(Psephizo) Should the Church of England disestablish? An interview with Jonathan Chaplin, author of Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church State Relations in England

IP: I really enjoyed this book—your crisp and clear style, extremely well researched and informed, and with some nice touches of dry humour. But as you say, you are not the first person to make this argument. You make particular note of Colin Buchanan’s Cut the Connection—but I am not sure he persuaded many people. Why will the case you make do better?

JC: Thank you. There’s no knowing whether it will do any better at all (there’s a short summary here). And Buchanan was a bishop whereas I’m a mere lay academic. But you yourself well understand how important it is to keep making arguments you are convinced are true and good for the Church even when you change few minds! Buchanan’s book appeared in 1994 and is still eminently worth reading, but let me note two ways I think mine goes beyond it.

One of my core arguments is also central to Cut the Connection, namely that even the surviving remnants of Establishment amount to distracting curtailments on the spiritual autonomy of the Church. I echo Buchanan’s call for the Church to become more aware of its remaining captivity to improper constitutional ties to the state. But I couple that with a wider argument from political theology for a religiously impartial state, and I derive both from a New Testament theology of ‘church and state’, spelled out in detail in Chapter 2 (‘A Theology of Disestablishment’). Buchanan’s book does not purport to offer any extended theological arguments, so I think mine complements his in this regard. I hope Anglicans can still be persuaded by theological arguments, or at least provoked to try to rebut them theologically and not only pragmatically. There certainly are pro-Establishment theologians who could give these core arguments a good going over, and I hope they will.

The other way in which I think my book goes beyond Buchanan’s is that I devote two chapters (5 and 6) to disputing the three arguments most frequently wheeled out in defence of Establishment. The first is the ‘concession to secularism’ argument (picked up below). The second is the ‘anti-neutrality’ argument: that disestablishment would only usher in some less desirable, privileged public worldview, such as secular liberalism. I argue that one can maintain a religiously impartial state without necessarily allowing any other worldview to rush in to fill the supposed vacuum.

The third is that disestablishment would amount to an abandonment of the Church’s historic ‘national mission’. This comes in two parts. The first warns of a retreat from the Church’s pastoral openness to all comers, and a (further) lapse into ‘congregationalism’ and ‘sectarianism’. I deconstruct these loaded, polemical and frankly partisan terms and show that disestablishment need not feed either of them (or, if it does, it’s no business of state law to prevent that). Disestablishment would not prevent the Church from remaining as pastorally open to all comers as it wished, but only secure elements of its spiritual autonomy that current arrangements compromise.

Read it all.


Posted in Books, Church of England (CoE), England / UK, Religion & Culture