Disestablishment of the Church of England may be closer than we think

The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

The British constitution is a curious beast. It can lie slumbering for many years and then suddenly change quite radically. We have seen this happen for example with reforms such as votes for women and the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and London. What had seemed fixed and permanent turned out not to be so after all.

We may be slowly moving towards such a turning point with the current situation in the Church of England (CofE). Last week the church voted not to allow women bishops. There has been lots of sound and fury from members of the church themselves (64 per cent of the electoral college actually wanted change but they needed a two-thirds majority) and inevitably politicians of all sides even from those MPs who you would ordinarily expect to defend it.

The CofE is currently exempt from equality legislation and there is discussion that this should be addressed. There is also talk of not allowing the bishops to remain in the House of Lords whilst the gender anomaly remains (there is a petition asking for this here). On the other hand there are some who argue that parliament should keep its nose out of the affairs of other institutions.

The primary reason for all of this consternation from those outside of the church is because of the fact that it is established. It is intertwined within our constitution in a way that other institutions are not. So politicians feel a duty to make comments on its composition and potentially even legislate in order to address concerns.

At this point I think it is worth considering the wider problem of the fact of its establishment in the first place. Britain has changed quite dramatically in the last century. Our population is made up of people who practise a plethora of religions and increasingly no religion at all. A survey at the turn of the current century showed that almost half of our population claimed no religious affiliation at all with only around a quarter considering themselves members of the established church. Roughly five per cent are Catholics, and five per cent of the population are now Muslim for example.

With such a religiously diverse and increasingly non-religious demographic mix the establishment of the church is an huge anomaly in itself. At the moment politicians are restricting themselves to discussions about trying to make sure Anglicanism keeps itself up to date and relevant in terms of its internal processes. But I think this latest episode could be the first step along a process of eventual disestablishment.

The demographic trends are not in favour of the church. Across the world there is strong evidence that religion is in severe, perhaps terminal decline. The idea that there should be a special place within our constitution for one particular religious outlook is increasingly anachronistic.

Another factor that is worth considering here too is the view of the current heir to the throne. The Prince of Wales has made it clear that when he eventually becomes King he will not consider himself "Defender of the Faith" as his predecessors have but instead wants to be declared "Defender of Faith". This dropping of the definite article is highly significant and is a sign that our next monarch himself perhaps understands how the current settlement is unsustainable in the longer term.

I appreciate we are probably a fair way away from full disestablishment at the moment. But like with other large constitutional changes that we have seen in the past I would not be surprised if within my lifetime we see it happen.

The wafer-thin loss of the vote on women bishops has just made it that little bit more likely.

A sticker supporting Women Bishops is displayed on a car. Photograph: Getty Images
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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.