Monday, 11 June 2012

Church of England disestablishment

I am fascinated by the news headlines in tomorrow's Times newspaper - Gay marriage law could divorce State from Church (also the BBC at Apparently the issue which has festered within the Anglican communion could lead to a religious armageddon - the article states that "senior church sources warned that if the legislation goes ahead as proposed, the only way forward will be to cut an important tie between Church and State. Divorcing the Church from its role as religious registrar for the State would not amount to total disestablishment, but it would be a significant step in that direction..."

The idea of the monarch being the head of the state church, which still exists in England, is one that baffles me. To me, the monarch is not in that position because of any divine appointment, but instead because one of his or her ancestors, Henry VIII, simply decided he was going to get a divorce and the Pope didn't agree with him! The absurdity of it to me is up there with the absurdity of maintaining a monarchy in the first place. Of course, here in Scotland it is not an issue, as the monarch is no longer the head of the state church, and has not been for centuries. As a non-Anglican with a Scottish and Ulster based Presbyterian background, I don't understand the logic behind maintaining the link. Other branches of my family though were, and still are, Anglican, and one member in particular is certainly an authority I am happy to draw inspiration from on the matter!

My second cousin once removed is the Venerable Michael Paton, former archdeacon of Sheffield Cathedral, and a man with whom I have in the past had the great honour to speak with and to receive correspondence from. Way back in 1958, Michael's brother David, later to become a chaplain of the present Queen, pulled together a publication (as editor of SCM Press) entitled Essays in Anglican Self-Criticism. Michael made a magnificent contribution entitled Can we Ignore the Establishment? in which he was highly critical of the link between state and church. He pointed out the arguments of critics - for example, "there is no constitutional reason why the Prime Minister should be a member of the Church of England, or indeed a Christian at all; yet even if he were a bitter enemy of the Church of God, he would still have virtually the final say in the choice of bishops for that Church". Against this he also outlined arguments in support - sure the PM would consult the Archbishop of Canterbury first, and disestablishment would lead to the Anglican Church merely becoming a sect. After comparing such arguments and many more on each side, Michael's opinion was that in fact most arguments work against the idea of Establishment, "for the hard fact is that in practice it works badly".

Amongst the many reasons he then discusses about why the Church was happy to establish the status quo was that concerning one of its greatest fears - the fear of splits: "this is the deepest of our fears, and the least acknowledged". He then stated that if the church did disestablish, it was assumed by many that all hell would break loose - "it seems to be assumed that the parties in the Church would instantly burst asunder: the Anglo-Catholics presumably to Rome, the opposite wing perhaps to one of the Free Churches, whilst the centre would be left, a pathetic remnant, to bear the sectarian name of Anglican".

Michael's final take on disestablishment was nevertheless very much in favour of it: "no doubt there would be some losses, at either end, of extremists: but what gains!" and "What new life it would give to our Church to recognise... the hypocrisy and falseness of our present position! We could then set about composing our differences under the guidance of the Holy Spirit (including common sense), instead of relying on the artificial constriction of an Establishment fashioned for quite different needs".

I am no Anglican - I am not even religious - but it strikes me that much of what Michael was writing about seems almost prophetic. His father William Paton was in fact a Presbyterian minister before him, and I do wonder if some of his father's impressions may have influenced his own opinions! Whatever the reason, what I read in Michael's writings from over half a century ago make as much sense to me now as it seemed to him back then - and far be it for me to argue with any member of my family described as 'venerable'...!


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