The bishops should welcome more independence from government
Gordon Brown’s announcement that the Government will no longer have the final word in the appointment of diosesan bishops in the Church of England has fascinated the General Synod that is meeting in York. The announcement ends two centuries of intrigue over episcopal patronage, and many in the Church � with memories of recent prime ministerial interference � will be grateful that appointments are not being sanctified by a prime minister, who, in theory, could be a Catholic. But it also reawakens the vexed issue of disestablishment, bringing nearer a break between Church and State for which many, within the Church and beyond, have been campaigning.
Despite a general feeling that the Church of England should not enjoy unique favour by a secular State, not all the bishops are unreservedly pleased at the prospect of a change. One issue that troubles some is money. Would disestablishment also mean disendowment? The Church’s holdings are often tied up in complicated bequests and restricted covenants, and some of these might be affected. Lawyers and financiers could probably find a way to protect the income of the Church, a particularly sensitive issue at a time when it is wrestling with the issue of ethical investments. But the example of Ireland and Wales, where the Church lost a considerable portion of its money after disestablisment, is not encouraging.
More importantly, however, is the effect this would have on the main issue facing the Anglican Communion today: its global cohesion and the bonds of affection that link all 38 provinces. These bonds are currently under severe strain, largely because of the issue of the ordination of a gay bishop in America by the Episcopal Church and the opposition caused in Africa and among churches of the Global South. The synod is looking at preparations for the Lambeth Conference in 2008 at which Anglicans around the world will be presented with a new covenant: an agreed set of principles that they would share as the core tenets of the Anglican Communion. The effect, some say, of this proposal would be to change the nature of the Church, giving it a curia structure like the Roman Catholic Church but without the central figure of the papacy.
At present, one of the difficulties in working out the principles of this covenant is the anomalous position of the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, as primus inter pares. There is a residual feeling that the Anglican provinces around the world are offshoots of Canterbury � spiritual “colonies” set up as Anglican missionaries spread around the world. Rowan Williams would be the first to insist that such a view is outmoded, and that the Church’s provinces exist in equality of status and respect, even if he, personally, has a superior status. That understanding is essential if Dr Williams is to allay the suspicions of the Global South, and in particular of Nigeria, the largest and most outspoken of the provinces, that the “liberals” in the West, especially the Episcopal Church, are not to dominate Lambeth. They would be pleased to see a Church of England more clearly bound by agreed tenets.
A little more distance between Church and State will also assist in relations with other denominations. The understanding of a compassionate God should be seen as more important than the patronage of a secular State.