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.