Does the Church of England Face “Disestablishment by a Thousand Cuts”?

In 2000, the then future Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, predicted that before long the Church of England would experience “disestablishment by a thousand cuts”.1  This did not happen during his tenure as Archbishop, and as we shall see, for various reasons it seems even less likely to happen under the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. Nevertheless, the Church of England’s position as an established state church is increasingly unusual on the global stage, and with the arguable growth of the secularisation of British society, as well as the increasing influence of other faiths and denominations, there are many reasons to believe disestablishment may be preferable to the status quo.

Whilst any sustained defence of the disestablishmentarian cause will have to wait for a later blog, it is probably helpful to give a brief overview of my line of argument here. Establishment, in my view, functions to limit protest and dissent both in an official capacity, as well as from its members. The Church of England’s history as the established church has continued a culture and practice of elitism, of which it is largely unaware, into the current era, and this stifles and marginalises alternative voices. This privileged position causes it to establish and support well-intentioned but ultimately inadequate solutions to problems caused by capitalism, without adequately critiquing the underlying ideology. As previously stated of course, the validity of these claims can be challenged, but any defence I may wish to mount will have to wait.

Former Archbishop Rowan Williams, has been a rare voice for disestablishment from within the House of Bishops. ©Wikimedia Commons

Rowan Williams’ belief that disestablishment will come by a ‘thousand cuts’ suggests the complicated nature of the model of establishment found in England.  Establishment is not a fixed ideology, system, or organisational method.  Rather, it is a far more fluid concept, with a multitude of differing examples.  An established church may be the only established church in its country or co-established with another church.  It may be autonomous; accountable to another authority; or it may be transnational, being the official state church in some countries, but not others.  It may hold some level of official political power, or it may have little power beyond its own influence.  Some churches do not fit neatly into any of these categories, including the Church of England, which is the established church of its own country of England, but not of the state of the United Kingdom.  It is a national church, and yet it has dioceses in other countries.  The model of establishment found in England then, is highly complex.  Unlike some other systems, the United Kingdom has an ‘uncodified constitution’.  This describes not a single document called or even equivalent to a constitution, but rather the sum of laws and principles used in the political and legal governance of the country.  In this respect, the constitution is perhaps more akin to a concept than anything concrete. 
The wider Anglican Communion likewise tells a complex story.  It finds much of its origin in the colonial conquests by England and then the United Kingdom, with the majority of churches in the Anglican Communion having begun as part of the Church of England.  Even considering the somewhat fluid definition of establishment, for most of these churches it would be inaccurate to describe them as having been established.  Most began in some sense as the church of the establishment, and indeed as the church of an invasive establishment, but few have remained in this condition.  Rather, they have adapted to their context, perhaps reflecting their non-established status.  Only one church in the Anglican Communion holds on to what Rowan Williams once described as the “relic” of establishment: the Church of England.  It would be inaccurate, then, to describe establishment as normative for contemporary Anglicanism. 

Current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has pointed to the complexity and perhaps therefore, futility of disestablishment. ©Wikimedia Commons

The disorderly nature of the Church of England’s establishment is likewise recognised by both Williams’ successor and predecessor to the role of Archbishop of Canterbury.  Unlike Williams though, neither Justin Welby nor George Carey have expressed discomfort with it.  In a 2018 interview, Archbishop Justin Welby explained that establishment is “a conglomeration of different bits of history. There’s no Establishment of the Church of England Act that you could repeal – it’s a complicated process.”  Like Welby, during his time as Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey understood establishment to be “an evolving thing”.  Recognising the socialist impetus to dismantle hierarchical structures deemed to be unjust, Carey suggested the reason the then Labour government had not made moves in this direction was that they recognised that the Church was doing “a good job”.  Therefore, despite being a traditionally left-wing party, they would not consider disestablishment at that time.2 

There are good reasons to question Carey’s thought here.  First, being traditionally perceived as a left-wing party, the 1994 election of Tony Blair as leader of the Labour Party marked an ideological shift to the political right.  During this time, the party amended Clause IV of its constitution, removing language traditionally associated with socialism, in order to make itself more appealing to middle-class voters.  Whilst some have argued that the 1918 version of Clause IV has only ever served to create the pretence of socialism without ever really being socialist, the removal of such language nevertheless represents a fundamental change in the nature of the Labour Party project.As such, a key consideration for those considering the established status of the Church of England is whether this ideological shift presents a change in attitude towards questions of church and state.

