Tuesday, 27 December 2016

It's Time To Disestablish the Church of England

The Lords Spiritual
With the news of yet another fall in the number of believers in the UK, the Church of England's claim to be the official church in England and Wales (and by extension though not in law, in Scotland and Northern Ireland) is now surely untenable.

Even taking all religions and different churches into account, those who actively believe there is no god or 'higher power' have a ten percent lead over those who still believe in a god or a higher power of some sort. Within that small and dwindling minority, Anglicans are but one group amongst many that includes Catholics, Pentecostals, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Seventh-Day Adventists, Jehovah's Witnesses, Greek and Russian Orthodox, Mormons, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, Buddhists, Bahais, Shintoists, etc., etc., etc. 

Attendances at an Anglican church on Sundays is now in single percentage points with only around one percent of Anglicans being in church on any given Sunday. Marriages, when people bother with them at all, are more likely to be secular than Christian; baptism of babies is now a rarity and even funerals are becoming increasingly secular in nature. 2013 figures showed that only about 10% of children are baptised. In the 1980s this figure had been around 33% having been almost universal in the 1940s and 1950s. In prewar England non-baptism was a rarity with most babies being baptised within weeks or months of birth. Now, it's unusual, quaint, flamboyant, often tokenistic and frequently done just to please relatives. An atheist friend of mine had his children baptised because his wife wanted them to be, but they asked a mutual Muslim friend to be Godfather! My sister could see no reason why my partner and I, as Atheists, should not be Godparents to her first child!  We declined, of course!

And yet the Anglican Church continues to yield political power far in excess of that justified by these low membership numbers. The UK is the only democratic state with a bicameral legislature in which the upper chamber is appointed, not elected and certain Anglican bishops are entitled to a seat in this upper chamber by virtue of their position. We are the only 'democracy' in which religious representative have a right to vote in our legislature!

The Church of England comprises 42 dioceses, each led by a diocesan bishop. The diocesan bishops of Canterbury and York are archbishops, who also have oversight over their respective provinces. The occupants of the five "great sees"—Canterbury, York, London, Durham and Winchester—are always spiritual peers and Lords of Parliament. The Bishop of Sodor and Man and the Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe may not sit in the House of Lords regardless of seniority as their dioceses lie outside the United Kingdom. (The former, however, sits on the Legislative Council of the Isle of Man ex officio.) Of the remaining 35 bishops, the 21 most senior sit in the House of Lords. Seniority is determined by total length of service as an English diocesan bishop (that is to say, it is not lost by translation to another see).

The presence of the Anglican bishops in the House of Lords is an anachronism going back to the Middle Ages, before there was such thing as an elected house or any notion of democratic constraints on the absolute power of the monarchy. Kings ruled by divine right and the bishops were there to consecrate and advise on spiritual matter - and because they wielded enormous power and influence, that was better kept on the king's side than against him. On the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment of the Anglican church, the appointment of bishops became the monarch's prerogative as head of this reformed, Protestant, Church of England. It still is, at least in theory. In practice the Prime Minister approves the appointment on the recommendation of a committee, the royal prerogative having been delegated to the Prime Minister.

The Anglican Church is integrated into the English establishment in other ways: the Archbishop of Canterbury consecrates and crowns the new monarch at the coronation in Westminster Abbey. This 'blessing' and special anointment with 'holy' oil somehow conveys and confirms the divine right to reign (no longer govern) in a ceremony in which the peers of the realm, including the bishops, swear an oath of fealty to the new monarch in a ceremony having it's origins in the feudal system.

But where is the legitimacy in all this? By whose right do the Bishops consecrate the monarch who then confirms their right to participate in our legislature? Who amongst the people are even asked for their permission, let alone give it? There is no consultative mechanism; no sounding out of public opinion on matters? No vicar ever asks for so much as a show of hands in church on Sunday and even if there were a token show of democracy, what about the 99% who will not have been in church?

What about the other faiths? Well, apparently, the Lords Spiritual consider themselves the representatives in Parliament of people of all faiths. Whether you are Jew, Muslim, Catholic, Sikh, Buddhist or Hindu the Lords Spiritual somehow magically know your thoughts and make sure your opinions are fully represented in Parliament. They might know almost nothing about your religion, your culture or your values, but they know what you want and what's best for you - apparently!

And on such preposterous claims are the Lords Spirituals' claims based; their entire claim to legitimacy is based on the absurd notion that studying the Bible and Christian theology somehow makes you a fit and proper person to legislate for others because you just know what's best for them - even though you can only persuade one or two percent of them to be bothered to come to church on Sunday and even though a huge majority now think your beliefs are a lot of superstitious nonsense to which no-one need pay the slightest attention. Morality is obviously still seen as something the clerics dispense down to us mere mortals from God as we can't be expected to work it out for ourselves.

It's time they were gone and the churches treated just like any other fan club or special interest group, fancy dress or not. They have no more legitimacy than a Manchester United Supporter's club or association of classic car owners' to make laws for us.

Footnote: Disestablismentarians expect to be opposed in this move to disestablish the church. Antidisestablishmentarianistically minded people are still a powerful force in England, but at least it gives me chance to use the longest word in normal use in the English language - if you can call that normal. Although floccinaucinihilipilification is sometimes cited, I rate that claim as worthless.

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