Surely the most quixotic oxymoron of the month is the curious combination ‘Church of England.’ The problem is the preposition. Of. It dangles in the muddled middle between ‘Church’ and ‘England’. Two letters that now mean very little to very few of the population, as the British Social Attitudes survey so starkly revealed last week.
In what sense can we call the Pollyanna-ish Church led by its Panglossian Archbishop, Justin Welby, the Church ‘of’ England? ‘The Church in England’ would be a more reasonable designation. But even the definite article ‘the’ now seems a wild exaggeration, existing exclusively by historical accident.
‘A Church in England’ is how the C of E can rebrand its ailing company and its failing product. It can no longer claim to represent the people of England – such a boast would be both pompous and pretentious.
Numerically, it is in dire straits. Muslims worshipping in mosques on Fridays now outnumber Anglicans worshipping in churches on Sundays. The writing has been on the wall for some time. In 2004, 930,000 Muslims attended a mosque at least once a week, as against 916,000 Anglicans. By 2015, Sunday C of E attendance had nosedived to 752,000 – less than 1.4 per cent of the population. In contrast, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more than a million members, including 195,000 youth. Britons are interested more in birds than in the Bible (not that most C of E clergy would consider preaching from such a forthright text when the fuzzy Guardian is far more appealing).
The 2017 figures are an epitaph on the C of E’s tombstone. The number of people in Britain who describe themselves as having no religion is a record. A mere 15 per cent of British consider themselves C of E – and most in this category would happily identify with Geriatrix in the much-loved Asterix comics. A minuscule 3 per cent in the 18-24 age group identify as Anglican.
The best efforts of Wobbly Wonga and the Anglican Fudge Factory have failed to inflate the figures to stave off the calls for disestablishing the C of E. ‘Now over half the UK population have no religion, it’s time the church stopped being courtiers of the establishment and reclaimed its counter-cultural voice,’ snarled the C of E’s Leftist rottweiler Giles Fraser. For once I agree with Commie Fraser that ‘the disestablishment of the church is now necessary and inevitable’.
The hardest hit will be the 26 bishops who lose their seats in the House of Lords and the champagne lunches that punctuate their esteemed deliberations. Perhaps the shock will rudely awaken them from their Trollopian fantasy. Then they might begin preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ rather than the gospel of Phony Blair.
Many liberals and conservatives agree that the Achilles heel of the C of E has been its status as an established church. ‘Did Jesus not say to Pontius Pilate that his kingdom is not of this world? What hath Christ to do with Caesar?’ ask puzzled Christians from other denominations. ‘Christ has everything to do with Caesar! For ours is the pomp, the power and the glory,’ chorus the Mitred Mafia of the House of Bishops in cheerful unison. Sigh! Where would our soporific bishops be without their honorific titles Lord Bishop of Snootsbury or Lord Bishop of Sodom and Man (err, its Sodor!) or ‘Lady Bishopette of Petticoat Lane?’
In the New Testament, Church and State make an exceedingly odd couple. But nearly all the C of E bishops are used to odd couples, preferring Adam and Steve to Adam and Eve. Expect them to kick up an almighty agitation and glue their bottoms to the velvety cushions of the House of Lords rather than opt for Crexit – the Church of England severing its septic umbilical cord to the State.
‘Men will never be free until the last bishop is strangled with the entrails of the last politician,’ Denis Diderot might have rephrased his dictum in 2017. You would expect a forerunner of the French Revolution, who did not believe in God, to insist on separation of Church and State.
But it was another Frenchman who put forward some of the best arguments for the disestablishment of religion. In his classic text Democracy in America, which has been called ‘at once the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America,’ Alexis de Tocqueville, a Deist, has a whole section entitled Of the Principal Causes That Make Religion Powerful in America.
The French political theorist travelled to the United States in 1831 and ‘it was the religious aspect of the country that first struck my eyes’, he wrote. The clerics he met ‘all attributed the peaceful dominion that religion exercises in their country principally to the complete separation of Church and State’.
Ironically, diminishing the political power of religion in America increased its true spiritual power, observed de Tocqueville. It is a short-sighted compromise. By allying itself with government, the church ‘sacrifices the future with the present in mind,’ he said. When the church becomes a strange bedfellow with the state, it ‘increases its power over some and loses the hope of reigning over all.’
An established church will sooner or later lose the goodwill of the people because ‘religion cannot share the material strength of those who govern without burdening itself with a portion of the hatreds caused by those who govern.’ No wonder the C of E lost the working classes when it became the Tory party at prayer, and vice versa when it has now mutated into closet Corbynism.
There is a hint to the temptation narrative in the gospel where the devil offers Jesus the kingdoms of the world if Jesus will fall down and worship him. ‘When religion wants to rely on the interests of this world, it becomes almost as fragile as all the powers of the earth. Alone, religion can hope for immortality; tied to ephemeral powers, it follows their fortune, and often falls with the passions of the day that sustain those powers. So by uniting with different political powers, religion can only contract an onerous alliance. It does not need their help to live, and by serving them it can die,’ de Tocqueville trenchantly observed.
Far more penetrating works have been written on the separation of Church and State, most notably by Roger Williams, the evangelical founder of Rhode Island. American founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson reiterated John Locke’s position that the separation of Church and State protected the individual’s right of conscience. James Madison pragmatically recognised that an established church was bound to cause ‘pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution’.
But only a European such as de Tocqueville could foresee the consequences of an unholy alliance between Christ and Constantine. ‘Unbelievers in Europe pursue Christians as political enemies, rather than as religious adversaries; they hate faith as the opinion of a party much more than as a mistaken belief; and in the priest they reject the representative of God less than the friend of power.
‘In Europe, Christianity allowed itself to be intimately united with the powers of the earth. Today these powers are falling and Christianity is as though buried beneath their debris. It is a living thing that someone wanted to bind to the dead: cut the ties that hold it and it will rise again.’