Friday, October 24, 2008


A Mr Woolas, who has a junior role in the present government, has been quoted as wishing to "strip" the Church of its role in English society. There are many reasons to consider the role of the Church in English society; some are good reasons and some are poor.

We removed its privileges in Ireland and Scotland because it was not the native church; it had no affinity with the common people.

My party always wished to remove its privileges in England; for my part I was never full of zeal for such measures. Yet it is clear the Church does not benefit from holding a place of esteem in the realm. Its Bishops take their seats in the House of Lords while their flocks struggle to fill their pews. When the Church held a monopoly on education, on the awarding of degrees, when adherence was a requirement of advancement it did not flourish; its soul withered.

It was a privilege to nominate Bishops for appointment; but therein lies the heresy of Erastus.

Establishment places the Church at the mercy of the government; when the government is not Christian, it can hammer nails into the hands and wrists of the Church.

These are not the reasons cited by Mr Woolas; Mr Woolas claims the Church is offensive to the citizens of Empire who may settle here and who may have other religions. In The Times he is quoted as saying “It will probably take 50 years but a modern society is multi-faith.”

I am sorry to hear that a government minister, however junior, is so ignorant. The Church holds its place in this land not because of its number of adherents but because it represents the ancient and traditional faith of England, the religion of Alfred and Elizabeth. The age of Victoria was multi-faith; powerful numbers did not belong to the Church. They were non-comformist, unitarian, even atheist; and Liberal governments gave them their rights. I do not detect that the peoples of the Empire find the existence of the church offensive, only that they may choose not to belong to it. Indeed many of many and varied faiths seem to take comfort from the State giving some token acknowledgement to religion in a land that is too often depicted as godless.

Mr Woolas may find the Church's existence offensive - that is his right; but he should not call the Queen's loyal subjects to the aid of his argument.



Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

May I say, my dear Gladstone, that when I read Mr. Jenkyn's most excellent biography of you, I was quite surprised to see how your ever-deepening faith as you aged moved you from a firm Erastian/Establishmentarian towards - what I dare to hope you will not find offensive - an American position on the relationship between the church and state. That, by the time of your second premiership you had moved toward disestablishment not only in Scotland and Ireland, but were firmly for such in Wales and only seemed to support it in England by dint of a certain (may I say) Burkean conservative nod toward a preference for not overturning tradition merely for the sake of innovation.

Yet, I find a certain sympathy for the position of the young Labourite of whom you write. Coming from a nation that is both religious and officially secular, we are currently struggling to express the diversity of expressions of belief, especially as a liberal Christian is poised to win the White House. Were we to have the added burden of an official church, Mr. Obama's position would be, I dare say, far less tenable than it currently is. Surely you must see how the intertwining of church and state - a relationship you celebrated in your first published book - has led to the very situation decried by the young Labor junior minister. Perhaps he was untoward in his comments, yet his observations are as valid as are your objections to his observations. I believe you two are far closer together in your positions than you might wish to accept.

WEG said...

Indeed my dear Geoffrey, the State should not interfere with the Church and the Church, as an institution, should keep some distance from the State. Yet I do not think your great nation's experience proves the case. Mr Obama's religion and his affiliations would be no more a matter of discussion in Great Britain than they are in the United States. The role of the Church in this nation in this modern age is to declare it to be a Christian country and to provide some guidance in matters of instruction and ritual. Were Britain to turn its back on Christ in an irrevocable fashion, to become mostly atheist or some other religion, then full disestablishment would be an inevitability. In your nation however it is the religion of the presisident that, de facto, takes precedence; therefore religion must be subject to contest in the presidential election.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I would agree, to an extent, yet does not the recent history of Mr. Blair, especially as regards his post-premiership turn to the Roman Church not offer a lesson towards disestablishment for England? Had Mr. Blair not been in the highest office, he could have made the move and started a discussion on the merits and demerits of religious affiliation, being perhaps the most seriously faithful person to occupy the premiership since Arthur Balfour, if not yourself. Due, however, to constitutional constraints, he hid his light under a bushel, as it were, becoming a kind of early-21st century Newman-by-proxy only after having left public life. Surely your officially Christian yet practically multi-religious nation could have benefited from such an experience.

WEG said...

I do not think Mr Blair compares with Cardinal Newman in any respect that can be mentioned. Indeed it was not the establishment of the Church that caused him to withhold the direction of his heart from the British public; rather it seems to have been his desire to persist with policies that were contrary to the teaching of the Pope and the Cardinals. It is true that British history might make the populace reluctant to accept a Roman at the helm; however, asked whether Mr Blair, as a converted Roman, should yield to the Pope or persist in the obstinacy of his own policies, most stout Englishmen would have wished a plague on both houses. Indeed the British approach is, in general, that they would wish political leaders not to mistake their role with that of evangelist; nor to spend excessive time seeking to share their religious convictions with the public. It is thus even more so now than a century ago.

Geoffrey Kruse-Safford said...

I will accept your verdict, and applaud it. If only the American press (as opposed to the American people, who are as wise in this regard in general as the British public seem to be) were as wise.

I understand what you are saying concerning Mr. Blair's reluctance to make his move to the Roman Church in the face of policies antithetical to the teachings of the Pope. That, however, is a discussion we in the US have already had, nearly half a century ago, when we elected John Kennedy President.

Manfarang said...

Church-State relations need to be reformed.In this day and age,freedom of religion needs to be enshrined in the British constitution.
A reform that may satisfy those within the Church of England and those without would be to confer the status of national rather than state church on it.