life, they should be careful what they wish for. Now is not the time to kick at an institution that aims to benefit our whole divided country and preserve values of service and compassion at the highest levels of power.

Establishment is a fluid series of relationships and roles. At the grassroots, it entitles every resident of England to marry or be buried in their parish; the parish network in places struggles against the odds to serve the needs of local people whose other community structures collapsed years ago. Not surprising then that in 2011 a survey found over that half of Britons — and a slightly higher proportion of English respondents — believed the CofE should keep its status as the official established Church in England, and a further fifth were neutral. At a constitutional level establishment means the monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, that bishops swear an oath of allegiance to her or him, that 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords, that an Anglican cleric says prayers at the start of parliamentary business each day, and that decisions taken by General Synod require parliamentary approval.

At best, establishment puts a supremely pastoral figure to work with bereaved and angry families in cases of national disasters. It is unlikely that Bishop James Jones, then of Liverpool, would have been asked to chair the Hillsborough Panel and commanded the respect of ministers, peers and MPs had he not already been on their radar through being in the Lords. His learning from that experience is now helping Bishop Graham Tomlin of Kensington, as he supports the survivors of the Grenfell fire. Many who broadly support establishment say the bishops in the Lords represent the whole nation, not just members of the CofE; that fellow peers value their interventions on social issues because they include testimony from the “front line”; that followers of other religions feel represented by them, and that they bring non-partisan pastoral concern to the cold corridors of power.
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