You are here:   Features > Disestablish the C of E? Ask Corbyn

Ordinarily, you might expect constitutional reform to be a second-term issue, after a first spent — in the case of a Corbyn government — making good on promises such as renationalisation. And after Brexit, the public might need some convincing of the need for another fiddly, time-consuming extraction process as the country sought to steady itself. But some believe that change may be forced more immediately by the cocktail of tensions already being shaken up by Brexit — the Northern Irish border, the stand-off between Westminster and Holyrood, resentments over the £1 billion cost of DUP support, and the polarisation of political life. If Brexit negotiations resulted in a no-confidence vote and a subsequent general election produced a hung parliament, a constitutional crisis could ensue, it is argued, from which an elected second chamber could emerge with the bishops excluded — collateral damage.

Is that far-fetched? An Act of Union bill, a private member’s bill with some cross-party backing, was introduced to the House of Lords on October 9, intended to pre-empt the prospect of a constitutional crisis and bang the drum for a rethinking of the union. It proposes devolution on a radical scale, the abolition or replacement of the Lords, and the option for voters in England of some kind of English parliament. Some Anglican bishops might be allowed back to join the largely elected members of the new Lords alongside some other religious leaders, but that would be the extent of it.

Yet establishment also faces challenges from within the Church. For example, some conservatives feel that the establishment compromise is becoming untenable, especially as the Church considers requests from liberal clergy to bless same-sex relationships or celebrate gay marriage. They talk of “alternative structures” and “visible differentiation” rather than breaking away. But how tenable is a two-tier Church? And if clergy or dioceses did form an alternative structure, as happened among Anglicans in North America, where would that leave the parish model if some parishes belonged to another Church?

As for bishops, they display varying shades of ambivalence towards establishment, for a variety of reasons. Archbishop Welby has said it would not be a “disaster”, though it would be legally complicated and should be “a decision for parliament and people”. His predecessor Rowan Williams agreed that it would not be the end of the world, but the issue arouses in him a rare “bloody-mindedness” to oppose secularists bent on keeping religion out of the public sphere. For Bishop James Jones, establishment, particularly the coronation oath, is a source of accountability and a repository for symbol and ritual at the core of British identity.

But are we looking in the wrong direction? Both parliament and the crown have lost power since establishment was forged in the fires of the Reformation, to an actor whose power continues to grow: global markets. As Bishop Peter Selby, former bishop of Worcester, argued in a 2012 lecture, since so much power now rests with big business perhaps the Church needs to pay more attention to the kings of the globalised financial marketplace. Six years on, the point has become even more urgent with the growth of the internet giants that increasingly control our data and communications. But given the challenges governments have encountered in dealing with the likes of Facebook and Google, what hope is there for a supposedly “Old World” institution such as the Church?
View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.