Sunday, December 08, 2019

The Election - a Little Church of England Issue

Justin Welby is currently 63, and has been Archbishop of Canterbury for the best part of 7 years, since March 2013. His immediate predecessors were:

Rowan Williams retired at 62 after 10 years
George Carey retired at 67 after ll years
Robert Runcie retired at 70 after 11 years

Under the fixed term parliaments act, the next election after this one isn't supposed to be until December 2024, by which time Justin Welby will be 1 month off his 69th birthday, and will have been in office for nearly 12 years.

So based on recent form there is a very good chance that the next Archbishop of Canterbury will be chosen by Boris Johnson, or (long shot) Jeremy Corbyn. The former is likely to plump for a white, male privately educated Oxbridge graduate, given the opportunity, and the latter is likely to choose for a left-leaning female, given the opportunity. (update: I've been put right on this - the process is now that they get 1 name to approve, with another in reserve)

All the candidates will be capable - the shortlist of 2 traditionally given to the PM comes out of an intensive process of prayer, interviews, advice and selection. But neither potential PM is particularly keen on the church and what it stands for. Though being shortlisted for ABofC is one of my worst nightmares, it would be even more of a nightmare to think I was appointed to the job by a man who'd broken in letter or in spirit nearly all of the 10 commandments, and thought Christianity was a myth made up by a bunch of religious zealots on the fringe of his beloved Greco-Roman society.

Both have pledged some reform of the constitution in their manifestos, including this rather startling proposal from the Tories After Brexit we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people. ... In our first year we will set up a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission that will examine these issues in depth, and come up with proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates.

Throw into the mix the age of the Queen, and the 'Defender of Faiths' line taken by the next in line to the throne, and there is quite a shake-up coming down the tracks. The end of the Elizabethan age will see a massive rethink about the role of the royalty, and once you pull at that thread it isn't long before you get to the Church.

Here's my take: disestablishment is coming, whether the good old CofE wants it or not. It has already started in lots of small ways - e.g. the series of changes to marriage law over the last 20 years. The question for the next Parliament is whether the church will get ahead of the curve on this, or be dragged along by events. The CofE needs its own vision of what a post-establishment Anglican Church could look like, rather than have one forced upon it by politicians who see neither merit nor votes in working with us. The Estalibshment of the church belongs to a previous age, it will go sooner or later, and as we have seen with attitudes to trans issues, the political and cultural weather can change very suddenly, and very fast.

Part of Justin Welby's legacy needs to be this: to get the Church of England thinking this through, and leading the debate, before a bandwagon appears from elsewhere - whether that bandwagon is driven by events, electoral reform, ideologues or royal succession. By then it will be too late to do our thinking.


  1. No. 1

    Many thanks for this thought.

    One of the feeblest excuses for maintaining establishment is that, as Justin Welby has argued, it would be 'difficult' to effect disestablishment. No, it wouldn't: we have the Irish and Welsh precedents. Yes, it might be argued that the Queen would be breaking her coronation oath, but Victoria did so in 1869 (remember that the Act of Union 1801 had created a United Church of England and Ireland), and George V did so in 1914 (the Church in Wales having been an integral part of the Church of England). Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the oath to maintain the 'protestant reformed religion as by law established' need to be part of the next coronation oath. It might be possible to pass legislation now and for it to take effect only on the next demise of the crown which, humanly speaking, cannot be too long. Indeed, it might be to the advantage of the Church to work out something now and to get it done on beneficial terms rather than wait for something worse to happen because it wants to cling to a threadbare residuum of privilege. The facts speak for themselves: barely 2% of Generation Z identify even as nominal Anglicans. The game is well and truly up; I can easily attend 100 different churches and scarcely see anyone under pensionable age.

  2. No. 2

    The Church needs to offload most of its buildings; they are a privilege, but also an increasingly intolerable burden. The 'Church' is also an agglomeration of miniature trusts (incumbents/PCCs) who lack the economies of scale to bear the burden, and have done so since the financial sinews of the parish were eliminated by state intervention (the abolition of compulsory church rate, the abolition of tithe rentcharge, etc.). However, the Church ought to have access to its buildings in order to maintain its much-vaunted USP: as the provider of spriritual services to every community. The state should take over this national patrimony. The question is how to persuade the state to do so in the current economic and political climate.

    The answer is to disestablish the Church and disendow the Commissioners.

  3. No. 3

    1. The Commissioners had 2.4bn in 1997 when they abandoned their responsibility for prospective pension accruals which have since fallen to the dioceses (i.e., parishes) via the parish share system. Much of the 8.3bn they now possess is a function of the implicit, but regressive subsidy of the Commissioners by the parishes. What might the parishes have accomplished over the last generation had this burden not fallen upon them at a critical demographic inflection point?

    2. Confiscate about 6bn from the Commissioners. Establish a Religious Buildings Agency, a non-denominational agency of DCMS (in effect an expanded Churches Conservation Trust). Vest title to all pre-1830 foundations and certain Grade I and Grade II* buildings erected after that date in the Agency. Transfer the 6bn to the Agency as a dowry. The Agency would have the economies of scale to procure discounted materials and labour which tired and ageing PCCs will never be able to generate. Grant the Church a perpetual free right of use to the vested stock. Arrogate all remaining diocesan and parochial assets in the Commissioners by way of compensation (and in order to generate economies of scale which 40 DBFs cannot, in the manner of the Church of Scotland (Property and Endowments) Act 1925. Abolish the administrative and financial sides of the dioceses leaving them as purely pastoral agencies. The transfer of the stock has to be to a national agency rather than local agencies, which are often too compromised politically, and cannot generate the same economies of scale as the state; the fate of many parish churches in France (where the 'lesser' churches were vested in the communes, i.e., the pre-revolutionary parishes under another name, after 1905) is a cautionary tale in this respect.

    3. There are several models of disestablishment, but a plausible one might be the Church of Scotland Act 1921. In other words, the monarch might retain a soi-disant relationship, but all connections with the state are severed. The Church of England, like the Church of Scotland would be a 'national' church, but not an established one. Disestablishment would be useful political cover for the mode of disendowment proposed above: in effect, the above model would be transferring the prospective risk of maintenance to the state, but the liability would be contingent rather than actual for as long as the 6bn dowry is not eliminated by costs. However, this model could be construed by many secularists as a boon to the Church; therefore, severing remaining connections with the state would be a useful sop.

  4. No. 4

    There might be significant advantages to the above in terms of internal Church politics. At present the parish share system taxes 'success', but it also allows a small number of successful (and frequently 'party') churches to exert undue moral suasion over the bench. This causes a certain degree of resentment from a number of angles. Whilst parishes might be called upon to maintain contributions in order to forestall the erosion of the centralised pool of cash referred to above, there will be a feeling that there is less at stake if a parish can no longer afford the contributions; yes, they might lose their stipendiary incumbent (if they have one) but they will keep their church and ability to exercise witness within their community. Moreover, clergy (who are not trained to be adjuncts to the heritage business) will be able to concentrate on the mission/pastoral activities for which they have been trained. Similarly, bishops and archdeacons, who are not trained to be administrators (save through the nascent and oft-criticised MBA scheme) would be able to concentrate on being the pastors of their clergy and people (the existence of diocesan administrations is a legacy of the medieval concept of the bishop as a baron, with a retinue). Also, there would be one national safeguarding team, rather than a national team and a collection of diocesan safeguarding teams, with variable funding and outcomes.