(Ed West) Only a free market in religion will save Anglicanism

Posted by Kendall Harmon

I propose disestablishment because I want Christianity to flourish in England, and renew itself, and the best way to do this is through a free market – but when you have a powerful state tied to a weak church, you get a statist church pushing a statist agenda. See how Anglican (and Catholic) charities, subsidised by the state, increasingly bury any Christian identity they have in favour of the state’s ideology of “equality and diversity”. The Big Society, as its heart, was an attempt to push the state out of those areas in which it has no real business, such as the charitable, volunteering and caring sectors. The churches should be leaping at this opportunity.

So here’s a possible solution. The Church of England is disestablished, and becomes just another independent church. The government passes a law that no religious building can change function, while taxpayers stop funding church maintenance through groups like English Heritage (which costs £15 million a year). Therefore if a congregation feels that they are sick of Canterbury and want to break off to join a breakaway liberal or evangelical or Anglo-Catholic church they can do so, so long as they can raise the money to buy the building, which since it cannot change function and costs a lot of money to maintain is not much.

Read it all.

Filed under: * Anglican - EpiscopalArchbishop of Canterbury --Rowan WilliamsAnglican ProvincesChurch of England (CoE)* Culture-WatchHistoryLaw & Legal IssuesChurch/State MattersReligion & Culture* International News & CommentaryEngland / UK

8 Comments
Posted October 31, 2012 at 6:00 am [Printer Friendly] [Print w/ comments]



1. Terry Tee wrote:

Except for the rather weak and unconsidered final para about what to do with the property, the article is IMHO completely on the mark.  Here is my view as an RC parish priest in England:  the C of E has been handicapped by being a state church, designed from its inception to be a compromise, intended to be all things to all men (and not in the sense that St Paul intended the phrase).  This has meant that the C of E can never issue any theological definition or moral boundary because almost immediately some of its members and even its leaders will jump up and say no we don’t believe that - and of course as a broad church it has to grin and bear it.  In the past, when Christian faith was widespread and unquestioned, this was not much of a problem, but now, when we are fighting for survival in NW Europe, it is a terrible handicap.  The Catholic Church would love to step in and take up the slack but we are hamstrung by issues of manpower, barely able to staff our own churches.  I have pointed out in the past how charismatic evangelicalism is making increasing headway in the C of E, especially here in London, being bold and innovative.  It is greatly influenced by the USA.  This churchmanship is not my cup of tea but I respect its creativity and its initiative and its success.  I believe that in the near future the leadership of this movement will feel cramped in the existing C of E polity and begin to think of cutting the ties that bind to the state.  This would also allow the Anglican Church to say definitively what it believes and teaches.  Liberal Christianity would have to find its own accommodation.  I agree with Ed:  set the Church of England free.

October 31, 7:31 am | [comment link]
2. New Reformation Advocate wrote:

Thanks, Fr. Tee.  I basically agree with you.

Of course, as an American, I can’t claim that I really understand or sufficiently appreciate the unique role of the CoE in English society, and I would defer to those of you on the other side of the Pond.  But perhaps I can offer some partial illumination of the issues by pointing to the benefits that Anglicanism has gained here in the USA from disestablishment, even though it initially almost killed us in Virginia, where I live.  As is well known, after the Revolutionary War, the Episcopal Church got off to a very bad start in the colonies where it had been the state church (Virginia, Georgia, both Caolinas, and Maryland.  For various reasons that together formed a sort of “perfect storm” (including the sudden and complete loss of state funding, the fact that many Anglican clergy were Tories and hence regarded with great suspicion and resentment for their support of the British side in the war, and a general American desire to assert independence from England in many aspects of public life besides politics), Anglicanism was literally decimated in the southern colonies during that dark period.  By 1800, only 10% of the Anglican churches that had existed in 1776 were still operating, and it looked to many observers like the Episcopal Church might die out completely.

But then the miracle happened. Two outstanding evangelical bishops in a row (Moore and Meade) took over the helm in the devastated Diocese of Virginia and led a tremendous revival that is still astonishing.  Both men were not only gifted visionary leaders with integrity and unusual communication skills, they were also fervent evangelists with a very clear gospel message, undergirded by an uncompromisingly evangelical theological foundation.  There wasn’t a Broad Church or Latitudinarian bone in their bodies, much less a Catholic one: they were Protestant Anglicans to the core, and proud of it.  The trumpet call to battle that they issued was unmistakeable in its clarity, and many people rallied to the cause with enthusiasm (in the positive American sense of that term).  They founded Virginia Seminary in 1812, and despite all the trials and tribulations of the War of 1812 and other challenges, it quickly grew to be the largest and most influential seminary in the land, with an unashamed evangelical flavor (alas, now almost lost).

Now regular T19 readers know that although I’m a Wheaton grad and have been associated with Evangelicalism all my adult life, I’m also an ordinand of the Anglo-Catholic Diocese of Albany.  I also spent ten years in the Assembly of God Church and have been an active participant in the charismatic renewal movment for more than 30 years.  Hence I frequently like to refer to myself as a “3-D” Christian: evangelical, catholic, and charismatic.

So what is the point in bringing up all that?  Well, two main points actually.  The first is that the great Virginia bishops Richard Moore and William Meade would’ve been profoundly uneasy with that 3-D stuff and extremely suspicious of my catholic and charismatic sides.  Nonetheless, I could’ve related to their passion for the gospel, church-planting and world mission, and their willingness to sacriifice everything for Christ and the Anglican cause, as they understood it.  And I think (perhaps too optimistically) that they might even have come to respect and tolerate me, if they were somehow transported by a time machine into our time, since I share a similar passion and willingness to sacrifice, and although my theological outlook is significantly different from theirs and may be paradoxical at times, at least we’d share an utter rejection of all Broad Church tendencies and all Liberalism (as an ism, i.e., all relativistic tendencies and doctrinal indifferentism).  We’d all be on the same side of the Culture War.

