For many, separating Church and State seems like common sense, and in the UK, such constitutional reforms are often characterised as long overdue. So, it might surprise readers of this libertarian blog to find somewhat of an ode to the Church of England. I do not pretend to be an expert theorist or theologian, simply an 18-year-old son of a vicar who at least sees it first-hand.
Recently, the Church of England has lost affection from some of those on the Right of politics. The Church’s traditional caricature as the Tory Party at prayer is becoming less and less applicable, at least amongst the clergy, which the Bishop of St David’s Twitter testified. For those on the other end of the political spectrum, the prospect of defending an institution so synonymous with the establishment is certainly a bit off-brand. In ‘Yes, Prime Minister’, (a documentary which is as relevant as ever) Humphrey makes the point that “the Queen is inseparable” from the Church as its Supreme Governor, whereas God is “an optional extra”.
Elizabeth I’s religious settlement is generally perceived as consolidating a moderate Church, seeking to reconcile Catholic-leaning conservatives with Protestant iconoclasts. In my parish church of St Andrews, Jarrom Street, I think this works rather well. We are able to worship in an Anglo-Catholic fashion (and there is quite a bit of fashion), and we welcome female ordinations and same-sex marriages. On other occasions, the Church can find itself fighting on two fronts rather than bringing two sides together. Take its response to the BLM movement: It was always bound to be criticised, either for not being radical enough, too woke, or for responding at all.
Yet, I believe there is something to be said for the Church of England. For me personally, its greatest contribution to Christendom has to be its choral tradition, although as a former chorister, I confess I am rather biased. Otherwise, I reckon it is uniquely suited to filling what would otherwise be a societal void. In British politics, its position at the top with 26 Lords Spiritual perhaps prevents other, possibly more extreme, religious groups from competing for a place in the corridors of power. One only needs to look across the pond to see the power religious groups can have in what are supposed to be secular states. In other words, the established Church fills a power vacuum, without being aggressively evangelical, or infringing on the rights to practice other denominations and religions.
At the grassroots, the Church remains a relevant force for good, albeit overlooked or underrated. Few other institutions have a presence in almost every community in the country; urban or rural, rich or poor. Parish councils are the start of local government and evolved from just that – parishes. In the same way there are many Christians who are not regular church goers, there are non-Anglicans and non-Christians who value the Church. Many do find it sad to see a place of worship close its doors, especially over the course of the pandemic. You might like its offer of sanctuary, the tea and biscuits after a service, its architecture, its Harvest Festival collection, its use as a polling station, or the sound of the organ as you walk past. It is less a question of belief, but rather of belonging.
However romantic or nostalgic these connections can be, by having these as part of the constitution, at coronations, in the Lords, and so on, the Church helps put local communities at the state’s centre. At King Richard III’s reinterment at Leicester Cathedral, history and tradition fused with one of the UK’s most diverse cities.‘CofE’ is an identity closely tied with often solely English history, but it works as an inclusive identity – an apparently rare combination. That, in my view, proves the Church of England is not a dead, outdated relic leftover from the past, but something the state needs more than it maybe realises.