Several callers ringing the middle-brow Radio 4 station in England a fortnight ago were concerned about one thing: that placing disestablishment of the Church of England back on the agenda was a serious mistake. Attempts to change the Act of Settlement were more revolutionary than many had supposed, including the Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
In late March, a Private Member's Bill for amending the Act and leading to disestablishment, brought by the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris in the House of Commons was effectively 'talked out' of Parliament by Justice Secretary Jack Straw. More formal 'channels' had to be used.
Passed in 1701, the Act retained the Protestant lineage to the British throne, conferring it on the Electress Sophia of Hanover, granddaughter of James I of England (IV of Scotland) and her Protestant descendants. The key proviso here was that no Roman Catholics, including Protestants who had married Roman Catholics, would figure in the bargain. Legal scholars go dewy-eyed at its constitutional force (even in a country without one), seeing it as central to Britain's stability.
The Act of Settlement does seem like a remarkable anachronism in a country with many faiths and ethnic groups. How then, does an established church mirror that? The cardinal feature of such a body is that it somehow reflects a society's constituent parts. In Lord Falconer's words, 'If you are a State Church, you've got to be able to speak not just to your own members but to the members of the State whose Church you are'.
There are rules aplenty against discrimination on Britain's statute books, excepting this anti-Catholic injunction. Various notables in the Church see it as obsolete. The Archbishop of Canterbury himself will not shed a tear if, and when, it goes. Many politicians consider the Act 'repugnant'.
A panel on the subject was convened on Decision Time (April 1), a Radio 4 program featuring commentators on religious and state matters. Amongst them were Fiona Gledhill of the Times, former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer of Thoroton, theologian Theo Hobson, Christopher Herbert, formerly Bishop of St. Albans and Simon Walker, formerly of the Palace.
The upshot of the Radio 4 discussion produced a very English formula: disestablishment was probably bound to happen, but it was not necessarily a good idea. And when it did, in any case, it would be done in an orderly, evolutionary fashion. We Brits don't do revolutions, thank you very much.
Discriminatory though the Act might be, it was partly necessary, at least at the present time. To fiddle with it might light fires few could foresee. Besides, argues Bishop Herbert somewhat idiosyncratically (Times, 28 Oct 2008), the Church of England could amply represent secular and non-secular viewpoints, not to mention those of other faiths, in its capacity as the State church. Furthermore, argues Hobson (Guardian, Jan 9, 2008), the Church of England was the engine room of the liberal tradition, an absolute necessity against the obscurantist Rome of Tudor times.
For Gledhill, the Act makes the Anglican institution necessarily and usefully preeminent. She sees it as a bulwark of Judeo-Christian solidity in the face of corrosive secularism. The issue of excluding that other Judeo-Christian feature from the mix, notably Catholics, is conveniently omitted.
But the short of the Radio 4 discussion betrayed a curious, and continuing fear, of lurking papists. The Church of England remained the stronghold of British identity and stability. The radio callers, certainly the more alarmed ones, expressed dismay that amending the Act would dismantle the Church, effectively defeating it. Allowing Catholics into the fray would unlock the gate at which the historical enemy had settled. A revolution would ensue. Besides, could you really trust a sovereign whose allegiance was to God, the Pope then country, in that order?
Critics of the move have also pointed out various practical considerations Brown and those in favour of disestablishment have apparently ignored. In the event the sovereign is Catholic, he or she would not be able to be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, nor receive communion within the Church of England. In a convenient twist, the Catholics (yes, the Catholics), would not allow it.
Speaking about those Catholics, concerns might also be had on their part about changing this discriminating fixture. Sectarian discontent might be created, and this was hardly desirable for most Catholics living in Britain. Best leave the throne in Protestant hands.
Change, in truth, is unlikely to happen to the Act very soon, however optimistic those in Downing Street might be. A tacit agreement, so goes one rumour, is in place which suggests that any change will only take place after the current monarch passes on. This, given Queen Elizabeth II's longevity, makes it unlikely in the immediate future. As for problems of anointment and the like, Britain is bound to bypass it in time. 'Britain,' Lord Falconer asserted confidently, 'is incredibly good at getting around those sorts of problems.'