Prime Minister (PM) Boris Johnson has got himself in a muddle again. It is all very well Number 10 pretending that he only “became” Catholic — again — upon his marriage to Carrie at Westminster Cathedral on the last Saturday in May. That is not actually how it works. According to the Catholic Church, Johnson has always been a Catholic, confirmation in the Church of England while at Eton notwithstanding, because he was christened as one.
Number 10 will no doubt send MPs out to every TV and radio studio next week to claim “nobody cares” and attempt to brow-beat the nation into a collective shrug of indifference. It does matter, because this quandary is yet more proof that Johnson thinks he can just ignore any law he does not find convenient, thereby undermining the rule of law, and does not pay sufficient attention to detail. Both of these are alarming qualities in a PM and mark Johnson out as unfit to serve in that office.
Arguments for disestablishment?
Aside from all that, the PM’s surprise marriage (the couple had sent out “save the date” notes for July next year) and affirmation of his Catholic faith has poked a sleeping beast, re-opening discussions as to whether it is appropriate in this day and age to have an established church. Even without the PM’s present “embarrassment”, there are several cogent arguments for the disestablishment of the Church of England:
- The Church of Ireland and the Church of Wales, both Anglican off-shoots, have been disestablished in their respective home nations for decades without harm befalling them — Ireland (now Northern Ireland) since 1871 and Wales since 1920.
- Nobody seems to know if the Church of Scotland is established or not, which is a bizarre state of affairs, but does not appear to hinder it in any way — although it should be pointed out that it is Presbyterian not Anglican, and the Queen is not its head.
- The Church of England has an £8.7 billion endowment, mostly invested in ethical stocks and shares (although that was not always the case) generating up to £1 billion per year, as well as income from donations of around £329m per year and up to £42 million from the taxpayer for the upkeep of heritage sites (45% of Grade I listed buildings are churches). It can stand on its own two feet to cover its estimated £900 million annual costs.
- One of the reasons the PM is involved in the selection of senior appointees is because the Monarch cannot be seen to exercise any power or make any choices themselves. “To spare her the embarrassment.” How quaint. How anachronistic. Surely it would be better for the church to govern itself, as the Church of Scotland does, through various assemblies?
- The other reason the PM is involved in is because bishops may end up sitting in the House of Lords. There are currently 26 “lords spiritual”. Aside from Iran, the UK is the only other country in the world that gives clerics seats in its legislature as of right. That’s not a great comparison. While we’re dis-establishing the Church of England, let’s reform the House of Lords, too. (The irony that it is the appointment of an Iranian-born bishop, Reverend Dr Guli Francis-Dehqani, that has landed Johnson in tepid water, should not be lost…)
- Perhaps the most important reason of all: The Great British indifference. It will be interesting to see the results of the 2021 Census, but as of 2017, only 20% of Brits identified as Anglican. Church attendance has been declining for years. At 48% our biggest religion is now ‘no religion’. Yes, the architecture and the cultural heritage is worth protecting, but you can do that without the church being established.
Does the Church of England occupy a central place in national life?
To be balanced we must play devil’s advocate and look at the other side of the argument. Some argue that the Church of England’s place in national life is so deep-rooted and longstanding, that disestablishment could unravel our communities. Hmm. Others of us tried using that argument in 2016. Nobody born after 1975 had known anything other than a trade alliance with the EU knitting us together in the Customs Union, while those born after 1992 had never known anything other than the Single Market and its four freedoms. The loss of all that was devastating, particularly for the younger working-class cohorts, but still our elders foisted it upon us. Perhaps that is not the best analogy. Brexit has turned out even worse than we imagined it would be.
Then there is the question of the Coronation Oath, which includes the pledge to “maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England.” Prince Charles, next in line to be head of the Church of England, has said that he wants to be the “Defender of Faiths”. He is referring to the title English monarchs (and their Scottish and German descendants) have used since the reign of Henry VIII, who was awarded the title “Defender of the Faith” by the Pope in happier times, before a divorce came between them.
The UK is now a multi-faith country, yet that is seen by some as a strong argument in favour of the status quo. It is a Muslim commentator, Anjum Anwar, who has provided the most thought-provoking argument in favour of establishment, as a bulwark against the moral decay of societies, as seen in countries that pursued a policy of aggressive secularisation:
“Anglicanism listens and gives voices to the outsiders. I believe that the Church of England plays a vital role in representing and speaking, not only for Christians, but also for people of other faiths… For me, Anglicanism provides a sense of an identity under the umbrella of ‘people of faith’. Instead of disestablishing the Church, I would want the UK to enhance the way it works so that both church and state, together, can cater for many different communities.”
“As a Muslim I feel that once the Church is disestablished, aggressive secularism may further weaken faith, culminating in a totally secular state, eventually leading to what happened in the former Yugoslavia in the time of Tito.”
The church of the old school tie
If true that the established church has a role in holding back the tide of amoral behaviour engulfing our government, it is failing to fulfill it. The church could have stood up for us, the citizens, against the tsunami of disinformation during the Brexit debacle. But no. Old school ties counted for more than adhering to basic Christian teaching on lies, what with Johnson and the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby both being old Etonians. Despite all the Brexit duplicity and dishonesty having such a corrosive influence on politics and society, dividing us into two camps — those who care about the truth and those who don’t, Welby has continued to support this kakistocracy of a government.
He claimed Johnson’s bare bones Brexit deal, which has crushed entire industries, small businesses and the hopes of our youth, was “a gift in a Christmas of absence”. Even after the stunning revelations of rampant multi-million-pound corruption in the handing out of public procurement contracts for personal protective equipment, Welby suggested we should ignore it and “forgive” our corrupt politicians. Health and social care workers died because they were supplied with faulty PPE, or not supplied with any at all, Archbishop. Before mercy, comes justice.
We will no doubt have a few days’ worth of entertainment, watching our venal PM un-muddle himself from his latest mess. As to the future of the Church of England, we can only hope this government will give it more thought, care and consideration than it gave to Brexit.