As I’m sure you are aware, the Church of England is the officially established Christian church in England, but something has happened that now increases the pressure to change that. First I have a bit of background so that you can get a handle on the current picture.
The C of E (to give it a popular short name) has a rather odd history. The reason it came to be established has nothing to do with belief at all, but rather is a completely theatrical bit of politics. Henry VIII wanted to divorce his then wife, Catherine of Aragon, and so applied to Rome for permission to do so. The Pontiff took one look at the French troops nearby and decided that giving permission to Henry to dump his French wife would not be his best move, and replied “No”. Henry’s response was to simply say, “Fine”, then promptly broke from Rome, created his own separate church, made himself head of it and promptly gave himself permission to divorce … and the rest is history.
OK, that is all a tad simplistic, but is enough to get the point … it was not a belief driven establishment, just political. It was all highly ironic because prior to all this, Henry was personally opposed to Protestantism, but when it suited his desires he decided it to be a rather good idea after all.
What came next was the recognition that no one single strand of thought could be permitted to prevail and after a bit of a fuss over the years they developed it all into a rather large umbrella of belief that many could shelter under. You have what could be best described as Anglo-catholics who are high-church and are more or less catholic in all but name. Then at the other end you have the happy-clappy low-church lot who are more or less pentecostal in all but name … and of course lots of shades in between. What happens is that folks, the few that are interested, shop around until they find their comfort zone.
Why do people actually go … lots of reasons, tradition, a social club, some even (gasp) actually believe. One interesting form of growth comes from schools. For historical reasons many state schools are also church schools as well, and because the C Of E contributes 10% funding, they are permitted to select who gets to go (Yea, that sucks, but I’m not going there today). The net effect is that they get good exam results because, unlike state schools who have no choice, they choose who can go. Good results creates a demand, you can understand that, folks want the best for their kids. Ah but what happens when, as is often the case, there is more demand than places, how do they then choose? Easy, they pick those who actually go to church. For some mysterious reason, many parents suddenly find religion at about the same time they need to find a school for their kids (what an amazing coincidence!). I’m not convinced they actually ‘believe’, instead they simply get into the habit of going and end up staying because they have made friends with like-minded individuals.
What is truly ironic with this entire setup is that we have the Queen who is both head of state and also the official head of the formally established religion, the C of E. We also have an unelected house of Lords, not only stuffed full of geriatric politicians from a bygone age, but also laced with a perpetual seam of C of E Bishops who insist upon sticking their fingers into every political bun fight …. yet, look across the population and we are indeed a very secular lot. In fact, if you add the numbers of everybody who have any sort of religious belief, it turns out that they are the minority.
[As an aside, you can quibble about the numbers, it all depends on how you ask the question. If you for example ask, ‘What is your religion?” as the census did, that’s not a ‘belief’ question, its a cultural question, and only 39% say no-religion. But if you then ask, ‘Are you religious?’, in other words, ‘do you actually ‘believe”, then only 29% say “Yes”.
OK, that was a long introduction. The news now out is that in the High court yesterday, Mr Justice Ouseley ruled that the saying of prayers during Bideford council meetings was unlawful. And so a quiet and pleasing north Devon town of Bideford seems to have played only a modest role thus far in the long march of English freedom, may have suddenly done something huge.
Clive Bone, a former Liberal Democrat councillor, complained that prayers should not take place as part of a formal local council meeting. He accepted that prayers could be said in a council chamber before a meeting formally began, provided that councillors were not officially summoned to attend them. The high court duly ruled in Mr Bone’s favour, but on only one of the three grounds on which he brought his action. It rejected his claims that his human rights were infringed or that he was being discriminated against. But it accepted that an agenda item for prayers was not lawful under local government legislation.
<here is where I could insert press stories about daft religious folks huffing and puffing about this, but since it is the usual stuff that you will have seen before, so I’ll not bother>
This has been applied to one tiny little town council … but has a potentially huge impact, because what we now have is an official High Court ruling that the official state religion should play no formal role in local government. The big anomaly right now is Westminster, where Christian prayers are still a formal part of parliamentary business. (yes really). With this new ruling can this official Anglicanism survive amid the other constitutional upheavals beating through modern Britain? And if that falls, what else falls as well, Bishops as lawmakers, Head of the C of E as head of state. Bideford is small, but it just might have triggered some major changes.