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6 March 2008

Disestablishmentarianism

A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the to

By Jonathan Bartley

A couple of weeks ago I bumped into a theologian who had just heard me on the radio debating the disestablishment of the Church of England with the Bishop of Liverpool.

To my surprise she told me that the discussion had changed her position. She now supported a separation of church and state. But before I became too caught up in illusions of my own debating prowess, she quickly added that it was the bishop’s lack of any credible argument which had finally persuaded her.

Her view is one that seems to be growing amongst many Christians. In the past it has been proposed that disestablishment would condemn Christianity to the private realm. More are now realising that it needn’t signal the end of the church’s engagement in public life.

An analysis at the composition of the House of Commons reveals that MPs who align themselves with the Christian groupings within the three main parties (the Conservative Christian Fellowship, the Christian Socialist Movement and the Lib Dem Christian Forum) make up around 15% of the House of Commons. Christians who have pursued more democratic routes are disproportionately overrepresented when compared to the church-going population at large.

Outside Parliament too, one of the paradoxes of the last thirty years has been that whilst church attendance has declined, the number of Christian campaign groups has increased exponentially. The end of Christendom appears to be the catalyst for growth in political Christianity.

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The reasons for the political engagement vary. For some it is the fear that the culture is becoming ‘de-Christianised’. Often taking on a more conservative or right wing character, these Christians, like their brothers and sisters in the US, tend to focus on issues of sexuality, marriage and abortion – lamenting the supposed decline in Christian morality. From the campaigns of Mary Whitehouse to the opposition to Jerry Springer: The Opera, the groups hit the headlines because of their censorious or reactionary approaches.

But others are experiencing a more positive radicalisation. Finding themselves freed from Christianity’s previous alignment with culture and the social order, they are far more willing to point to injustices in the world around them, and campaign for positive change. Whether it be as part of the Fairtrade movement, the Jubilee 2000 coalition that led to the MakePovertyHistory campaign, the opposition to the invasion of Iraq, initiatives for the rights of asylum seekers or new approaches to criminal justice, their agenda is broad and widening.

And it is this latter movement which appears to be winning the hearts and minds of the churches. A poll of Evangelicals at the last general election revealed that the developing world was at the top of their political priorities, rather than any obsession with sex – a healthy departure many inside and outside the church would observe. Of course it will take time for their new political perspectives to mature. Old habits die hard. But like it or loathe it, Christian involvement in public life seems here to stay – regardless of what happens to the loosening ties that still bind church and state.