Overview:

The Church of England's recent head-scratching about gay marriage would be merely amusing, except that it brings up some interesting questions, including: should the conservative faithful favor disestablishment?

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I followed with amusement the recent fracas over same-sex marriage in the Church of England. For half a decade, the Church has been debating its doctrines relating to sexuality, and the thought of gentle Anglicans worrying over the finer points of gay sex has elicited from me a chuckle or two over the years. Now this long consultation by the “sheep in wolf’s clothing” (as somebody once called the CoE) is finished, and recommendations have been made for the General Synod to vote on.  

There has been some progress. The celibacy rule for gay clergy is to be tossed out, for one thing (how interesting those conversations must have been). But on the big issue of gay marriage, the CoE has reiterated its ban. So gay Anglican clergy will be able to have sex with their partners, but not be married in their own Church—such is the logic of those venerable old sheep.

I say I have followed all this with amusement because, in one way, it is such a non-issue. The CoE’s long decline continues unabated and the British population becomes more secular by the day, so what does it matter? Small religious sects, unattractive as they often are, are perfectly within their rights to make their own rules.

It’s also been very funny to watch the frustration of conservatives at what they see as the woke infiltration of the CoE (they must be very heartened by the gay marriage decision). Take Calvin Robinson. Robinson appears weekly on GB News in full clerical dress-up to moan about the decline of Christian civilization or whatever. This strange man, who calls himself Father and who is so self-righteous yet so very silly as he monologues to the camera, po-faced and in full regalia, is not a clergyman of the CoE but of the Free Church of England.

He left the CoE to become a member of the Global Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans, a conservative Anglican splinter group alarmed at the softness of the established church, with which the Free Church is affiliated. (Given that Padre Calvin self-identifies as an Anglo-Catholic and that he told the Catholic Herald he “could see the reuniting of Christians with Rome,” how long can it be, I wonder, before he abandons Anglicanism altogether?)

Padre Calvin’s reaction to the “controversy” in the CoE has been quite amusing. When Penny Mordaunt, the Leader of the House of Commons, wrote to CoE bishops urging them to support gay marriage in the Church, he tweeted: “Has @PennyMordaunt written to the Catholic Church and the Muslim Council, too? Should a cabinet member be politicising matters of faith?” I thought this was an interesting way to put it. After all, is the Padre here not advocating for a secular government? Perhaps the solution is to disestablish the CoE and adopt something like the First Amendment?

(Incidentally, the Padre’s concern about the politicization of faith would be touching if it were not so dishonest. Then again, his faith is so clearly politically tinged and his politics are so obviously linked to his faith that he might not even have any self-awareness about this. Besides, faith is almost always political. Like the monarchy, it is not above or beyond politics in the slightest.)

And for all I know, Robinson may well genuinely favor such a move. If so, can he be counted as a secular ally of sorts? He does make a very good point: Why should one religious sect be targeted by the government and not others? Here we run into the problem of establishment, however, and it is this serious point that gives me pause in my otherwise disinterested amusement.

These are just a very few of the extraordinary privileges afforded to the CoE in British public life. Given this, why shouldn’t government seek to sway its decisions?

The CoE is the official state church in England, its bishops sit in the House of Lords just because they are bishops, and the monarch must be an Anglican as they are also the head of the Church. These are just a very few of the extraordinary privileges afforded to the CoE in British public life. Given this, why shouldn’t government seek to sway its decisions?

The Church’s doctrines cannot be a purely internal matter because of its very nature as the established state religion. Indeed, the Prime Minister effectively makes ecclesiastical appointments, so there is a precedent for government interference in the Church’s affairs. (Rishi Sunak, our first Hindu Prime Minister, is allowed to make such appointments despite not even being a Christian; strictly speaking, the law only forbids Jews and Catholics from ‘advising’ the monarch on them.)

So when the (Catholic) journalist Melanie McDonagh tells us that “MPs must respect Christian views on same-sex marriage,” the only real response is: why? Never mind McDonagh’s self-pitying call for her beliefs to be respected—why should our elected representatives have to tread carefully when it comes to one religion (and one particular sect of one particular religion at that) when that religion is so enmeshed with the state?

Apparently, “secular norms” must not be imposed on the Church. Well, why not, if the Church is an official arm of a state whose people are rapidly becoming more secular?

Apparently, “secular norms” must not be imposed on the Church. Well, why not, if the Church is an official arm of a state whose people are rapidly becoming more secular? It should be the other way around: the Church should not be able to impose religious norms on the state, as it has done for centuries. (It might be relevant to note here that the Church of England originates in a worldly conflict between Henry VIII and the Pope—it was and is not just a religious institution, but also a political one interested in secular power.)

I am being slightly unfair to McDonagh here, because she does get it, all self-pity and special pleading aside:

Parliament established the Church of England but we’re post-Henry VIII: it can’t tell the Church what to think. If MPs feel able to bully the church into conforming to their views, that’s the end, the point at which bishops should tell the state where to get off. Or else this is where church and state must part company.

Indeed. And how pleasing to find another apparent ally in such inauspicious garb: how can secularism possibly fail with Padre Calvin and Melanie McDonagh on its side?

The Church has no reason to complain if the government gets involved in doctrinal matters when it is the official state religion. But it could impose whatever it pleased on its dwindling flock absolutely unhindered if it were to be disestablished. For the good of the Church as well as for the good of the state, then, it is time for the CoE to go the way of every other faith in the country. Whether it wanders off to die quietly with hardly one last lamenting bleat or its own two (or should that be four?) feeble feet contain enough residual strength to allow it to rise again should be of no concern to the rest of us.

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Daniel James Sharp

Daniel James Sharp is an independent writer and Deputy Editor of Areo Magazine. He is currently working on a book about Christopher Hitchens for Pitchstone Publishing. He lives in Fife, Scotland.