One thing the Labour Party’s ideological shift did do was establish a level of consensus in British politics not seen since the post-war Keynesian consensus, though of course these two consensuses differed significantly.  The assumption is often that this ideological consensus created an individualistic society, but as Luke Bretherton points out, it coincided somewhat ‘paradoxically’, with a shift in emphasis; the state now ‘recast’ as partnering with the ‘community’, rather than fulfilling the majority of people’s needs directly.4  This makes sense because the benefits of social welfare programmes are not easily given up by those they benefit.  By shifting the duty of care to the community, the government could bring down what Bretherton calls the ‘spiraling’ costs of the welfare state, whilst maintaining the image of a government that cared. 

The Church of England’s response to this shift in emphasis has perhaps been on the positive side of mixed.  For example, whilst many welcomed the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s flagship “Big Society” plans as an opportunity, there was also criticism from within the Church aimed at cuts to public spending that many felt would disproportionately target those from marginalised groups.  Over the course of the coalition government’s term the “Big Society” quietly dissipated out of existence and these concerns became louder from both inside and outside the Church.  Many now recognise the social impact of the Church during times of Conservative rule and austerity, even if they themselves have no religious affiliation, and this can affect the public appetite for disestablishment.  Many, valuing the Church’s social impact, will equate its establishment with its health as a whole, and therefore desire the status quo. 

Whatever his personal beliefs, Jeremy Corbyn’s platform is one of reform rather than revolution. ©Wikimedia Commons

The success of the attempt to portray the government as caring is debatable.  Whilst individualism and communitarianism are not necessarily directly contradictory ideals, it would be remiss to ignore the dogmatic individualism inherent to free-market ideology.  The shift to more communitarian language, however, has done much to neutralise the public backlash against the impact of neoliberal economic policies, with many still believing in their practicality over and above Keynesian, or even more ‘socialistic’ approaches.  Whilst it would be wrong for the Church to simply stop meeting the needs of those affected by these policies, it should be enough to reflect on how charity and social action may further perpetuate poverty and oppression if not carried out correctly.  Naturally, questions soon arise as to whether a Church so ensconced within state apparatus is capable of adequate self-reflection.  The Church is comfortable where it is, but this can limit its scope of critique offered against governments and systems.

Another possible avenue by which disestablishment may come about however, requires our return to the Labour Party’s internal wranglings regarding Clause IV.  The current leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, is viewed, whether positively or negatively, as a leader with values that will return the Labour Party to its original ideals, however the reality is far more complex.  Campaigns to reinstate Clause IV have gathered apace, but Corbyn has typically given reserved and open-ended answers to questions on the issue.  Prior to his election as leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn explained that the party needed to talk “about what the objectives of the party are, whether that’s restoring the Clause Four as it was originally written” or writing a new clause.  This was largely interpreted at the time to mean that Corbyn wished to restore the original Clause IV, however this was never explicitly stated by Corbyn himself, and after this interview, a spokesperson confirmed that Corbyn had no intention of reinstating Clause IV.  More recently, Corbyn has expressed his reluctance to reinstate Clause IV in clearer terms, which suggests that whatever his personal beliefs, his project appears to be closer to a social-democratic model than a democratic socialist one.  That is to say that whilst Corbyn may be in favour of nationalising some key industries and services, he does not outwardly endorse nationalising all industries and services, and certainly does not endorse any kind of transitional programme to collectivise and dissolve the state.  All of which is to say that even under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, arguably the most radically left-wing Labour Party leader for decades, the assumption that the Labour Party may attempt to disestablish the Church of England in the foreseeable future would still hold little merit, because the Labour Party is ideologically positioned to reform and retain the system within which it finds itself.
One final consideration is that the impetus to disestablish the Church of England is not only a socialist one.  Indeed, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, is known to be a proponent of disestablishment based both on his atheistic worldview and social-liberal politics. Nevertheless, the importance that dismantling hierarchy has historically held in socialist theory and discourse is missing in social-liberalism, so it seems a stretch to believe that such admittedly vast undertaking would take place even if the Liberal Democrats did somehow gain power.  All of which suggests that since both Carey and Welby seem clear that disestablishment, if it were to come, would do so through Act of Parliament rather than Act of Synod, it would in all likelihood either be a gradual process, or follow an incident involving the royal family that dramatically decreased public support for the monarchy.  Both archbishops recognise the privileged position the Church of England occupies, but they are reticent to abandon it.  This privilege, at least ostensibly, comes through a sense of duty to the nation, and this kind of thinking is rarely without consequence.

1 Paul Weller, Time for a Change: Reconfiguring Religion, State and Society, (London: T&T Clark International, 2005), 38.
2 Monica Furlong, The C of E: The State It’s In, (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2006), 167.
3 Michael Newman, “Ralph Miliband and the Labour Party: from Parliamentary Socialism to ‘Bennism’”, in Interpreting the Labour Party: Approaches to Labour Politics and History, ed. John Callaghan, et al., (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2003), 58-59.
4 Luke Bretherton, Christianity and Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness, (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 33.





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