In the latest twister among the ecclesiastical storms over gay marriage, Simon Jenkins in fine form denounces the obscurantism of the Church of England.(P.S. First time round, I missed Mick on dear old Ken who on this one isn’t yet wise enough to be embarrassed in polite company). In their latest move calculated to raise the stakes with political opinion, the C of E is fulfilling its modern self-appointed role and speaking for all denominations including the Catholics. Jenkins , an agnostic who is an authority on English parish churches ( strongly recommended), accepts the Church’s challenge and favours disestablishment.
Henry VIII’s leadership of the church made sense at the time. It freed England from the religious bonds of Rome…The days when bishops could deny the franchise to Irish Catholics or demand a veto over the 1944 Education Act are over.
Observe that the Romans are happy to let the Anglicans lead with the chin at this stage while being themselves opposed to gay marriage in spades.
I’ve a (very Anglican) strain of ambivalence about English disestablishment. I value the affirmation of Christian tradition in what’s now called the “public sphere” and fear its loss. On the other hand I cast a cold eye on faith and above all, authority.
Churches in Ireland, both parts, are more than established. They’re ingrained – still, despite everything. Now it must be freely conceded that many faithful people have a fine record of public service in health, education and society generally. In the north they were at the forefront of those who held the ring for civilisation during the Troubles. They did so I’m sure out of conscience spurred by the Christian morality learned on their mothers’ knee; they didn’t wait to be instructed by the men in black. In my naivety I thought things had changed much more in Ireland than they actually have – Catholic authority much reduced, Protestant theology less narrow and so on. But I find that the abuse crisis has produced not only massive disillusion but, far less noticed, a slow burning but vigorous fightback by the institutional centre whose stamina will probably far outlast that of its critics. The sense of entitlement Irish churchmen (sic) display unselfconsciously to a public role in civil society seems as secure as ever.
While I enjoy occasional exposure to the Catholic liturgy, preferably as Tridentine as possible and set by Monteverdi, my Protestant hackles rise at the sound of their assumption of power over people’s souls (whatever they are). The hardline Prods of course pin it all on God (whoever he is) and do so with maddening serenity.
The establishment that should end in Ireland is the one that permeates schools. Ruari Quinn has begun radically in the south. With immobile equilibrium reigning in the north, we can expect no change anytime soon but we can press the case. Replace Protestant transferors and the Catholic maintainers with the elected. Bishops, priests and ministers could stand for places on governing bodies like everybody else. Let religious education be taught sympathetically and observance survive. But let not the institutional religious bodies any longer believe they can lay down the law in children’s minds with the support of the State.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London