Delivered at the launch of Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment (edited by Kenneth Leech, Jubilee Group, 2001) at St Botolph’s, Aldgate, London, on Monday 21 January 2002.

The focus of my contribution to this launch of Setting the Church of England Free is on the need for all the churches in England — not just the C of E — to confront, as a matter of urgency, their continuing illusions about monarchically-based power.

Though I am pleased to work for Churches Together in Britain and Ireland, the ecumenical co-ordinating body for England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales, I would like to make it categorically plain at this point (especially for any journalists in the audience!), that I am speaking in a personal capacity, and not on behalf of CTBI or its member churches. I am most happy about this, because it seems to me that the authenticity of public speech ought in any case to rest on its integrity or persuasiveness, not upon some prior sense of imposed authority deriving from the position of the speaker.

This, conveniently enough, is my first point. The Church of England’s establishment rests upon the illusion that the ability of a community to be heard and taken seriously somehow depends upon its capacity to claim a greater right than others to be heard, because it is ‘by law established’ — that is, because it has, in the past, attained (through mostly dubious means), the ability to strike a concordat with a hereditary and unelected institution (the Crown) for the purposes of mutual advantage.
Insofar as this is true it is shameful, particularly from the perspective of Jesus Christ, who abandoned all status, privilege and security — even to the point of state execution — in order to embody and live out the vulnerable truth of a God whose world-transforming love is precisely the opposite of ethnic privilege: rather it is unbounded (and therefore liberatingly demanding) generosity.

Since the true church — the one that in whatever condition owes its sole allegiance Jesus Christ — has a right to exist only insofar as it is faithful to this calling, there can be no excuse for perpetuating an institutional arrangement that blatantly contradicts the Gospel it is supposed to exemplify, act out and proclaim.  (I cannot but note at this point that there is a friend present in this church tonight who is a Mennonite pastor. (1) Those who know their history will realise that he would not always been been welcomed in this part of London – where a Bishop of London once had Anabaptists killed for dissent. This too is part of the history of establishment, and we should not forget it.)

This loyalty to the Gospel, I would suggest, is what is mainly at stake from a practical, theological point of view in the debate about dis/establishment. I called my chapter in Setting the Church of England Free  ‘Unravelling the rhetoric of establishment’, because it seems to me that the inability of the Church to face this central issue in its institutional life is supported by a whole series of imprecise, romantic and essentially elitist pieties in the way it talks about itself.

This is the intellectual equivalent of a suffocating pastoral embrace — the sympathetic but patronising ‘there, there’ of the public school chaplain as he lovingly warns the errant child against his — almost always his — rebellious tendencies. The chaplain reminds the poor lad that all that stuff about a troublesome itinerant prophet and healer in Galilee, charming though it may be, is really not quite how we do things in England. Indeed if Jesus’ indiscretions had been tempered somewhat by a more mature political estimate of his circumstances, he might have progressed further into later life — where he would almost certainly have come to realise that ‘good news to the poor’ and God ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ is really just a poetic way of saying that we need a bit more inclusivity, and that private-public partnerships, in spite of their complexities and difficulties, are the modernising way to ensure a better balance of interests between paupers and princes!

I jest of course (I think!). But the point is vital. By adopting an attitude which, without knowing it, combines an essentially complacent and settled view of the world with a harmless form of piety and some anaesthetising management-speak, the established church can rapidly lose touch with what is really going on.

What is really going on includes the continued division of the world between those with more and those with less power and wealth, despite unparalleled opportunities to change this; a struggle between the instincts of self-devouring consumerism and self-renewing ecology; and a deepening conflict between corporate dominance on the one hand, and democratic pluralism on the other.

It is perhaps easy for those of us who see ourselves on the prophetic margins of the church to indulge in cheap sloganising at this point: to hanker after an unreconstructable past because we fear the future, or alternatively to abandon contact with the wisdom of the ages altogether in a neurotic quest for salvation in anything new.