Secondly, to return to Ed West’s piece, I agree with him and with Fr. Tee above that one of the things that is killing us as Anglicans is the futile attempt to “be all things to all people” (but not in the way Paul did, who never compromised the gospel).  Anglicanism may be a Big Tent, but it can’t include everything and everyone, and it’s absolutely absurd to pretend that we can or should.

I particularly liked West’s line about how you can’t expect any good to result from the union of a strong state to a weak church.  Indeed, I would go further myself.  A glance at ANY of the historic state churches of Europe, whether the Lutheran churches of Germany and Scandanavia, or the Reformed churches in Scotland, Netherlands, and Switzerland, or the Catholic Church in France and southern Europe, even a cursory look at them shows plainly that they are all pathetically weak.  The old Christendom marriage of Church and State has ALWAYS ended badly for the Church.  It ALWAYS turns out to favor the State at the expense of the Church, because it inevitably ends up compromising and muzzling the witness of the Church.  Just as has happened in England, despite the noble efforts of many honorable Anglican leaders to resist and overcome that universal and inherent tendency.

I hope that Pageantmaster and other English friends on this blog won’t resent my throwing in my opinion here in support of disestablishment.  I recognize that the risks are enormous, and that much depends on HOW such a momentous change comes about.  I can sympathize with those who fear that the CoE would simply collapse and not survive, as almost happened here in Virginia.

But in the end, in a post-Christendom cultural context like neo-pagan England, it’s really only a matter of time until the CoE suffers the inevitable fate of disestablishment, along with the Anglican churches of Wales or Ireland, or the Lutheran churches of Norway and Sweden, etc.  My point is that the triumphant experience of the Episcopal Church in Virginia shows that disestablishment can in fact prove to be a blessing in disguise.  IF, and it’s a huge if, IF the right sort of leaders rise up to lead the Church boldly into a new and brighter future, with the sort of clear and compelling vision that Bishops Moore and Meade did in 19th century Virginia.

David Handy+

October 31, 12:10 pm | [comment link]
3. MichaelA wrote:

“led by people so open-minded that their brains have fallen out” ... wink

October 31, 7:05 pm | [comment link]
4. MichaelA wrote:

“In theory the Church of England gets a lot from this relationship. It runs lots of schools, which cements its popularity with young middle-class families; it operates lots of state-subsidised charitable organisations; its bishops (rather absurdly) help make laws; it gets to preside over royal events; its vicars get to work at lovely old medieval country churches, while the Catholics are stuck with 19th-century urban redbricks or the truly ennui-soaked 1960s suburban monstrosities.”

Here in Oz, the non-established Anglican church manages to do most of those things.  That includes sticking the Catholics with “19th-century urban redbricks”, but then we have quite a few of our own, so no problem there.  And in Sydney, the RCs do have the 10th or 11th largest gothic cathedral in the world so I guess that makes up for some of the monstrosities.

“See how Anglican (and Catholic) charities, subsidised by the state, increasingly bury any Christian identity they have in favour of the state’s ideology of “equality and diversity”.”

I think the article makes a lot of sense, but I would caution Mr West that he probably won’t see any change in this particular aspect, even with full disestablishment.  Here in Australia the public charitable sector is dominated in each state and the federal sphere by 3-4 churches.  These are normally drawn from: the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans, the Uniting Church, the Salvation Army and the Seventh Day Adventists.

Quite simply, governments have discovered over the years that their welfare and charitable roles cannot function without active church support, because only the churches have a ready supply of dedicated workers who are prepared to put up with the trying and depressing conditions of such work.  I am referring to both paid and volunteer workers - most people who have the giving attitude necessary to do such work for an extended period of time come through the churches.

October 31, 7:17 pm | [comment link]
5. driver8 wrote:

FWLIW there is some evidence at which it might be helpful to look - namely the post disestablishment Church of Ireland and Church in Wales.

November 1, 1:54 am | [comment link]
6. Terry Tee wrote:

Which way does that evidence point, do you think, Driver8?

November 1, 4:33 pm | [comment link]
7. driver8 wrote:

I don’t think I’ve ever seen any work showing the statistics. My guess is that dis-establishment in, say, Wales didn’t make a great difference to the rate of decline in Sunday attendance when compared with the established CofE. In other words, in explaining the decline in attendance, baptisms, confirmations over the 20th century in both Wales and England etc. my guess is that dis-establishment was not terribly significant. FWLIW a quick look around the web suggests that the Church in Wales Sunday attendance is declining more rapidly in the first decade of the 21st century than the CofE.

However this is just a hunch and that means I think it’s more or less worthless. However if one wants to argue about the possible re-invigoration that dis-establishment may bring to the CofE, looking at what happened in Wales might at least be worthy of consideration.

November 2, 12:41 am | [comment link]
8. Jeremy Bonner wrote:

Except on the English border - and perhaps in Cardiff - hasn’t Welsh Anglicanism always been something of a foreign body anyway? 

Disestablishment in Ireland (which was a political necessity) produced a fairly vibrant bloc of Evangelicals in the North and a more mainstream - and increasingly declining - version of Anglicanism elsewhere. Isn’t that an equally plausible trajectory for a disestablished Church of England?

November 2, 5:43 am | [comment link]
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