My answer would be “No”, but I think it’s time to have the debate.
Prince Charles intends to be the “Defender of Faith” when he becomes King, rather than the “Defender of the Faith”. David Cameron wants to change the law to allow Catholics to sit on the throne. It is likely that House of Lords reform will either remove or dilute the bishops’ privileged place in the legislature.
All of those ideas have their pros and cons. But all would undeniably weaken the position of the established Church.
Having a monarch as “Defender of Faith” would be a small change, but one that would send a clear message: that the Church of England is no longer as central to the monarchy as it has been in the past (and, therefore, that it is no longer as central to England).
Allowing Catholics to become King or Queen would also erode the position of the Church. It isn’t likely to happen any time soon, of course, but changing the law would indicate one of two things: that the government doesn’t oppose the idea of a non-Anglican being Head of the Church (a bizarre position), or that the government is ambivalent about the traditional link between being Head of State and Head of the Church of England. Either way, it cannot be construed as an endorsement of the Church’s current position.
Removing the bishops from the House of Lords would tangibly decrease both the influence and stature of the Church, while retaining them alongside representatives of other religious groups would eliminate their unique position under the current constitutional settlement.
If all of those things happen, we risk disestablishing the Church by the back door: slowly eroding its position until actual disestablishment is just a formality.
I believe that the Church is worth more than that. Instead of chipping away at its position bit by bit, let’s have a full and open debate.
Does the Conservative Party support the establishment of the Church? How about the Liberal Democrats? If establishment is supported, what should it look like? Should the status quo be preserved, or should modern establishment mean something different? Can establishment exist simultaneously with recognition of other faiths? If so, how?
They are not simple questions, but it isn’t a simple topic. The relationship between religion, the state and society is increasingly complex – both as attitudes to religion change, and as England becomes more multicultural.
Having this debate now, at a time when the coalition is undertaking widespread constitutional reform, will allow us to determine the future of the Church. It seems like established religion has been on the retreat for a long time: changing the succession rules and Lords reform provide us with an opportunity to discuss it, rather than turning a blind eye and letting it whither away.
Should we retain the established Church as it is? Should the current settlement be modified to better reflect modern England? Or should we just do away with it altogether?
Over to you…