But if these are temptations for people with relatively little institutional leverage, are they not even greater temptations for the guardians of a fast-fading but still noticeable established church? Rather than recognising an exciting but difficult opportunity to move beyond discredited versions of Christendom which substituted the liberating freedom of the kingdom (or commonwealth) of God for the suffocating smugness of ecclesiastical power, the leaders of the Church of England — and indeed the leaders of other nonconformist churches, who may misguidedly seek to cling to C of E coat sleeves — are instead falling for an illusion.  Maybe, they say, we can have our cake and eat it? Benefit from the advantages of the past (which, of course, like all the privileged, we stoutly deny are privileges at all, but believe to be ‘obligations’) while at the same time seeking to be free and collaborative?

It is not hard to see the attraction of this view. But illusion it is. Practically, it won’t wash: Those of other faith stances and none are increasingly wary of it, and many of the Church of England’s ecumenical partners secretly know the frustrations of ‘Anglican-plus-others ecumenism.’ Theologically it won’t wash: The Christian message is about freedom and obligation — but only though communion, not through patronage or dominance. Politically and pastorally it won’t wash:  The Gospel is about hope — but it rests on radical treatment of disease, not on a mere chaplaincy to power that avoids tough questions about causes of illness. This is why the question of dis/establishment is so important: it makes the churches face up to the fact that we need fresh ways of relating to power that support demanding truth-telling in public life.

My final point is that, in spite of its often hospitable rhetoric, there is something insidious at the heart of what English establishment defends by its very existence. The claim of the Crown over church and nation may be well tempered, ritually quaint and constitutionally attenuated these days, but it is still class-bound and absolute in its founding assumptions. It proceeds from the idea that some are divinely born to rule, others to be subjects. This is why the Christian church, based upon the unlordly Lordship of Jesus Christ and the domination-free kingdom of God, should have no institutional truck with monarchy, or with subjugation to the state. It is also why Ian Bradley, a reader in practical theology at St Andrew’s University, is severely deluded when he argues, as he did in Saturday’s Guardian (2) and in a recent book (3), that we can abstract a metaphysical ideal from monarchy without reference to its actual nature.

As I have pointed out in my chapter:

The central weakness of the Christendom mentality is that, while rightly disavowing the relegation of religion to a private consumer option, it essentially depends upon the assimilation of the possibility of public faith to .. [a] polity based on top-down control. In this it is (sometimes unwittingly) buttressed by a conservative misappropriation of a romanticised past. So not far beneath the defence of certain rather general civic standards and values, there is a mythic or symbolic language that legitimates a much more specifically hierarchical order of power. This can be seen when Adrian Hastings, a theologian known for his radical stance on other matters, revealingly [says]: ‘The central ritual tradition of the nation, relating particularly to the monarchy — and it is a tradition which is not merely a matter of ritual but of public morality too, a supra-party, socio-moral symbolism — would be enormously damaged by a total severing of the [church-state] partnership.’ (4)

[Leaving] to one side the obviously exaggerated parallelism between disestablishment and a ‘total’ severing of the possibility of co-operation between the church and the authorities, [t]he central [issue here] is that Hastings’ ultimate reference point, whatever he may wish, has become a system of hereditary monarchy which arises from and reinforces an order of pure ethnic wealth and privilege, and which exists in stark contrast to the values of social justice and equity which he otherwise holds to be central to the Gospel. Quite apart from such obvious material contradictions, if all that finally stands between a reasonable society and moral decline is a sort of mytho-poetics of royalty we are, I think, in very deep trouble. (5)

And of course, we might well be in deep trouble anyway. But that is a matter for a longer contribution than this.


1. Tim Foley, Wood Green Mennonite Church, North London – who I hope will not mind being mentioned.
2. ‘The Windsors’ crown of thorns’, The Guardian, Saturday 19 January 2002.
3. Ian Bradley,
God Save the Queen: The spiritual dimension of Monarchy (St Andrew’s, 2002).  Review here.
4. Adrian Hastings,
Church and State — the English Experience: The Prideaux Lectures for 1990 (University of Exeter Press, 1991), p.72.
5. Quoted from Simon Barrow, ‘Unravelling the rhetoric of establishment’, in (ed.) Kenneth Leech,
Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment (Jubilee Group, 2001), pp. 79-80.

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