Every now and then the thorny, and contentious, subject of establishment comes up. The subject is, of course, of particular importance to the Church of England but, I suggest, also to members of other denominations and religions. I am a firm believer in Establishment, as I think that it benefits all denominations and faith groups – perhaps, paradoxically, more than it does the Church of England.
These are my reasons:
1. Establishment ensures that the church remains in active dialogue with the state. Yes, there will be tensions and disagreements, but establishment provides the platform for public theology. Establishment is the catalyst for ensuring that the views (and it is important that we recognize that a plurality of views exists in the established church and other denominations and faiths) of those formally associating themselves with a faith are heard. We also need to remember that membership of religious organisations is by far the most popular voluntary activity in the country; and, this includes other forms of ‘national religion,’ such as football! So, it is important that the religious view is heard. It is also important that the church remains in constant dialogue with society’s primary representative, government. We religious folk need to accept that the relationship will mostly be contentious, tense even, and that this is right and proper. Uniquely, paradoxically given its ‘privileged’ status part of the Church of England’s calling is to be the fall guy for all religious groups, speaking what appears to be ‘folly’ in the public square. My ‘non-conformist’ and Roman Catholic friends frequently tell me that they don’t envy the C of E but are very glad its there because ‘our’ public persona provides them with the opportunity to have exactly same debates (or seek divine revelation) behind closed doors.
2. Establishment defines, and legitimizes, the mission field – every household in the country!
3. Establishment ensures that every household is entitled, in law, to basic religious freedoms.The very character and diversity of the Church of England, with its diversity of theologies and worship styles, provides a template for religious freedom in a wider sense. So the genius of establishment is that whilst ensuring that one denomination, the Church of England, is afforded a so called privileged place in the religious pecking order, the tensions and basic lack of agreement within the established church ensure that the tendency to seek religious hegemony and domination cannot exist. The irony is that religious and denominational plurality is a function of ‘our’ ‘privileged status.’ And this is good news for all denominations and faiths.Placing all denominations on a (false?) ‘equal footing’ would, I suspect, only work to ensure that all faith groups become increasingly marginalized, that Jesus’ last prayer that we ‘we all be one,’ remains unanswered and, that the ability to respond to and shape policy – in order that the kingdom be built ‘on earth as in heaven,’ would simply be a distant dream.
4. Establishment provides ‘the law’, in a national context, leaving the churches (because all churches enjoy the same operational freedoms as the C of E) to work out how the law might be best fulfilled. This is pure gospel!
5. Establishment recognizes, even celebrates, tradition and heritage, whilst ensuring that the church, through its engagement with the ‘big issues’ facing society (welfare, healthcare, overseas aid, education, military intervention, issues of gender and sexuality and so forth – please let’s make sure that we aren’t seen to be solely interest in the latter tow issues to the exclusion of all), constantly has to renew its own thinking (renewal of the mind – very Pauline).
So there you have it, five reasons for celebrating the genius of establishment. Anyway these are my thoughts (as a newly ordained C of E minister).
What do you think?