The Church of England: an anachronistic religious monopoly ripe for reform

The Church of England’s unique constitutional status gives it a monopoly role as the sole official state institution charged with relations between the UK state and with God. Norman Bonney argues that these arrangements are increasingly inappropriate for the current era, noting that long term trends and more recent experiences make the case for disestablishment. 

House of Lords

The former Archbishop of Canterbury speaking in Parliament. Credit: Catherine Bebbington (Parliamentary copyright)

In a country which is increasingly secular, and both religiously indifferent and religiously diverse, the Church of England is an anachronistic institution ripe for reform.

Originating in the desire of a sixteenth century king to free himself from the religious authority and political influence of the Church of Rome, the Church of England remains as the national church not only of England, but in some respects not generally appreciated, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Granted substantial autonomy in its actual operations it remains subject, potentially, to the ultimate control of the UK Parliament which has to approve ‘measures’ or laws relating to its functioning.

The Church’s unique constitutional status gives it a monopoly role as the sole official state institution charged with relations between the UK state and with God in the name of Jesus Christ. It exclusively conducts daily prayers in both Houses of Parliament, potentially ministers to the religious needs of all members of that Parliament, presides at the annual UK service of remembrance for the ‘Glorious Dead’ of war at the Cenotaph, Whitehall, London, and conducts the coronation service which administers the Coronation Oath Act of 1688 in which a new monarch swears to profess Christianity and uphold ‘the Protestant reformed religion in the UK’ and the continuing privileges of the very Church itself.

The rejection of the Church in the UK and other realms

These arrangements, inherited from the political and religious needs of Henry VIII and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, are increasingly inappropriate for the current era. The devolved Parliaments of the UK rejected comparable arrangements when established in 1999. The Welsh National Assembly has no religious business. The Legislative Assembly of Northern Ireland, a province where the conflicts of 1688/9 still resonate strongly, eventually decided that daily ‘prayers’ at the start of business would take the form of collective silent contemplation. The Scottish Parliament decided to have a weekly ‘Time for Reflection’ which would give six other faith traditions and fourteen Christian denominations an opportunity to offer prayer or reflection in proportions intended to reflect the pattern of belief in Scotland.

Other jurisdictions that were in the past, or continue to be, under the nominal rule of the UK monarch have all rejected Anglican establishment. The parliamentary union of Scotland with England and Wales in 1707 explicitly ensured, at Scottish insistence, that the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, not the Scottish Episcopal sister of the Church of England, nor the Church of Rome, would be established in Scotland. The Church was disestablished in the island of Ireland in 1869 and in Wales in 1920. The final vestiges of church establishment were removed from the states of the rebellious USA by the 1830s. And over time the position of the offshoots of the Church of England in the 15 other current realms of the monarch that include Canada and Australia, became increasingly peripheral. The great majority of adherents to the Church in the monarch’s realms are now to be found in the UK itself.

In general, then, the achievement of political independence or major constitutional revision has been marked by the rejection of the UK religious settlement. When citizens and their representatives have had the opportunity fully to consider the arrangements for the recognition of religion by the state they have rejected the exclusive monopoly of an official state Christian religious denomination as found in the UK.

A church of all the people?

Within the UK itself the position of the Church has gradually and systematically been eroded over the centuries. Originally, and in theory today, the Church is for all the people; all can avail themselves of its services for worship, marriage, baptism and funerals. The Church probably still has a large share of the market for funerals although there is increasing interest in alternative apparently non-religious ceremonial such as that offered by humanist groups. But people are increasingly rejecting church weddings. Two thirds of weddings in England and Wales are now civil ceremonies and less than a quarter are conducted by the Church of England.

The lack of connection between the doctrines of the Church and of the population has been additionally demonstrated by its reluctance to accept women bishops  – a posture that has led to parliamentary debates which highlight the role of the UK Parliament in governing the church – and by its unwillingness to accept same sex marriage laws that are favoured by Parliament.

Long term trends and more recent experiences thus make the case for disestablishment. The Church of England has failed in its centuries’ old official Christian mission. The 2011 census indicated that 25 per cent of the population of England and Wales had no religion and that only 59 per cent were Christian. Social surveys indicate that just about one in three of the population identify with the Church itself.

It is now questionable as to whether the Church is a national one. Those constitutional religious roles that it performs for the state are not founded on a popular basis. Its doctrines and rituals are increasingly rejected by the population.

Mission creep

Failing in its mission the Church has, following the lead of successive governments, taken on other roles which are strictly not within its Christian constitutional remit by developing links and collaboration with other faith traditions favoured by the state. The Church advises as to protocol at state religious ceremonial and allows some favoured denominations to have a symbolic but silent presence at such rituals. Church dogma includes Zoroastrians but excludes spiritualists from the official religious delegation at UK state remembrance ceremonial. Humanists are also excluded from inter-faith dialogue and face great challenges in England in being accepted as agents that may conduct legally recognised marriage ceremonies.

The case for disestablishment

Religious interests that enjoy access to power and centrality to the rituals of the state are averse to surrendering their monopoly of state religious doctrine and ceremonial. And politicians are reluctant to confront ancient institutions. But the idea that the UK state should have institutions and doctrines devoted to its relation to a supernatural sphere are increasingly discrepant with contemporary social values. But the Church, liberated from its official roles and trappings, might well find a new vigour to pursue its core mission and the state would then be able to be neutral between the various religious denominations and belief systems found in a secular and diverse society.

Note: This post was originally published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog. It represents the views of the author, and not those of Democratic Audit or the London School of Economics. It is based on the longer piece by Norman Bonney: ‘Towards a free market in religion’ Political Quarterly, 84, 2, 256-264. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

Norman BonneyProfessor Norman Bonney was a lecturer and researcher at Aberdeen University and, The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. He was head of psychology and sociology at Edinburgh Napier University, where he is currently Emeritus Professor. His ‘Monarchy, religion and the state; civil religion in the UK, Canada, Australia and the Commonwealth’ will be published by Manchester University Press in October 2013. Further details can be found  here. His publications are listed at

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