Disestablishment – separating the church from the state – is mooted from time to time. “Would it be a disaster? No,” he says, adding, “Nothing is a disaster with God.” 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. And if you mean, by privilege, that the archbishop of Canterbury is often involved in royal weddings, or crowns the monarch, or whatever, that’s really a decision for parliament and the people.”
But neither would disestablishment be liberating for the church. “It wouldn’t make any of that [the grassroots social action] easier, as far as I can tell, because that’s all done at a local level. We’re an incredibly delegated, dispersed organisation. All of those things happen because local Christians reach out to those around them, with other faith communities, with those of no faith; they do all that because they follow Christ. So I don’t think [disestablishment] would make it easier, and I don’t think it would make it more difficult.”
A consequence of establishment is that the UK is one of only two countries in the world that reserve seats in their legislature for clerics, the other being Iran – a fact relayed with some relish by Welby to a group of business leaders at Warwick University. But in contrast to the Iranian parliament, the 26 Lords Spiritual in the UK’s upper house now include two (soon to be three) women, who are among more than a dozen appointed as bishops since the church made a historic change to canon law in 2014 – a move championed by Welby.
“If I look back over the past five years, at what’s been achieved in the Church of England, the most significant would clearly be the ordination of women to the episcopate. Am I delighted it’s happened? I’m more than delighted, and I’m even more delighted that, since it became possible in law, about half the bishops that have been appointed are women.” He would like to see a woman take over as archbishop of Canterbury at some point, he says.
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