A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2002 issue of the journal ANABAPTISM TODAY

In spite of occasional bursts of public debate, it still seems difficult for many people to work up much enthusiasm for a forthright conversation concerning the establishment of the Church of England. Even in supposedly ‘Free Church’ circles, my experience is that the issue is seen more as one of pragmatism and expedience than principle. The English aversion ‘to rocking the boat’ seems to outweigh any sense that there might be an important issue about the nature, authenticity and vocation of the church at stake here.

Awkward realities

Ironically it is more within than without the established Church  that a sense of need to open up the establishment question seems to be arising.  There are obvious reasons for this. Though ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ is the un-theological slogan of first resort in many Anglican circles, the evidence of a breaking process is now substantial. Weekly attendance at parish churches has now slumped below one million.. Deep economic problems threaten the central structures of the Church. Most of its assets are tied up in property and pensions when they are urgently required for outward-looking mission and practical ecumenism. The debate about faith schools is proving difficult, and too much hope is pinned on education as the last foothold for a ‘national church’.

As if all this was not enough, the need to choose a new Archbishop of Canterbury exposes once more the bizarre inability of the Church to select its own leaders (and indeed its own liturgy, orders of ministry and financial strategy) without the involvement of government and state bureaucracy.  Within the inner counsels of Lambeth there is also anxious discussion about what status the Church will have in a future Coronation.

Those who have vacated positions of power in an institution are often best placed to see the true scale of its crisis. The recently retired Bishop of Birmingham, Mark Santer, and (even more extraordinarily) the former Archdeacon of Bradford, George Austin, are among those who have changed sides to say that a formal church-state link is no longer appropriate. Even the Dean of Westminster and the Church of England’s adviser on Faith and Order, who have offered spirited defences of establishment, still envisage significant change.  It is not just ‘the same old suspects’ (Bishop Colin Buchanan on the evangelical wing of the Church, retired Bishop David Jenkins on its liberal wing, or the Jubilee Group with its radical brand of Catholicism) who are speaking out.

But why is establishment so central to the crisis of the Church? What are the core theological convictions that must not be overlooked in the midst of ecclesiastical trauma? And what significance does this matter have for Anabaptists in particular?  Let me tackle those questions in turn.

A false sense of security

Regarding the Church of England itself, establishment is both a ruling ideology (what Valerie Pitt calls ‘a false consciousness’ ) and a binding not so much of Church and people but of Church and Crown.  The state link was specifically created in Tudor times to exclude the Papal writ and to secure the monarchy by controlling religious dissent. In a plural, multi-religious and democratic age it seems hugely out of place. Even more importantly, it is a massive mental block on change for the Church itself.

Establishment gives the Church of England the quite erroneous idea that it is slightly more important than other churches (or ‘first among equals’ as it might coyly put it), that its beliefs are close to ‘the heart of the nation’, that the future of the Gospel in England is bound up with the Church’s legal status, and that it is the continued expression of a subterranean ‘Christian nation’ preserved from fatal secularism and pluralism by the suffusing of Christianity into the symbols and structures of statehood.

The reality on the streets, as one might say, is remarkably different. My experience is rather that an establishment mentality lulls the Church of England into a false sense of security. Though it is a minority alongside others, it still thinks of itself as part of some vague majority. Though its vicarious availability is but a shadow of the radicality of the Gospel, it fails to recognise quite how utilitarian is its appropriation as a national symbol of comfort in times of trouble. While its structures, buildings and assets are largely self-absorbing, it has little idea how to engage with the predominant cultures of those outside its ranks. While it cooperates with other churches, it cannot readily conceive of a mission or ecumenism to which it is not central and defining.

Church as a theological concern

Bishop Hugh Montefiore argues that an established Church offers standards and values which a country should pursue in its public life. But the ‘influence’ of the Church (any church) is now almost extinguished, as Roman Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor has candidly admitted. Besides, Christian practice is not rooted in general values. It flows from the specific experience of community arising from a history going back to the irruption of Jesus Christ into our assumptions about the world and God.

This is where the theological challenge becomes clearly visible. The life of the true church rests not upon the mutual advantage of a concordat with governing authorities, but upon faithfulness to Jesus Christ, who turns lordship upside down and converts it into service. ‘It shall not be so among you.’ (Mark 10.42). Bishops of the Church of England, however,  still have to swear allegiance to the Crown in all matters, spiritual and material. The words by which this are done are unknown to most Anglicans, but they are there in the Ordinal.

