The National Secular Society recently published an article by its Chairman, Stephen Evans, that focused on the plans of the Church of England “to give Anglican church leaders from around the world greater power in choosing future archbishops of Canterbury.” Stephen Evans’ article led with the statement that “the plan by the Church of England serves as a reminder of the need to separate church and state.”
What follows in this article acknowledges the use of information contained in Stephen Evans’ article, but the views expressed are those of this writer.
It seems that a row is brewing in the Church of England (CofE) over a possible change to the process for deciding who becomes the most senior cleric in Anglicanism. The CofE is, of course, the established Church of the UK. As such, the affairs of the CofE are matters of the unwritten constitution of the UK. This has political connotations. Therefore, the current constitutional settlement makes it impossible for the question of who leads the Church of England to be purely an internal matter for the Church – the way it would be for any other religious denomination in the UK.
At present, the decision to appoint the Archbishop of Canterbury as the most senior cleric in the CofE, is made by the reigning monarch – the constitutionally appointed Head of the CofE – on the advice of the prime minister. In turn, the Prime Minister has received a shortlist of two names from an ad hoc committee called the Crown Nominations Commission. These names are usually from the community of practising Anglican bishops in the UK, specifically from a CofE bishopric in England. It could be seen, therefore, that the appointment of the person to provide the leadership for not only the British Anglicans, but for Anglicans worldwide, is as much a matter of British politics as it is of spirituality.
The institution of an Established Church is a relic from an age when church and nation were indistinguishable one from another. Today, on any typical Sunday, fewer than 1% of England’s population attend a service in an Anglican church. Further, younger people are increasingly unlikely to identify with any faith. Moreover, as suggested by occasional national surveys of opinion on the matter, a significant majority of the UK’s population don’t identify with any recognised religion. It would make considerable sense, therefore, that this reality should be reflected in a new, secular, constitutional settlement for the CofE.
Not unrelated to this issue is the fact that, as an adult, and whilst he has been the Prime Minister of the UK, Boris Johnson was baptised into the Roman Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic PM having an important role in the process of choosing the leader of the CofE! This is rather ironical, and calls into question, not only the current PM’s role in all of this, but also highlights the absurdity of having an established church in a modern pluralistic, multifaith democracy.
Let me return to the matter with which this article began.
The CofE is currently consulting on plans to allow foreign Anglican leaders from churches around the world to be given much greater power in choosing future archbishops of Canterbury. There are many more times the number of Anglicans in other countries worldwide as there are in England. Not surprisingly, therefore, and according to The Times newspaper, “English priests and worshippers have expressed surprise and anger at proposals for a five-fold increase in the power that Anglican churches overseas will be given in nominating the Church of England’s most senior bishop.”
Their concerns centre around whether the proposals might diminish the prospect of a woman, or a supporter of same-sex marriage, being appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. These specific concerns have no doubt arisen due to the reality that many Anglican churches globally still do not allow women to become bishops, as well as their most steadfast opposition to the idea of conducting gay marriages in church. In general, Anglican churches outside of the UK, and especially in two-thirds world countries, tend to be quite theologically and socially conservative.
But it isn’t only the Anglican faithful who might have cause to be concerned. As previously stated, in consequence of the CofE’s established status, the Archbishop of Canterbury enjoys a significant degree of political power in the UK. This raises important questions about the appropriateness of foreign influence in the British political process.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and his bishops claim 26 seats in the House of Lords of the British Parliament. These seats are predominantly filled by bishops of Anglican dioceses in England – Anglican church bishops from other UK nations have refused to take seats in the House of Lords. This provides the English bishops with unique access to the corridors of political power. The Archbishop of Canterbury is given his own annual debate to lead in parliament, has meetings with the prime minister and government ministers, and enjoys a myriad of other privileged platforms.
These significant privileged platforms extend to state occasions, including royal coronations. This gives the archbishop inappropriate political influence in a country that really should be secular. His position is charged with anointing the British head of state and administering the oath, whereby the monarch vows to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”.
Irrespective of one’s view of royalty, it is both anachronistic and unjust that a country’s (largely unwritten) constitution should institutionalise the role of a monarch as the head of any religion, never-mind the rapidly diminishing CofE denomination of the Christian religion – and that is only what it is – in a multi-faith, multi-cultural society. Further, the reader may also be aware of the influence over public policy gained through the CofE’s role in state education. One quarter of all publicly funded primary schools in England are run by the Anglican Church. This makes the CofE the largest single provider of schools in the country.
Overseas influence in who fills the role of Archbishop of Canterbury role can only widen the democratic deficit of this ludicrous arrangement. Stephen Evans provides a timely reminder that the current bishops’ bench in the House of Lords has already been described by the incumbent archbishop, Justin Welby, as “the most orthodox since WWII. Greater influence from reactionary bishops from around the world can only further intensify the disconnect between the Church and the country’s increasingly secularised population.”
From what has been stated by the National Secular Society, and its reflection on what has been above-mentioned, the matter of who leads the Church of England – and the wider international Anglican Communion – should really be the business of nobody but the Anglican communion, in the UK or wider. Disestablishing the CofE and ending its privileged role in our state institutions will ensure this is the case.
In conclusion, the closing sentence of Stephen Evans’ article in the NSS Bulletin states that, “Questions about who becomes the archbishop of Canterbury can be a matter solely for Anglicans to decide - which is the way it should be.” This writer wholly concurs.