Welby’s woes: a very simple solution

WelbyBehold the humility of a power-seeking double-palace dweller.

Today The Most Reverend Justin Welby was “enthroned”.

This is the process whereby a man (and yes, it is always a man) who has the use of not one but two taxpayer-funded palaces is officially appointed as Archbishop of Canterbury, in a cathedral.

The homeless can sleep extremely comfortably in their cardboard boxes this evening knowing they have the support of such a humble individual.  How do we know Welby is humble? Well, when he’s not polishing the gold fixtures in his palaces (or are they our palaces?) he apparently enjoys travelling by bus.

Like other religious leaders Welby faces a groaning in-tray, and it’s tempting to feel sympathy for the man when we’re constantly reminded of the “enormous challenges” he faces in “leading 85 million Anglicans” around the world “at such a difficult time for the church”. In common with other religious institutions, though, any difficulties the church faces are entirely of its own making.

To the extent Welby has any responsibilities they are only to his flock, and in my view the most profound of these responsibilities is to maximise that flock’s freedom of conscience.  Whether the issue is women bishops or same-sex marriage, Anglicans have the right to organise their affairs and set their internal doctrines as they see fit, and they have the right to appoint someone to preside over them.

The difficulty, of course, lies in the fact that the Church of England is bondaged to the state: it is the established church.  In theory this ought to limit the choices available to the church as it should be expected to play by the rules that other state (and commercial) institutions abide by, in particular equality laws.

But in practice the church manages to have its cake and eat it rather greedily. For example, it refuses to appoint women bishops or to perform gay marriages. In fact, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill that recently passed through the House of Commons specifically forbids the Church of England from conducting same-sex marriages – even though many within the church want it to perform such unions.

The church insists on maintaining archaic, discriminatory positions on fundamental social and legal norms such as equality whilst simultaneously benefiting from eye-watering state privileges. Twenty six (male) bishops sit in the House of Lords as a matter of constitutional right; the church is entrusted with providing state education to children (whose parents aren’t necessarily Anglicans); and did I mention that our head of state is also the church’s supreme governor? In all, it’s a seriously good deal for the church.

If Welby really took seriously his responsibility to maximise Anglicans’ freedom of conscience he would lobby very enthusiastically for one fundamental recalibration to the relationship between church and state: he would lobby for the immediate disestablishment of the Church of England.

Unshackled from the state and free from the interference or scrutiny of politicians, civil servants, equality lawyers and the wider public, the church would be given the blankest possible page to formulate its doctrines and inner workings. No women bishops? No problem. No gay marriage? Fill your boots.

Welby could very easily book himself an honourable chapter in religious history as the Archbishop of Canterbury who gave his followers the greatest possible religious freedom. So why is it unlikely he will press for disestablishment?  The reasons are as simple as the solution.

Firstly, disestablishment would result in a significant loss of power and influence for the church – and for Welby himself.  Both would have to forfeit the obscene privileges and credibility that state sponsorship bestows on them by virtue of establishment.

Secondly, there would most likely be a break-up of the church into various factions such as gay-haters and misogynists (or “traditional” / “conservative”) and liberals (or “normal people”).  And the result of that? Further degradation of power and influence for Welby and the church.

Greater selfishness hath no man, that he would cling to personal power and status at the expense of his flock’s religious freedom.

Welby will plead that his hands are tied: the bible is perfectly clear on the status of women and homosexuals, you understand.  Yes and no.  Welby presumably chooses to ignore yawning swathes of the bible every single day of his life. For example, I am yet to hear him press for stoning of homosexuals based on a literal reading of Leviticus.  He is only tied to biblical teachings he agrees with and so we must assume he agrees that women and homosexuals are inferior beings.

On Sky News this morning Welby told Eamonn Holmes how he enjoys simple television programmes requiring little thought and with happy endings.  Well, solutions for maximising the religious freedom of Anglicans don’t come much simpler than disestablishment. It’s a no-brainer.

As for whether disestablishment would lead to the happy ending Welby finds so pleasurable, that depends entirely on how he sees the priorities of his new role. If personal power and status are his guiding lights then the ending will be a sad one, but if this newly-installed Archbishop of Canterbury is motivated by securing religious freedom for the Anglicans he now has the responsibility of leading, then there will be a very happy ending indeed. For everyone.