Thursday, February 21, 2008

Antidisestablishmentarianism


It's the longest word in the English language and I think it describes the position I am about to take here,

There is a certain style of politics - common in Lib Dem circles but by no means confined to them - which I have come increasingly to reject. It involves speculating at an abstract theoretical level about what an ideal constitution would look like, how schools should be organised or the proper relations between church and state.

The thinker then looks at the real world, discovers that its institutions do not match the models that he has come up with and demands that the world be changed everywhere, all at once so that the world is brought into line.

Take the idea of an established church. If I were asked to design an ideal constitution from scratch then it ceratainly would not contain such an institution. But I have reached the age where you come reluctantly to accept that no country is going to ask you to design its constitution. (In case you do want me to, my e-mail is top right on this blog.)

So the question to ask is not what the ideal relation between church and state would be. Instead, as a good Popperian, I believe that we should ask what problem disestablishing the Church of England would solve. And a little reflection will tell us that it would makes things far worse.

I write this as an atheist, albeit one with a great love of church music and architecture. I suppose I could allow myself to enjoy these while adopting an intellectual faith (rather after the later Wittgenstein) and say that when Christians talk about everlasting life they are really saying something profound and poetic about this life, but that would be dishonest of me. Most Christians mean what they say about the afterlife, and it is not true.

As an atheist, then, I have to recognise that religion can be a hugely destructive force. What I value about the Church of England is that it largely keeps the Christians quiet. I saw a joke in one of Charles Masterman's books from the Edwardian era to the effect that the established church is the greatest bulwark against the coming of Christ's Kingdom. That has to be a point in its favour.

Disestablish the church and you will set free the evangelicals and their deeply conservative philosophy. That is the last thing I wish to see. If you doubt this, look at the USA. It has no established church, but the religion has a far greater role in national life.

Or as Andrew Brown puts it in the Guardian today:
we need an established church, precisely because it dampens zeal down. The undemocratic privileges of the Church of England are much better for everyone than democratically won privilege would be. Bishops in the Lords are infinitely preferable to priests who tell people how to vote.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Henry VIII knew what he was doing.

I see the Church of England as a sort of National Religion Service, there when you want it for weddings and funerals, widely loved but not very efficient.

It gives us a language with which to talk about such deep matters, which few other elements of our culture do. But that doesn't mean it is true, of course.

11 comments:

Peter Welch said...

"There is a certain style of politics - common in Lib Dem circles but by no means confined to them - which I have come increasingly to reject. It involves speculating at an abstract theoretical level about what an ideal constitution would look like, how schools should be organised or the proper relations between church and state.

"The thinker then looks at the real world, discovers that its institutions do not match the models that he has come up with and demands that the world be changed everywhere, all at once so that the world is brought into line."

Yes there is a lot of this about. Some debates about tackling the problems of the health service revolve around whether the locally elected bodies we want to run them should be single- or multi-purpose, for example. No doubt there is a debate to have about this. But we are talking to ourselves when we have it.

Saying we want to disestablish the CofE seems to be at the mild end of this tendency.

Good article though.

Alex said...

I think you're drawing a little too much from the American example, France has a similar separation of church and state and it doesn't suffer from the same problems.

Manfarang said...

You sound like an-
Ornicopytheobiblopsychocrystarroscioaerogenethliometeoroauatrohieroanthropoicichthyopyrosiderchpnomyoalectryoophiobotanopegohydrorhabdocrithoaleuroalphitohalomolybdoclerobleloaxinocoscinodactyliogeolithopossopscphocatoptrotephraoeirochiroomychodactyloarithstichooxgelosogastrogrocerobletonooenoscapulinaniac
(a man who is a false divine or forecaster)

Tristan said...

Its certainly debatable whether its the longest word in the English language...
Floccinaucinihilipilification is found in most dictionaries. It was coined but goes back to 1741 at least.

There are other words longer, but they were either coined to be the longest word are a joke word by Aristophanes translated into English or a chemical name (189,200 characters).

Andy said...

We agree on a lot things here, from the desirability of church architecture to the undesirability of radical evangelism, but disagree utterly on the central point of this piece (although the idea of a 'National Religion Service' is at the same time amusing, sharp and very apt).

