Should the Church of England be Disestablished?

Some people say it should. But I think we need to think very carefully about the question.

I’m no supporter of denominationalism, let alone Anglican arrogance. But Christians must be fair. One well-known Christian magazine recently slammed the C of E on the grounds that it was founded on Henry VIII’s immorality. This displayed an ignorance of history.

The English Reformation started before Henry broke with Rome. It was a genuine work of the Spirit. The Anglican Reformers were godly men, many of whom died at the stake for their reformed, biblical views. Henry’s selfish break with Rome was a providential circumstance which removed the domination of the Pope over England.

Church and state are distinct. But they are closely related in being ordained by God to do his will for the benefit of the nation. Nation is an important, but neglected biblical concept. God deals with nations, so the church should be the salt of the nation. But how?

Evangelical supporters of the establishment ask what better way than the current church-state relationship. And, to be fair, one must distinguish the theory from the way it is sometimes operated. The state officially recognises Christianity. So the Archbishop crowns the monarch, but only after (s)he vows “to maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel… (and) to … maintain … the Protestant, reformed religion …” So the establishment is based upon the sovereign (and therefore the state) promising to maintain the Gospel.

Also, for many years now, the church has effectively appointed its own ministers. Through the Crown Appointments Commission, it submits its first and second choice of candidate for archbishop or bishop (in order) to the Prime Minister who traditionally recommends the first choice to the Queen for nomination.

Establishment affords many opportunities to the church. The Archbishop and various chaplains minister to the Queen and royal family. There are always 26 bishops in the House of Lords exercising considerable influence. Official provision is made for chaplains in Parliament, the Forces, hospitals, prisons and so on. The priority of teaching the Christian faith is recognised in the wording of the 1944 and 1989 Education Acts.

The C of E is heard when it speaks to the nation. With a good Archbishop, the potential for good is immense. The church is called to be prophetic with­in society. If it does this properly, it will be unpopular at times – for example, calling the state to avoid selfishness and narrow nationalism; upholding the importance of the individual over against the power of political, commercial or union bureaucracy, criticising the corruption that power brings.    

The church can also bring a divine dimension to national events, comfort in national tragedy and godly security in times of radical change. Because of all this, many English people over the years have regarded the C of E as their church. That poses some (solvable) prob­lems, but gives many evangelistic and pre-evangelistic/pastoral opportunities for the parish church. People reach out to the church when facing the great events of their lives and on numerous other occasions.

Most important, I am absolutely convinced that, given courage, it is quite possible for Anglican ministers and congregations to be radically obedient to Scripture. We have in the past encouraged and resourced many churches to do so.

Some Christians will not favour the establishment and maybe one day it will have to go. But abolition now could increase the trend towards secularism and godlessness.

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction