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Church of England: Disestablishment

Volume 794: debated on Wednesday 28 November 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the case for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

I am grateful to the Minister for that comprehensive reply. Going back a short time in your Lordships’ House to 1953, when the Queen was crowned, some noble Lords may remember that the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned the Queen and she gave a sworn oath to,

“maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, discipline and government”,

et cetera. According to the National Secular Society, even since 2002 the proportion of Britons who identify with the Church of England has halved from 31% to 14% and half of British people have no religion. Is it not time for the new monarch, when he comes, to embrace this secular state and perhaps swear an oath to Parliament, as suggested by the UCL Constitution Unit, that he will in all his,

“words and deeds uphold justice, mercy, fairness, equality, understanding and respect for all”,


“Peoples, from all their different backgrounds”?

Is that not the way we should be heading?

My Lords, the noble Lord seeks to amend the Coronation Oath Act 1688. The Act sets out the oath and requires that it is,

“In like manner Adminstred to every King or Queene who shall Succeede”.

While it has been altered to modernise the language and to reflect the territories that have been added and subtracted, the noble Lord’s proposition goes beyond that, raising broader constitutional issues and requiring primary legislation.

Does my noble friend agree that one of the reasons why an established Church should be retained is that its prelates are needed in this House, not least in order to be held to account for the occasional serious lapse, such as the destruction after a deeply flawed investigation of the reputation of the great Bishop George Bell, who died 60 years ago—an investigation castigated by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, in a report published a year ago, to which the Church has yet to make any redress?

Well, without getting drawn into the second half of my noble friend’s question, I agree with the first half that it is important that the bishops are represented in your Lordships’ House. They add a spiritual dimension to our discussions. They speak with a moral authority that escapes most of us, and they are the only Members of your Lordships’ House with a specific geographical remit.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his affirmation. When the country came together to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Armistice earlier this month, the Church of England led events of solemn remembrance and thanksgiving in pretty much every community up and down the land of England. The convening power of the Church in bringing together people of different faiths and none is a central feature of its established status that is greatly valued by those of other faiths, who appreciate such a hospitable establishment. Does the Minister agree that at a time when healing divisions must be a priority in our society, the established Church is a significant force for good?

I wholeheartedly endorse what the right reverend Prelate has said. The bishops seek to heal religious conflict and promote religious tolerance and inclusiveness. He quite rightly points out that on some of the major occasions in the country’s history—coronations, state occasions, other anniversaries and Remembrance Day—it is the Church that has a leading role. It would be sad if that link between Church and state was weakened, and it is not something the other faiths have asked for.

My Lords, I remind the Minister that William Gladstone’s Liberal Party had a programme of constitutional reform that included the disestablishment of the Church in Ireland, Wales and England, an elected second Chamber, the separation of the House of Lords’ judicial function into a Supreme Court, universal suffrage with a fair and open voting system and, for some, abolition of the monarchy. Not all of that programme of constitutional reform has yet been agreed, and I know there are many in this House who are opposed to a number of aspects of it. Meanwhile, can we not be grateful that our national Church—part of that continuing anomaly—does so much work to hold together local communities, in particular working with other faiths, including the new faiths within Britain, and to hold our national community together?

I agree with the noble Lord. Who we are as a country is defined by our Church and our state and the relationship that has been developing over 400 years between them. The Government value that relationship; we think it adds value to both sides and is welcomed by the country. We have no plans to destabilise that relationship.

Would the Minister like to reflect on the undoubted fact that the moral authority in the clergy in Wales is no less than that of the clergy in England, albeit that there has been no established Church in Wales for approximately a century?

The noble Lord is right: the Church in Wales was disestablished in, I think, the 1920s. The four bishops that Wales sent to your Lordships’ House were then assumed by England, and I am sure no one would object to that. He is of course right about the validity of the authority and morality of the Church in Wales.

My Lords, we have had some terrible disasters in the months that have passed. And where do people go with these disasters? They flock to the Church. The Church of England is there to provide a service that all faiths and none find comfort in on these occasions.

I agree with my noble and learned friend. The Government’s policy, in a word, is antidisestablishmentarianism.

My Lords, I am one of those people who is unrepresented, as my noble friend suggested. In my view, the Church of England is hugely important to the nature of this country and in this House as well. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why I am proud to be British.

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. Perhaps the Labour Party should disestablish the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley.

My Lords, does the Minister submit to the canard that the Church of England is sometimes seen as the Tory party at prayer?