The Crown to which the Church is subject is an institution that embodies nothing less than the triumph of a pure hereditary privilege that elevates those born to rule over those born to be subjects. In the realm of God’s metanoia, by contrast, we are citizens and equals.

Given this fundamental compromise of free, gracious faith to hierarchical national polity, it is not surprising that the pattern of the Church of England’s life has become that of lease-holder not sojourner, settler not pioneer. Ease in Zion has translated into a ministry predominantly of chaplaincy rather than prophecy, availability more than engagement. Comfort makes it difficult to face reality: our own, and that of the unequal and uncertain society around us. Whereas the levelling, God-ward vision of the Seer is most accessible to those whose faith has pushed them to the margins of power and respectability.

None of this means that disestablishment is a panacea. Becoming one church alongside others requires a re-orientation of thinking and of relationships. Unravelling the complex pattern of ownership and investment by which the ties of state and church are bound will surely follow, and it will prove very difficult. The challenge will be for the Church of England, to become a church in England – and thereby more freely part of the universal, catholic church. Financial self-responsibility, sharing of resources, mission goals directed by need rather than obligation and the freedom to associate liturgically and ecclesiologically apart from Acts of Parliament will be part of the fresh picture.

It is far better that the Church of England takes this responsibility for deciding its own future while it still has the chance. Sooner or later a secular, democratic state serving a plural society is bound to decide that according privilege to one religious institution is both anachronistic and unseemly. At that point there would be fewer choices left.

Learning from Anabaptists

In taking the path of freedom the Church of England will not have to go it alone. It already has strong links and relationships with other traditions. Anabaptists, especially, can help English Anglicans discover a renewed vision of church which is, in the non-partisan sense of these words, what John Howard Yoder terms both catholic and evangelical: part of the breadth of the whole Christian community and committed to the Gospel as a Christ-centred way that requires a different relation to power.

In the Catholic church, which (whatever its own contradictions) has a strong sense of ecclesial identity not dependent on the nation, there  has been a renaissance of the peace tradition. That possibility has been stunted in the Church of England. States are always, by definition, going to defend their interests by force. Establishment through them means abandoning our ability to rediscover the centrality of the nonviolent Messiah. As part of the ecumenical reconsideration of church-state relations that would surely be entailed by disestablishment, that voice needs to be heard again. And not just within the Church of England. Non-conformism has also been long stifled in the ‘Free Churches’.

All this implies the very opposite of the ‘sectarianism’ that is usually assumed to be the only alternative to establishment by those who wish to preserve the status quo. I am of course aware that this word has a long, rich and complex use in Anabaptist thinking – far removed from its stereotypical, quasi-sociological use in popular speech. But if Anglicanism needs to learn Gospel non-conformity, then by the same token the gifts of catholicity and provisionality it has nurtured might find more fertile ground once the territory on which all expressions of church have to operate has been levelled. There are some important conversations to be had among dissenters of all traditions on this point.

A two-way challenge

One final observation. For me, as an Anglican influenced both by the radical Catholic tradition and by the Mennonites, disestablishment is fundamentally about the end of Christendom as a way of doing church and the final unweaving of the Constantinian settlement. There are those who think that the collapse of mainline denominations is an inevitable part of this anyway. So why bother with disestablishment?

The answer I would give to Anabaptists and those in newer or independent churches is twofold. First, in the secular world of which we are both a part and apart, the challenges of institutional existence, the routinisation of charisma, the patterning of authority and the use of power are features of the reality we all have to live with. It may be tempting to think that they are aspects of the unique corruption of some larger church bodies. But to believe that would be to fall prey to romanticism and idealism. The small have something to learn from the large in their problems and successes, as well as vice versa.

Second, thinking ecclesiologically, none of us has the right to mistake our freedom for ‘going it alone’. To be the church of Jesus Christ with some degree of rightful accountability asks of all of us that we seek to be appropriately evangelical (oriented towards the Good News), ecumenical (oriented towards God’s love for the whole inhabited earth) and catholic (part of the universal church in our given particularities). In that requirement lies a very different kind of ‘establishment’.

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