Boris Johnson in Westminster Abbey (Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The Tories haven’t a prayer

Secularism seems to grip the party that was once the embodiment of Anglicanism

“I have referred to what I look upon as the first object of the Tory party — namely, to maintain the institutions of the country.” So said Benjamin Disraeli in his 1872 Crystal Palace speech, a speech which can be claimed to have defined the enduring interests of British Conservatism as a national party. The first institution Disraeli turned to after those words was the Church of England: “No institution of England, since the advent of Liberalism, has been so systematically, so continuously assailed, as the Established Church”.

In recent weeks, following the Archbishop of Canterbury’s words in his Easter Day sermon regarding the Rwanda plan, some Conservative MPs have sounded like nineteenth century Liberals and Radicals in their assaults on the Church of England. We have been told by some Conservative MPs that we have “separation of Church and State” in the UK (a phrase which implies someone would have fought on the wrong side in 1776: that is, not with the brave North American Tories who defended the British Constitution during the Revolutionary War).

Removing bishops from the House of Lords has been suggested. There have been public mutterings about the need to disestablish the Church of England. Such stances represent a thorough rejection of Tory wisdom over centuries and an embrace of the very radicalism which Toryism has traditionally opposed.

If Tories were actually to heed the accumulated wisdom of the Tory tradition regarding the Church of England — rather than echoing the agenda of historic and contemporary radicals — how might the Conservative Party regard the Church of England?

It might begin by recognising and giving voice to the case for establishment. In a time when sectarian and divisive expressions of various religious traditions are disrupting and disordering politics, communal life and the international order, conservatives should surely recognise that it is good to have an established church which can exemplify how religion can be — in the words of David Hume, describing the Elizabethan Settlement which shaped the Church of England — “compatible with the peace and interests of society”.

Jewish and Muslim voices often support the established church

As an established church in the contemporary United Kingdom, the Church of England fulfils this role partly by ensuring other religious traditions have a place in public discourse and debate, as contrasted with French-style secularism. Little wonder, then, that Jewish and Muslim voices are often raised in support of the established church. This is a thoroughly conservative approach, in which other faith traditions are integrated into national life through what Her Majesty the Queen has described as the “assurance of the protection of our established Church”.

Establishment also ensures recognition of Burke’s insight that “man is by his constitution a religious animal”. Yes, in the secular United Kingdom of the twenty-first century that may not seem immediately obvious, but ours is a strange form of secularism, often recognising (however vaguely) the transcendent. Our secularism somehow desires spiritual context at life’s beginning, marriages and funerals, at major national milestones (think of Prince Philip’s funeral) and yearly on Remembrance Sunday. An established church integrated into the fabric of the national story, under the Crown, and historically committed to a generous, reasonable articulation of Christianity provides a means of doing so that is surely preferable to sectarian alternatives (whether reactionary or progressive).

Nurturing that which is good in the life of the Church of England should be a conservative desire: the parish system, the relationship with the Crown, support for the armed forces, the Book of Common Prayer, cathedrals. These are authentically conservative aspects of the Church of England which should be cherished and encouraged. They both sustain crucial parts of our national story and contribute to the maintenance of a traditionally Tory understanding of the institutions and virtues which have defined our common life.

Mindful that there are those within the Church of England who seek to undermine these aspects of the church’s life, thoughtful Conservative voices should be encouraging the Church of England to retain and cherish the parish system, the relationship with the Crown and the armed forces, and the Book of Common Prayer as essential to the vocation of being a national church.

What of awkward episcopal voices challenging Conservative policies? We might note that the Archbishop of Canterbury was not alone in challenging the Rwanda policy: so too did a number of Conservative backbenchers. Also rather overlooked in the Archbishop’s comments was a reference to “our national responsibility as a country formed by Christian values”: language which, to say the least, is hardly compatible with a “woke” agenda. Nor should we forget that — to the anger of the Left — the Archbishop intervened in the midst of the 2019 General Election campaign to support the Chief Rabbi, who had strongly criticised Labour’s shameful record on anti-Semitism under Corbyn.

The monarchy is inextricably linked to the Church of England

This is not to deny that the Church of England’s episcopal bench is very far indeed from being representative of the political nation. There is considerable evidence for an instinctive (and in some cases visceral) episcopal hostility to Conservatism. Abandoning Tory wisdom regarding a need for an established church is not, however, the answer. In his Crystal Palace speech, Disraeli noted: “The Church of England, like all our institutions, feels it must be national, and it knows that, to be national, it must be comprehensive”. A national, comprehensive church should not be significantly unrepresentative of a large part of the nation (and of the majority of Anglicans who attend church regularly and vote Conservative). Restoring Prime Ministerial involvement in the appointment of bishops, abandoned by Gordon Brown, could be a means of aiding the national, comprehensive nature of the Church of England.

There is another, crucial reason why foolish talk of disestablishment should not be heard on Tory lips. The monarchy is intimately — indeed, inextricably — linked to the Church of England. Disestablishment would fundamentally change the character of the monarchy, undermining its identity and purpose, and opening the door to further radical assaults on our constitutional settlement.

Roger Scruton famously said that “conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created”. The good things to be found in the Church of England and its place in national life (and, albeit in a slightly different manner, in the established Church of Scotland) should be cherished and protected by conservatives. Leave it to the radicals to urge tearing down and demolishing. It is time to revive the old Tory vision of the church by law established.

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