The trouble with nationalised churches

American Atheists support the separation of church and state and Christians tend to oppose it - have they both got it wrong?

The trouble with nationalised churches

By Quentin Langley

Dateline 27 December 1997

Like most Internet newsgroups alt.atheism is dominated by Americans. Atheism in America may be very much in a minority and hostility and official discrimination may keep it somewhat underground, but that only seems to make American atheists all the more militant than their European counterparts.

Naturally the group has heavy participation from Christians seeking to spread their own message. A constant theme of argument is the separation of church and state. Atheists tend to favour this and Christians do not. Experience from the UK would suggest that both groups are taking the wrong side.

In the UK we have nationalised or established churches. We also have
competing private sector churches. In England the Church of England
(Episcopalian is the nearest US equivalent) is nationalised, and Bishops sit as of right in the House of Lords, the Upper Chamber of Parliament. In Scotland the State endorses a different church, the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).

My American friends who live in the UK came here expecting to find a very religious political debate. Most were surprised to discover that this is simply not so. The UK is one of the most secular countries in the world. The one part of the UK where religion is an issue - Northern Ireland - has no nationalised church, but two competing private sector churches.

The current Prime Minister is a churchgoer, but often attends Catholic services and he sends his children to a Catholic school, because his wife is Catholic. He is the only significant politician in this country for decades to talk publicly about his Christianity.

Although I have been active in Conservative politics for years, I have never been asked my view on abortion or homosexuality. The only member of the current cabinet whose views on abortion I know is the PM (he is personally opposed to it, but thinks it should remain legal). In the previous cabinet, I knew the opinion of only one member, the Environment Secretary, but only because he publicly converted to Catholicism. Only three or four members (out of 22) of the last Conservative cabinet were regular churchgoers, it is slightly higher under New Labour.

Although the Prime Minister is responsible for appointing Bishops in the Church of England, the two longest serving PMs since the war (Harold Wilson and Margaret Thatcher), were members of another church, the Methodists. The third longest serving, John Major, was a member of the Church of England, but never attended church.

Perhaps the involvement of non-members in choosing the leadership of the
Church is the reason it is so utterly ineffective in promoting a Christian agenda in British politics. It is also hopelessly unconvincing as an advocate of Biblical values. The former Bishop of Durham refused to believe in miracles, including the virgin birth and resurrection. According to a Sunday Times poll, two thirds of vicars did not know the Ten Commandments. Some knew only two. One was quoted in the Sunday Times as calling the commandments very 'dated' and 'negative'.

There is no controversy in the UK about teaching evolution in schools. It forms a standard part of the science curriculum. No-one, certainly not the churches, would think of challenging this. I have never met a Briton, Christian or otherwise, who believe in a literal creation.

Church attendance is low. The Church of England used to conduct a twice-yearly count of attendance in the Spring and the Autumn and announce the figures. After the Spring count in 1999 they decided not to announce the figures, explaining that the methodology of the count was suspect. There was no reason to believe the two Sundays selected were representative and the count missed people who attended mid-week. A count that recorded a million people attending church would not tell you whether the same million people attended each week or whether ten million were attending an average of once every ten weeks.

All this criticism of the methodology is valid, though there is no reason to suppose it would under rather than over-count, which is what the Church implied. They could have added that ministers might be inclined to encourage attendance on the days of the count.

What caused considerable media speculation is the fact that the Church chose to cancel the seasonal announcement of the figures, allegedly for doubts as to its statistical validity, after the count had been conducted. People naturally assumed that the Church did not like the result of the count. This is significant because, in line with the long-term decline, everyone was expecting the figures to fall below a million - out of a total population of 60 million for the first time. Cancelling the announcement of the figures implies a significant fall below what had been expected. Are we to assume Church attendance now stands below one percent?

I can only conclude that nationalisation has had the same effect on the Church as on other businesses. It is simply dreadful at delivering its core objectives. It is because we have a nationalised church that we have a far more secular society than the US.

Maybe atheists and Christians are both on the wrong side in the argument
about state involvement in religion.

Copyright Quentin Langley, 27 December 1997

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