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.