For the Church of England only the bishops now benefit, at what cost?
In 1598 Edward Darcy Esquire, a groom at the court of by Elizabeth 1st was granted a monopoly on the manufacture and sale of playing cards. He couldn’t make playing cards but the queen liked indirect ways of making money for herself without raising taxes, while controlling trade and rewarding those who pleased her.
It’s a nice example of the mentality of Tudor times and use of the royal prerogative. The monarch saw nothing wrong in granting a monopoly that controlled a trade, while financially benefited the person or organisation receiving it and the monarch at the same time. The establishment of the Church of England could be considered in the same way, a two way deal that brought benefits to both the church and to the monarch.
The Church of England had a monopoly on religion but as part of this was given a monopoly over many aspects of everyday life. Baptism and the registration of births, all marriage and divorce, control of burial and probate, all university education and who could join parliament, with their own legal courts to back up the powers. The money was good too; fees for services, land tithes and church rates were all demanded and legally enforceable. In exchange for this wealth and powers within the religious realm all the Church of England had to do was relinquish supreme control to the monarch who would decide temporal matters of religion for them, an easy bargain to accept.
But going back to Edward Darcy for a moment; monopolies were not popular and when they were seen as just too onerous parliament or the people demanded change. In a famous early law case ‘Edward Darcy v Thomas Allin’ the court ruled the playing card grant was invalid, as a monopoly should be for the common good and in this case was only being used for private gain.
As for Edward Darcy, so for the Church of England too. Society as a whole began objecting to this church control over their lives as Catholics and non-conformists become bolder in demanding their own rights. Instead of continuing to support the Church of England’s benefits and constraints governments repeatedly saw the mood of the country and removed them;
· The religious rights of non-conformists were recognised in 1689.
· The Test and Corporation Acts were repealed allowing non-Anglicans to hold public office in 1828.
· Non-church marriage, birth and death registrations were made legal in 1837.
· Probate law was removed from church control in 1857.
· Church rates were made non-compulsory in 1868 (removing a large slice of church income).
· In 1871 restrictions on non-Anglicans attending, graduating and becoming a fellow at Oxford and Cambridge were finally removed.
· In 1902 cremation was made lawful.
· In 1944 the church lost autonomous control of their schools.
· Sunday trading was permitted in 1994.
· Same sex marriage was made legal in 2013.
But as church privileges were stripped away was the other side of the bargain, the power the state wielded over the Church of England removed too? No. State control of religion was still a useful tool to influence society and while a nominal loosening has occurred over the years ultimate control has been maintained;
* The CoE General Synod may have the role of drafting laws but it still has to ask parliament to approve them, which it does not always do. In a 1927 example the synod decided on a change to the Common Book of Prayer yet parliament refused permission.
* State law still controls what services the church must provide, how and for who, including when churches must open, who must the church marry and who baptise.
· Government can still impose conditions, set up enquiries and reviews of church business, even as shown in 1840 organising a wholescale restructuring of the church.
· The church nominates bishops but only a shortlist for the government to choose from.
· Church funds are controlled not by the church but by the Church Commissioners who answer to the government, with key ministers of state automatically appointed commissioners.
· The monarch is still the Supreme head of the church and while usually nodding decisions through can in practice turn against the organisation and force change.
So a direct question must be asked, what now are the actual tangible benefits for the Church of England as an organisation of being Established? Of being subject to official government control? The Church of England is part of the worldwide Anglican Communion with 40 provinces, yet is the only province to be state controlled, why is this status still regarded as a benefit? There are even tangible examples where establishment is a hindrance, as a complicating factor in a proposed merger with the Methodist church clearly shows.
The primary defenders of Establishment are the existing bishops in the House of Lords but the arguments made are hardly convincing. In 2018 the Bishop of Worcester managed:
“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.”
Hardly an argument for the benefits for church itself, but it does bring our attention to the bishops and my conjecture.
The remaining benefit from Establishment is personal and enjoyed by the Bishops
While benefits of ‘Establishment’ no longer exist for the Church of England itself the bishops are allowed to ‘join the establishment’ and enjoys the resultant privileges and pomp. To appear on the Order of Precedence and walk in to state dinners ahead of Barons and Knights of the Garter. To be addressed as ‘The Most Reverend and Right Honourable the Lord Archbishop’ and to sit in the House of Lords and everyone be quiet when you speak. These are the remaining benefits of church establishment; a lifetime of effort, of climbing the Anglican greasy pole, saying the right things, befriending the right people and reward is received. Personal pride at your own success.
But do these personal benefits come at a cost for the church? Think of the English Establishment as like a private members club. You’ve been proposed and accepted, now you’ve joined and have a leather armchair. But to get there you had to know the rules and now you’ve arrived you have to follow them. So what are the rules? In short; don’t get into trouble, protect your fellow members and keep the club reputation intact.
Why might this cause a problem for the church? Because for bishops the church is no longer their top priority, membership of the club is and this might explain some of their behaviour. When a bishops has to act on child abuse charges are they looking to improve the church or safeguard their position? Perhaps this is why the first reaction has been to sweep such cases under the carpet, just pretend it didn’t happen. Which is why the Bishop Ball sexual abuse case was so damaging.
An actual bishop, a member of the club, committed the crime and imprisoned. He dragged in the royal family and other members of the club who tried to help cover up for him. The Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was caught up too and in 2017 proven to have helped cover up the crime. So a complete failure to follow club rules, which resulted in personal consequences.
Still a peer George Carey was stripped of his right to officiate as a priest and faces calls to be stripped of his right to sit in the house. In hindsight perhaps the establishment got it wrong when he was appointed in the first place? Archbishops usually come from the right background, Carey on that score was an outsider. Born in the East End of London he attended state school and was the first Archbishop of Canterbury since 1381 not to have attended either Oxford or Cambridge. Someone took a chance he could play the game correctly and got it wrong. No such chance was taken with the latest archbishop.
Obviously identified early on as a safe pair of hands Justin Welby came from a well-connected conservative political family and educated at Eton and Trinity College, Cambridge. After a brief period in industry he joined the Church of England and was rapidly accelerated through the ranks, becoming the Bishop of Durham in 2011 with a seat in the Lords then Archbishop of Canterbury just one year later. The establishment club should be safe with him in charge (John Smyth excepting?) but what about the Church of England?
On Establishment there is a dilemma that needs to be addressed by the church itself. The benefits of being Established are long gone but the restrictions remain. Only socially conservative clergy unlikely to rock the boat reach the top of the tree and once there are bought off with personal privileges. So who will speak up for what’s best for the Church of England? Who will lead the effort to break this last remaining province free from the suffocating control of the secular state and join the rest of the Anglican Communion in running it’s own affairs?