The Church of England is not a church of privilege, but of obligation
Here we go again. Someone in high authority (in this instance, the Prime Minister) happens to mention that the United Kingdom is a "Christian country", and then mounts a defence (of sorts) of the constitutional establishment of the Church of England, and out they crawl from under every stone and slither out of the crumbling timbers of the disintegrating religio-political edifice - an entire tribulation of trolling disestablishmentarianists, who posit (with varying degrees of socio-politico-ecclesio-theological comprehension) that both Church and State would benefit from the severing of the union which has bound them since England's kings in ancient times first responded to the gospel of salvation and pledged to govern these islands in accordance with the lively oracles of God.
And so we have Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg:
More generally speaking, about the separation of religion and politics. As it happens, my personal view - I’m not pretending this is something that’s discussed in the pubs and kitchen tables of Britain - but my personal view is that, in the long-run, having the state and the church basically bound up with each other, as we do in this country, is, in the long run...I actually think it would be better for the church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the church and the state were to, over time, stand on their own two separate feet, so to speak. But that’s not going to happen overnight, for sure...supported by the National Secular Society:
"At last, we have a high profile politician have the courage to say that separating church and state would be a good idea. None of the others dare say it, although it is quite clear that the time has come to do it."..supported by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams:
"I grew up in a disestablished Church; I spent ten years working in a disestablished Church; and I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the Establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh Synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that."..supported by the Rev'd Giles Fraser:
"The problem with establishment is not that I think it's bad for the country - I think it might be actually quite good for the country - I think it's bad for the church. And I think it's bad for the church for us to be so close to the establishment. We sort of cosy-up to the establishment and it blunts our message. And I think that's the problem - we're not free to be the church because we're too close to the powers that be, and we quite like being too close to the powers that be."And on the other side is, well.. no-one in particular. But the Prime Minister made a sterling effort:
"No I don’t want to see (disestablishment). I think our arrangements work well in this country. As I’ve said before, we’re a Christian country, we have an established church, and being a Christian country, I find other faith leaders and members of other faiths say that it makes us almost more understanding, more tolerant, more understanding of the role that faith and religion plays in our country. And actually, faith organisations do an enormous amount in terms of supporting schools, supporting charities, helping to build what I call the bigger society. So I don’t want to see what the Deputy Prime Minister has set out, it’s a long-term liberal idea but not a Conservative one."Those who oppose the Anglican Settlement often tend to talk in terms of outdated notions of "religious privilege" - of the "anachronism" of the Head of State being Supreme Governor of the Church of England; of the "unwarranted interference" in our system of government; of 26 "unelected" bishops in the House of Lords; of "exclusive" prayers before each session of Parliament; or of the "religious discrimination" in church schools.
In their obsession with privilege, they ignore the Church of England's social obligation and its contribution to the common good. Even the Rev'd Giles Fraser acknowledges that establishment "might be actually quite good for the country".
The Church of England has always struggled with the tension between affirmation of the gospel and assimilation to the prevailing culture; between transformation and inculturation. Establishment commits the Church to full involvement in civil society and to making a contribution to the public discussion of issues that have moral or spiritual implications. These cannot easily be reduced to soundbites, tweets, neat headlines or trite blogposts: profound matters demand profound contemplation and an articulation which does them justice.
We are no longer in an age - if ever we were - where the Archbishop of Canterbury can impose a morality or a doctrine of God. His primary role is not to assert any kind of "privilege", but to declare the Good News of salvation. And intrinsic to that is the acutely political function of calling the state to account by obstinately asking the Government about its accountability and the justification of its priorities. He might sometimes have to be a thorn in the Prime Minister's side; he might even have to be stealthy in his applied wisdom and occasionally infuriating to his flock. But that is because his duty is that of service to God in submission to "the powers that be", for whom he prays, as he is commanded, that they might govern with justice and righteousness.
And in that holy obligation lies the essence of the Church of England. Its proven and dedicated commitment to the common good and its contribution to the maintenance of the peace and security of the State outweighs any secular scruple, grievance or objection.