Church and state – an unhappy union?

Oct 9, 2018 by

By Harriet Sherwood, Guardian.

The Church of England is in steep decline. With membership sinking to 14% of Britons, can it justify its place at the heart of the state?

One day in the coming years, the decorated, red-canopied coronation chair usually found in St George’s chapel, close to the west door of Westminster Abbey, will be moved to a spot beneath gothic arches in front of the high altar.

On this 700-year-old oak chair, in front of thousands of people in the abbey and a global television audience of millions, the next monarch will sit for a ceremony never before witnessed by the majority of the UK population, who either were not born in 1953 or were too young to remember it.

In an Anglican eucharist service, the king will be anointed with holy oil by the archbishop of Canterbury, conferring God’s grace on the new head of state. According to an oath laid down in statute dating from 1688, the archbishop will ask: “Will you, to the utmost of your power, maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant reformed religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England … and will you preserve unto the bishops and clergy of England, and to the churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?”

King Charles will reply: “All this I promise to do.”

In the six and a half decades since Elizabeth II’s coronation, the UK has undergone profound changes. It is much more diverse, secular and multi-faith – and much less deferential. But one thing that has not changed is the special status and privileges accorded to the Church of England.

Many of those watching the coronation ceremony on television might find it curious. According to the latest data from the British Social Attitudes survey, released last month, the proportion of the population identifying as C of E has fallen to a record low of 14%. Among adults under the age of 24, it is 2%. A majority of the population say they have no religion.

How is it, they might wonder, in the 21st century, in a country where by every measure the number of people defining themselves as non-religious is growing and the number identifying with the C of E is shrinking, that we have a God-ordained monarchy pledging to preserve the privileges of a religious institution rejected by the vast majority of the population?

To some, the answer is clear: this is an anomaly that cannot go on much longer.

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