Wednesday, February 25, 2004

[Archive] The case for disestablishment

Oxford Student > HT2004 Week 6 > Features > The case for disestablishment
By Unknown Author

The French have always prided themselves on the secularity of their state, a position reinforced by the large-scale immigration of people from former French colonial territory in North Africa.

Recently, the National Assembly, the lower house of the French parliament, passed a law to ban the wearing of all ostensible religious signs from state schools. The vote was passed overwhelmingly with 494 votes to 36. In Britain, politicians skirt around the issue of disestablishment: religion is not addressed politically. Yet only by politicians engaging directly with religion as an issue can we foster greater religious tolerance. The disestablishment of the Church is not a radical proposal; an established Church is an anachronism. Politics should catch up with society.

In a multi-faith society in which many profess no faith at all, an official state religion is outmoded and damaging. It is to the detriment of the Church of England itself that it continues to be formally associated to the state. This limits the autonomy of the Church and means that it is often thought of in political rather than spiritual terms. It is a position it can only withdraw from with difficulty because of the constitutional implications of the association. Those that continue to support an established Church try to portray the British Constitution as a house of cards: remove one tradition and the others will come crashing down too. This misrepresents the situation: there is great flexibility in the British political system. We should not be afraid to remove the antiquated. Just as hereditary peerage was no longer appropriate in British society, neither is an established Church. There are signs that the Church is moving towards a position in favour of disestablishment. Back in December 2002 The Times reported that the then Archbishop of Wales, Dr. Rowan Williams, had asked London University's Constitution Unit to draw up plans for partial or full separation of church and state.

Is Dr. Williams, now Archbishop of Canterbury, biding his time over the question? The controversy over the ordination of homosexuals has shown the fine line he has to walk between the Church's conservative and liberal wings. Is it really Dr Williams' place to push for disestablishment though? I would argue that it is politicians who should be pushing reform of the relationship between Church and State to bring the British political system in line with British society. Their role is representative and to ensure that politics meets social needs. Disestablishment is a social need. Recognizing equal freedom of worship is crucial in a tolerant society. At the moment Anglican Christianity stands as a first among equals. To ensure genuine equality of position among religions in Britain, religion needs to become less politicised.

Inequality is dangerous: it fosters separateness of identity and isolation. One of France's greatest strengths is that religious identity does not eclipse national identity.

The French people seem to recognize this too, as the muted nature of the protest against the French vote has shown. Both the UMP, President Jacques Chirac's centre-right coalition, and the main opposition, the Socialist party, voted overwhelmingly in favour of the law. Moderate French Islamic groups have said that they will adhere to the law if it is passed by the upper house of the French Parliament, who are expected to vote similarly to the lower house. Those who oppose the new law believe that it will lead to greater isolationism. They argue that the law will lead to a growth of explicitly religious private schools. I would argue that the benefits to strict Muslims, Jews and Sikhs outweigh the disadvantages of the law. Some would see the issue in terms of suppressing distinct identities. However, toleration is increasingly recognized as something that has to be actively fought for, and that entails hard choices. Democracy and equality of opportunity should be championed with vigour if extremism and intolerance are to be controlled. By emphasizing a national identity within which there exists a plurality of belief, the French may be better equipped to counteract the minorities who seek to hijack religion for political purposes. 'Holy War' is not a concept we should accept, and it is a concept we can better refute against a backdrop of equality and toleration.

Advocates of the continuation of an established Church tend to represent the issue in terms of an attack on or defence of the Church of England. That is a misnomer: the issue is constitutional; opinions about the Church of England are irrelevant to the question. Disestablishment of the Church of England would celebrate the diversity of British society. Is it time to swallow our pride and follow the French?

Originally Published 26th Feb 2004

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