Last month, a report revealed that weekly attendance at Church of England churches has now fallen below one million – just 1.4% of the population. This continues a long period of remorseless decline. The red line on the graph below shows this.
Survey after survey has shown the proportion of British who say they are “religious” in similar decline. Latest figures put this at around half of us. “No religion”, at 42%, now far exceeds the 31% calling themselves Christian. (This is even lower than the 37% who voted Tory at the last election!)
Out of Touch with Opinion
The Church of England has not exactly shown itself in touch with public opinion recently. Justine Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, painted himself into a corner by convening a meeting of the so-called “Anglican communion”. This is some kind of post-imperial hangover. It arises from the ashes of the former British Empire and its missionary proselytizing – with a dash of inclusiveness arising from post-imperial guilt.
Welby’s desire to keep this mixed bag of Anglicans “united” resulted in the formal punishment of the most enlightened part of the communion: the Episcopal Church in the USA. And yet the Episcopalians are closest to public opinion, even of the Church’s own members! For example, the 2015 Eurobarometer survey found 71% of Britons in favour of same-sex marriage throughout Europe, with 24% against. The subsequent “apology” by Welby for the “hurt” caused to LGBT people merely reinforced how pathetic the whole sorry episode has been.
Despite the continuing decline in church attendance, the number of school children attending CofE schools has risen slowly. This means that now more schoolchildren attend CofE schools daily than people worship in their churches each week. The blue line on the graph above illustrates this point. As a secularist, I strongly object to the grip that religious authorities, the CofE in particular, still have in 21st century Britain. What makes it worse is the extent to which faith schools break the law in their admissions policies.
But what makes this truly outrageous is the Government’s response to this widespread law-breaking by faith schools. Nicky Morgan, Education Secretary, has taken two actions:
- She has issued guidance to schools telling them to ignore the adjudicator’s findings: in effect, to carry on breaking the law. As a school governor, I find this deeply disturbing. To be encouraged by a Government Minister to breach her Department’s own rules is a serious assault on the rule of law, a key foundation of democracy.
- She also proposes a change in procedures preventing organisations such as the British Humanist Association and the Fair Admissions Campaign from raising objections to the admissions adjudicator. She refers to the BHA/FAC campaign as “vexatious”. And this is after the adjudicator found over 1000 breaches of the code following their detailed campaign!
We can only hope Morgan will not follow the same career path as her predecessor into the Ministry of Justice. Following the same logic as in point 2, it doesn’t take much imagination to speculate what a Morgan-led justice system would look like. Presumably, the police would not be allowed to investigate murders without a written complaint from the victims!
It will come as no surprise to note that Morgan is a committed Christian. She is a member of the Conservative Christian Fellowship. At a parliamentary event last July, she said she’s in parliament not only for her constituents, but “to remember the Word of God and serve the Lord”.
The admissions code breaches by faith schools include multiple cases of discrimination, including religion and gender. Guess who is currently Minister for Women and Equalities? It’s a certain Nicky Morgan MP, who incidentally voted against the same-sex marriage bill. At best, she’s misunderstood her brief. Worse, she appears to be grossly abusing her position to pursue a particular agenda.
Who says irony is dead?
With our famously unwritten constitution, changes take place slowly and in a piecemeal way. In many ways, Britain is a socially progressive liberal democracy. But there’s one hell of a load of what I call “feudal detritus”. One is the continuing existence of the Anglican Church as the established church in England. (Note “England”: there is no established church in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.) The map below shows just how strange we are. The coloured areas show countries with an established religion. The string of officially Muslim countries (in green) across a swathe of North Africa and the Middle East will come as no surprise. More surprising is a tiny handful of officially Protestant countries in Scandinavia. But that’s just about it.
Oh, and by the way, there are just two countries with clerics as a formal part of the legislature: the UK and the Islamic Republic of Iran. For those who, like me, feel this is wrong, sign the petition for Parliament to debate the removal of the 26 bishops from the House of Lords.
Modern, liberal, secular democracies understand the need to keep church and state separate. With less than half of Britons religious and less than a third Anglicans, the privileged position of the Church of England makes no sense at all. It’s frankly insulting to the rest of us. What was done for the political and sexual convenience of a womanizing former king – Henry VIII – has no place in modern times.
So let’s continue to clean up the relics of our feudal past. Replace Nicky Morgan with someone who will not abuse their position as Minister for education and who can fill the shoes of Equalities Minister without irony. And, above all, disestablish the Church of England – with all that that entails!