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Antidisetablishmentarianism is a long word for “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”

2012 February 17

An organist friend, who normally plays in town halls rather than churches, stood in at a nearby parish recently. “I rather enjoyed it,” he said. “The sermon was rational and sane. The people were warm and open. The choir were great. It was good experience intellectually, socially, and artistically great.” All that and a bit of God thrown in for good measure too.

It is stories like that which make the case against the fad for disestablishment which is in the air once again. Like the House of Lords, voting reform or republicanism the case against an established Church is an easy one for any idealistic sixth-former to make. You wouldn’t start from here. And yet here is where we are, and it sort of works.

Speaking not as an Anglican but a Roman Catholic, the case against disestablishment is not merely the old constitutional one about pulling a single thread from a deftly woven tapestry and causing a general unravelling. Untune but one string and hark what discord follows, as Shakespeare had it.

Establishment, as the Queen said recently, is sometimes misunderstood and “commonly under-appreciated”. It does far more than determine the dates of our national holidays. “Faith plays a key role in the identity of many millions of people, providing not only a system of belief but also a sense of belonging,” the monarch said. It subconsciously shapes the identify of the nation, creates a space for tolerance, counters the utilitarian assumptions which undergird our society’s attempts at ethics, and is a spur to the kind of social action which over the centuries has set up schools, hospitals and public services to feed the common good.

Disestablishmentarians routinely forget the extent to which the values of British civilisation draw on the Anglican settlement and underestimate the extent to which the tolerance it fostered is an important societal glue. Bishops in the House of Lords remind lawmakers that there are other values than individual freedom, materialism and consumerism; they speak for the vulnerable and voiceless. Vicars in the inner cities and rural areas are often the only resident professionals to minister to the disadvantaged as well as the lonely, sick and elderly. The Church of England’s presence in every parish makes it a kind of spiritual and pastoral national health service.

This is not merely practical but mystical. It embodies something elusive and even transcendent. It acknowledges the spiritual dimension to life, which even the recent poll by Richard Dawkins shows is alive among those who are not churchgoers. As the Muslim Cabinet member Baroness Warsi put it speaking in the Vatican: “You cannot and should not erase these Christian foundations from the evolution of our nations any more than you can or should erase the spires from our landscapes”.

So long as the established church sees its duty, as the Queen said, “gently and assuredly” to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country, and their active co-operation for the common good, then establishment does not just serve Anglicans. And that is why Roman Catholics, Methodists, Muslims, Jews and those of other faiths, and people of vague spirituality, will continue to resist talk of disestablishment by ecclesiastical idealists and aggressive atheists alike.

Remove the established church and there is no knowing what horrors – of religious or secularist intolerance – will rush to fill the vacuum. The meek-and-mild faith-and-reason of Anglicanism is largely an effective inoculation against such zealotry. If, as a Roman Catholic, that means I am unable to marry Prince Charles, that seems a small price to pay.

Church Times

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