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An established church?

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The Church of England (CofE) is not the established church of the United Kingdom. There is no established church in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The CofE is established only in England, even though being established means being controlled by the state, and the state in question is the government of the United Kingdom, not the non-existent government of England.

Religious representation in parliament

The CofE is represented in parliament by 25 English bishops. The Anglican Church in Wales has no representation in parliament. The Church of Scotland has no representation in parliament. The Anglican Church of Ireland has no representation in parliament. No other form of Christianity in any of the countries of the United Kingdom has representation in parliament, even though there are now more Catholics than Anglicans in the UK. No other religion has representation in parliament.

Why only English Anglicans, and so many?

Establishment of the church is a complex and woolly thing. But it is hard to justify the particular aspect of establishment that results in English Anglican bishops having a powerful block vote in the second chamber (over 3% of the seats, more than enough to hold the balance of many votes). Two-thirds of Britons may still describe themselves as Christians, but only 6% of them go to church, and only a minority of them (around 870,000, under 1.5% of the population) go to Anglican church. Should this and an accident of history give their senior figures a powerful position in parliament, and deprive senior figures in the Anglican church in Wales, Scotland and Ireland, and senior figures in other major creeds and religions, of any say whatsoever?

Need to reduce numbers of representatives in parliament

It is argued elsewhere that we should substantially reduce the number of seats in both chambers. To do that in the second chamber and still keep 25 seats for English Anglican bishops would exacerbate the disparity in religious representation. Whether the CofE should remain established, and whether religions of any colour should have unelected representation in parliament are separate issues, but on this particular issue of the imbalance of religious representation in parliament, clearly our historical legacy has not left us with a defensible arrangement that can be modestly amended to adjust to the times. There must be wholesale change. Having acknowledged that tweaking is not enough, we can allow ourselves free rein to change this as seems appropriate, unconstrained by tradition.

Should we have unelected religious representation at all?

It is proposed elsewhere on this site that the second, corrective chamber of parliament (the House of Lords as it is currently known) should be democratized. Is there any place for unelected members in such a body?

It is good for a corrective chamber not to be susceptible to dominance by any one political party. The system by which representatives are elected can influence that. But a minor dilution of the elected representatives by a few wise and independent minds would help to protect against this risk.

All sorts of experience and understanding is useful for a corrective chamber. There is no practical way to ensure the best quality of representation of most fields of experience and understanding, other than to rely on the diversity of democracy. But in the case of moral and legal understanding - so important to good legislation - there are hierarchies whose senior members can provide probably the best quality of expertise available in their fields - the faiths and the judiciary respectively. We suggest that a small number of representatives of these fields should be allowed to sit unelected in the second chamber.

They would be there not as representatives of members of their faiths (or of the legal profession), but to provide other members of the house with the benefit of their understanding. So, for those worried about the democratic deficit of having any unelected members, one option would be for them to sit in the house and speak in debates, but not vote. But voting or not, this programme believes (despite the author's agnosticism) that retaining a small proportion of religious representation in the corrective chamber would have more benefits than disadvantages.

Variety of perspective, not proportionality

Religious representation in parliament is not a question of representing members of their faith. It is a question of having experts in various perspectives on moral issues present to explain how matters under discussion would be viewed from their moral perspective. Variety in representation of the various major religions is therefore key, not some attempt to make representative numbers proportionate to the memberships of the various creeds. The balance to be struck is achieving that variety whilst keeping total numbers of unelected representatives down, to avoid creating too much of a democratic deficit in the revised second chamber.

Suggested list of religious representatives

The following list would be one way to try to strike that balance:

  • Both English Archbishops (Canterbury and York), as a small reflection of the traditional role and significance of the CofE.
  • The Archbishop of Wales, expanding representation of the Anglican perspective beyond England
  • The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, as the senior Protestant (but not Anglican) cleric in Scotland
  • A representative of the Protestant churches in Northern Ireland (which is too fragmented for there to be one clear senior figure - the Northern Irish Protestant churches should choose their representative themselves, or be unrepresented if they cannot agree).
  • The Archbishop of Westminster, as the senior Catholic in England.
  • The Senior Catholic Archbishop in Scotland, to reflect the strength of the Catholic church north of the border.
  • The Archbishop of Armagh (senior Catholic in Northern Ireland, for the same reasons as for Scotland).
  • The senior figure in the Pentecostal church
  • The senior figure in the Methodist church
  • The senior figure in the Baptist church
  • The Chief Rabbi.
  • The Khalifatul Masih (senior Moslem in the UK).
  • The senior Hindu leader.
  • The senior Sikh leader
  • The senior Buddhist leader.

That makes 16 religious representatives, of which 11 are Christian and 3 are CofE. That is down from 25 Anglicans, but it is still a few more than ideal. However, it gives a fair spread of perspectives, and (though not particularly relevant) the balance is not too disproportionate to the balance of support for the faiths. The spread should also help to dilute the socialist bias that is prevalent amongst most CofE prelates nowadays.

A major omission is the humanist/atheist/agnostic perspective. Unfortunately (for these purposes), there is no equivalent hierarchy from which senior figures can be selected. There is a temptation to consider academics, but there are so many fields that would be relevant, competing perspectives in each field, and colleges from which the senior figures in each field would have to be chosen without there being any clear way of measuring relative seniority, that it is probably better to rely on democracy to select some members with a clear non-religious moral perspective.

What would be left of the established church?

If their representation in parliament is dramatically reduced, could it be meaningful still to talk of the CofE as the established church?

Many countries have state religions without representatives of those religions sitting in their legislature.

The monarch may still want the senior CofE prelates to play a major symbolic role in the Coronation, and possibly at other events. And the majority may think that there is still value in denoting the default moral authority of the country, particularly as it has played such a significant role in making the English what they are, and its adaptable morality was so significant in the development of English prosperity. On balance, this programme sees no need to pronounce the CofE officially disestablished, or to deprive it of its ceremonial roles, particular in relation to that other ceremonial part of our institutional framework - the monarchy.

The CofE may, however, feel that a reasonable quid pro quo for the exclusion of most of its prelates from the legislature is for the government to lose its rights of appointment of those prelates. Perhaps it would be better for only the Archbishops to be government-appointed in this situation.



Dr. Radut Consulting