Distinctive force or vague multicultural outpost? CofE must decide

Tom Holland interviewed by Bishop Graham Tomlin at the annual conference of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life. Image credit: RMC

By Catherine Pepinster

The Church of England is facing a clear choice between remaining a distinctive force in society or becoming “secular mush”, a historian has warned bishops.

Tom Holland, author of the bestselling history Dominion, told senior clerics that the church had a question to ask itself: “Does it affirm its distinctive character or does it dissolve itself into the secular mush? I suspect it is opting for the latter.”

Mr Holland told the annual conference of the McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics and Public Life on Monday, that the Church of England had to make choices that are likely to cause resentment and anger.

“Does it affirm its distinctiveness or is it part of the religious wing of multiculturalism? Both are invidious,” he said. The changes happening now in society, he believed, were analogous to the Reformation.

“Generations are growing up without the basic fundamentals of the Bible,” he said, predicting that this would have serious implications for the next coronation and how it was received by the public.

He noted that the Prince of Wales did not seem interested in religion in the way that both his grandmother, Elizabeth II, and his father, the King, have been. Because of that, Mr Holland said, Prince William was “like the rest of society”.

The conference on public legitimacy of the Church of England was held at Pusey House, Oxford, which organised it in partnership with the Centre for Cultural Witness, based at Lambeth Palace.

It heard strong support for what was termed “earthed establishment” — the rootedness of the Church of England in all parts of the nation, through its parish system — as well as challenges to “high establishment”: its power and influence shaped by the monarch being supreme governor of the Church of England; the place of the bishops in the House of Lords; and its automatic precedence of the Church of England at state occasions.

Dr Jonathan Chaplin, an honorary fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge University, said the CofE’s connection to the state was a hindrance and should be relinquished, because a church whose authority came from Jesus Christ should not be subservient to the state.

Ending the monarch’s role as supreme governor, Dr Chaplin said, “would do nothing to make Christianity less important in a more secular state”, and ending the “sacred canopy” of establishment “would not end religion’s role in public life”.

But according to the Bishop of Hull, Dr Eleanor Sanderson, establishment gives the church public legitimacy in the eyes of others in public life. She cited how, as the local Anglican bishop, she had been kept informed of the developments in the case of a firm of undertakers in her diocese that was being investigated over the conduct of funerals and the storage of bodies. She had previously been a bishop in New Zealand, where there is no established church, and she would never have been given such briefings there, she said.

But being the established church, argued Canon Mark Chapman, professor of the history of modern theology at Oxford University, could lead to tensions between church and state, citing the case of the bishops’ opposition in the House of Lords to same-sex marriage. “It’s hard to accept establishment when the church is out of touch with the majority,” he said.

Dominic Grieve, who served as attorney-general from 2010 to 2014, agreed that establishment was under strain, but he said it would take a long time to change the system and that many people in Britain still adhered to it. He said that the oaths taken by people in public life to serve — such as the oath taken by MPs and king’s counsel — highlighted that there was a link between the crown, coronation and Christianity.

Just as the King swore at the coronation to uphold the law, justice and mercy, so others such as MPs then swear to be faithful to the King — and in effect, to his own coronation promises. All this is entwined with Christian ethical standards, Mr Grieve said, “and there is nothing to replace them”.    

According to Shermara Fletcher-Hoyte, principal officer for pentecostal, charismatic, and multicultural relations for Churches Together in England, part of the public legitimacy of the Church of England is due to its role sustaining a space for different faiths to flourish. Establishment gave the church a privileged position, she said, and with it came a moral responsibility for fostering dialogue and for the common good.

The conference was part of a wider project between the McDonald Centre and the Centre for Cultural Witness, and material to help bishops engage in the public square will be produced. A 48-hour training session for new bishops on their public role has also been held.

The work comes as Anglican bishops, as well as senior clerics from other Christian denominations, are under the spotlight over how they speak out on hot-button issues during the general election campaign.

Electoral guidance on issues has been published by the Catholic bishops, black bishops, and clergy from the Methodists, Baptists and United Reformed Church — but not jointly by Church of England bishops, nor by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

Instead, they have produced Pray Your Part, a 21-day journey of reflection and prayer, with prayers and scripture readings to help voters as they prepare to cast their ballots.

However, individual bishops can offer advice and guidance, something that the Diocese of Salisbury has done. Its general election briefing has proved controversial with Conservative Party officials complaining that it was verging on the party political with questions to candidates such as: “Will you eliminate the concept of illegality for those who enter the UK by other non-traditional means?”


Join our Newsletter