The problem that disestablishment of the Church solves is, simply, that it would mean the Church was no longer established. And that, to me, is a good enough argument on its own. The idea that there should an official state church is to me as self-evidently barmy as Arsenal being the officially-favoured state football club and as harmful as the Tories (or us, or anyone else) being the officially-favoured state political party.

Citing what the loopiest Christians might do in response doesn't hold water, I'm afraid: it's all very well being scared of what the neighbourhood dragon would do if it ever came out of its cave and rampaged across the countryside - that doesn't make deterring it by quietly feeding it a local virgin once a month a morally acceptable policy.

And anyone who believes the poisonous arm of Christianity isn't already a threat should see what happens when a previously normal and rational friend falls under the influence of the Alpha Project.

I was going to end there, but mentioning Alpha made me think of another reason for disestablishment: it would remove the attractiveness of the Church as a host to parasitic organisms like Alpha, which is spreading so perniciously precisely because there is a nationally-sanctioned structure for it to infest and work through. As the Labour Party found out during its problems with the Militant Tendency, once a structure starts to creak with age and disuse - or, more accurately, to retain a largely passive member base who retain a strong residual affection for its past glories - it's ripe for infiltration by people with a bit of energy and a lot of agenda.

Still, the Blessed Tony saved us from Militant, perhaps he can be drafted in to save the Church of England too? Oh - wait. Perhaps not.

asquith said...

Fucking manly word, manfarang. I raise my bottle of cider to it.

Pejar said...

While this argument may once have held water, I think recent events cast much doubt on it.

The government, in its zeal for multiculturalism, has been giving more and more credance to religious leaders of all stripes, and yes that includes the crazies. This leads to a spiral of claimed privilege and the crazy situation where there is a real chance of religions (probably all religions) getting exemptions from laws to which everyone else must adhere (from animal welfare to equality). More and more of the school system is handed over to their indoctrination, letting creationism in through the back door. Those Bishops in the House of Lords block widely supported legislation.

The defence against this is government neutrality in matters of religion, and that means disestablishment. While there is an established church which seeks privelges for itself and now for all religions, the situation is just going to get worse. Neutrality, the secular state, tells all religions that they have to obey the same rules as other bodies and will be treated fairly.

You worry about evangelicals coming out of the woodwork, but I'd rather have them where I can see them than quietly controlling schools and amending curriculae, worming their way through the innocuous C of E and claiming its harmless status for themselves. Religious fundamentalism is an emerging fact of life. Better to confront it and take a hard but fair line, rather than desperately ignoring it and papering over the cracks.

HotForWords said...

I agree with Tristan, antidisestablishmentarianism is the longest word that "most people are able to recite"... although it is not the longest.. Floccinaucinihilipilification is considered the longest word.. and there are even longer ones but they are just words created to try to be big.. and really don't count.

(I did a video on this Floccinaucinihilipilification and one on antidisestablishmentarianism)

As for separation of church and state.. probably a good thing as you don't want laws passed by a particular religion that you may not agree with.. for example.. perhaps your religion does not allow you to drink water.. that would not be a good thing, right?

Marina
www.hotforwords.com

Jonathan said...

I think your etymology is stronger than your theology.

The spam police had a long discussion about this one. :-)

Ian said...

"And anyone who believes the poisonous arm of Christianity isn't already a threat should see what happens when a previously normal and rational friend falls under the influence of the Alpha Project."

Exactly what poison are you referring to? The fact that your friend now has hope?

You make it sound like Christianity is a source of evil. That's only true if the Bible is twisted by misinterpretation. If you actually read the teachings of Christ without a clouded judgement made by your personal experiences of 'Christians' you would see it's based on love, sacrifice, and selflessness - attributes that are rare in today's society. I beleive this is due to moving away from Christian morals, but of course you will disagree.

I do agree that the established church is crippling to evangelism, but also that it is a catastrohpe.

Did you ever stop to think WHY effective/evangelistic Chrsitians try and even die (yes, Chrsitian martyrdom exists today) to tell you about the salvation Christ offers? Do you think it's because they want you to join their CLUB or because they might be genuinely concerned of where you're going after you die?

I'm not worried about persecution, Jesus said it would happen after all. However, the mind boggles sometimes as to how people can be so offended by evangelical Christians trying to show them full life and save them from hell.

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