The Constitution Unit


Church and State in 21st Century Britain

August 2004 - April 2007

Sponsor: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust
Principal Investigators: Dr Bob Morris and Robert Hazell


Aims and context

As previously explained, this long running project (led by Dr Bob Morris with assistance from a number of colleagues, especially Frank Cranmer) has been examining what are customarily regarded as arcane parts of the 'ancient' constitution - the political and religious settlement of 1688-1707 which secured the Protestant succession to the throne, created the Parliamentary union between England and Wales and Scotland, and further underpinned the status of the Church of England and the Church of Scotland as 'established' churches.

Originally, the Church of England and the state were engaged in a joint enterprise of governance where the church undertook many of the social functions now assumed by the state. The fact that 25% of primary schools are Church of England schools is a reminder of that relationship, and one of the reasons why the state has not felt now able to refuse state aid to schools set up by other religious groups.

Despite many changes in the detail of the relationship over the last three hundred years, the core remains. Accordingly, no-one may succeed to the throne unless they are 'in communion with' the Church of England or if they are Roman Catholics or marry one. The sovereign appoints all 111 bishops in England and many cathedral deans, and the government appoints the incumbents of nearly 700 parishes. Twenty-six English bishops are ex officio members of the House of Lords, the sole members of that House that officially represent any of the religions currently practised in the UK. By law all prisons in England have to have Church of England chaplains; there are similar arrangements for the armed forces; and, though not compelled by law, the National Health Service employs considerable numbers of Church of England as well as other chaplains in hospitals.

First outputs

The project in its initial analytic phase first broke surface publicly with Church and State; A Mapping Exercise published by the Unit in April 2006 and written with a view partly to a seminar organized by the Unit in July 2006. In turn, a number of the contributions made in the context of that seminar were published in March 2008 as Church and State: Some Reflections on Church Establishment in England. As both these publications made clear, the study has been keen to maintain a comparative approach in order to give perspective on what might otherwise appear to be wholly insular - in all the senses - arrangements. Accordingly, both the Unit publications spent time not only on trying to understand the origins of the establishments in England and Scotland as well as what once obtained in Ireland and Wales but also looked widely at the EU including Scandinavia.

Changing climate of opinion

Although it would be rash for the Unit to claim any special prescience or exaggerate the subject's new salience, the fact is that interest in church and state has undoubtedly grown since the Unit first identified the project. There are a number of reasons why this is so. House of Lords reform initiatives have drawn attention to the automatic presence of 26 Anglican diocesans in the second chamber, and the Prime Minister's withdrawal (predicted earlier in the project as a possibility) from active involvement in their appointment has called into question the legitimacy of their remaining. Successive royal marriages have alerted people to the monarchy's links with the Church of England as well as the peculiarities of the Royal Marriages Act 1772. The courts have moved the goalposts somewhat for the Church of Scotland when its position was thought fixed for ever by Parliament in 1921. Evan Harris's failed private Member's Bill - Royal Marriages and Succession to the Crown (Prevention of Discrimination) Bill - included a response to Roman Catholic objections to the continuing constitutional disabilities visited upon them, objections voiced by the cardinals in both Scotland and England if more forcefully by the former. Public argument about state support for 'faith' schools continues to surface. Recently the NHS's employment of chaplains has been challenged.

Less explicit but present all the same has been the growing awareness that it is no longer possible to regard Britain as other than a society pluralized more intensely than ever before as to belief and unbelief. The implications of this go far beyond relations between the state and the Church of England or Roman Catholics. In a recent BBC Radio 4 discussion, the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, stated the issue in the traditional way as concerning disestablishment: he described that as an issue now 'to some extent in the air' and 'plainly an idea whose time has come'.

But that would be to deal with the presenting systems only. Placing Roman Catholic discontents in the wider context where the UK has religious freedom but not religious equality, it can be said that addressing the discrimination against Roman Catholics is best understood as merely a proxy for the call to review the state's relations with all religions. To put it another way, whilst the special position of the Church of England has to be the centre of immediate constitutional attention and poses difficult questions about how to construct a more neutral constitutional role for it, changing the position has also to have regard for the future general policy of the state in religious affairs.

Church and State in 21 st Century Britain: The Future of Church Establishment (Palgrave, March 2009)

This book seeks both to widen the earlier analysis and to examine the options for change. The book starts by looking both at how the present relationship in England - it is very different in Scotland, and was abolished in 1920 in Wales and even earlier in Ireland - has evolved and looks forward to the options for its development. This raises significant questions: the character of the modern state and its relations with religion of all kinds; the position of the sovereign; and the position of the Church of England itself.

It is evident that since 1707 the geopolitical considerations which led to the Protestant settlement have changed. Amongst other things, we have long ceased to feel threatened by Catholic monarchies in Europe. In addition, whereas it was still possible to assert then that the population was overwhelmingly Christian and that most of the population in England and Wales were, indeed, members of the Church of England, such certainties have disappeared.

It is for this reason that the book probes the extent to which regular church attendances have everywhere declined, and more people are prepared to declare themselves as having no religious beliefs. How is secularization to be understood and how rooted are the changes with which it is associated? The state itself, although taking cognisance particularly of the changes that have seen non-Christian religions rooted in the UK, still has to make up its mind how to address 'multiculturalism' and develop appropriate policies. Some of its experimentation has taken on the appearance of a kind of unconscious concurrent endowment (state subvention simultaneously to more than one denomination/religion) formerly rejected. Whether there is a viable way for the state actively to associate itself with modern religious diversity is examined in the book's discussion of 're-establishment'.

The concluding part of the book reviews the options for change in a situation where form and reality have become manifestly disconnected. Whereas the relative absence of constitutional discontinuity has preserved the UK from the worst kinds of upheaval, this can come at a long term price - a failure or refusal to redress distortions that can be maintained only by a kind of pragmatic hypocrisy. The book's argument is that rebalancing is not only necessary but also possible without willful or any real damage to the institutions involved.

The range of changes canvassed stretch from the religious character of the monarchy at one extreme, through representation in the legislature, the Church of England's courts and the Archbishop of Canterbury's remaining legatine jurisdiction at the other. What is proposed is not some kind of coup d' état imposing the crudest form of 'disestablishment' but a process where all the parties reflect on current realities and rebalance existing structures accordingly. Some very precise remedies and processes are canvassed but rather as contributions to an interaction that can alone determine the outcome. In particular, it is argued that the Church of England itself can take the lead to an extent not hitherto appreciated.

There is no pretence that these are easy matters. They will require hard thought and an attempt to engage public discussion as the UK weighs the consequence for these institutions of the kind of society it has become. The aim of the book, as of the project as a whole, is to make a contribution to that process.

The formal launch of the book was a particularly well attended Unit seminar. Bob Morris summarised the argument of the book, and William Fittall (Secretary General to the Archbishops' Council and the Synod) acted as respondent. The details of our seminar can be found in the events section of the website at the link below. It includes extended notes from both speakers and also reviews of the event itself.