For Jonathan Chaplin’s Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-state Relations in England this last year has been the best of times and the worst of times. The best of times because few in England – it is, after all, an establishment of neither Britain nor the United Kingdom but England – have usually thought or cared little, or even known that much about it. Chaplin notes himself that “establishment hardly seems to be the most pressing issue at stake in the larger question of the place of faith in British Society.” In America, establishment is even less of an issue since the first clause in the First Amendment is “Congress shall make no law concerning an establishment of religion.”1 Few in the U.S. question this, though some Catholic integralists seem at times to do so. 

But, shortly after the book was published, Queen Elizabeth II died. Her personal integrity and dignity over so many decades drew many world leaders, including from very secular nations, to attend her funeral with great respect, and this event inaugurated a period of genuine national mourning. That occasion, and the lesser event of the coronation this year of her son Charles III, were deeply religious, especially Christian, and specifically Protestant, ceremonies conducted by the established Church of England.

While you can have a monarchy without establishment, in England these have been so intertwined for a millennium or more that it brought home to many otherwise unaware people that there is in fact an established church in the country. Hence, the topic of this book, which had previously been long ignored, has now come back to center stage. Good news for any book.

The bad news for the book is that these same events, especially the Queen’s funeral, also drew on what Lincoln in his first Inaugural Address, described as the “mystic chords of memory” without which a country cannot endure. They hinted at deeper spiritual currents that underlie the prosaic and calculated events of quotidian politics. In the face of these sentiments, Chaplin’s call for disestablishment can be too quickly dismissed as a call for secularism, laïcité, an arid political order lacking transcendent depth.

Chaplin was aware of these potential criticisms even before these events and sought to pre-emptively to counter them. He is resolute in arguing that he does not want a naked public square nor a polity that excludes religion from public and political life. Here, he makes a distinction between a high establishment of the type and pomp represented by the coronation and an earthed establishment in which the church is embedded in its community and in the nation. As an articulate Kuyperian Christian, he wants Christianity firmly rooted and present in civil society and the public square. His argument is that the English establishment does not found but actually undercuts both of these.

The book is scholarly, thorough, and meticulous, and its core argument is a principled theological one, particularly the principle of  “church autonomy and state impartiality.” The church should be free to shape its own doctrines and rules and the state, as much as may be, should be impartial to religious claims, even while such impartiality must itself have some religious roots.2 The second chapter contends that an established church cannot be defended on theological and ecclesiological grounds. The state should be impartial between religions and should not interfere with the church, in doctrine or governance—here the Church of Scotland is used as an example.

The following chapters analyze the Church of England’s complex relationship with the State and how the Monarchy and Parliament, the “high establishment,” would change if Chaplin’s reform proposals were accepted. and how the church could become more involved at the local level, the “earthed establishment.” He seeks to rebuff some arguments made by establishment’s defenders, while re-emphasizing that these are secondary to theology, since if “Establishment is theologically illegitimate, whatever empirical advantages it may bring” are of lesser importance.

In concluding he gives examples of the problems caused by establishment, with “conflicting and inevitably compromising expectations,” particularly in what he strangely regards as a tendency to bless conservative political stances and its concomitant failure to speak prophetically. He also states that he believes that disestablishment is going to come anyway and hence it would be better if the church planned and initiated this process rather than have it thrust upon it.  To encourage this he lays out a ten year process for carrying out the divorce.

This is the most thorough analysis of the issue in modern times. It is a powerful book and it persuades me. I had approached the book partially antidisestablishmentarianismically but it argued me out of that.3 

Some demurrals:

At times Beyond Establishment seems rationalistic. As Chaplin writes elsewhere “Church leaders who defend the Coronation seem to assume that this highly particular and obviously controversial theological meaning is still effectively communicable today, even in our pervasively secularized and religiously plural nation; otherwise, why would they continue to defend the Church’s role in it?” But most people do not analyze such occasions any more than those who partake of the eucharist have a developed understanding of the liturgy that envelopes them. Practices and habits of the heart shape much of who we are even if we do not fully or even partially understand, much less articulate, them. Our rational faculties are only one, perhaps a very small part, of who we are (something that the AI prophets would do well to consider). The attachment to establishment and the monarchy draws from other wells than the rational.

As I survey the current arid American political landscape, suffused with errant semi-theological diatribes, I wonder whether the author might expect too much from a church liberated from the shackles as well as the benefices of establishment. Theology has primacy but it would be good to temper our expectations.

One other note seems strange for a book so theologically and ecclesiastically strong. Chaplin has written that “The task of the Church of England and other churches, alongside other citizens, would be to project into political debate their particular visions of what these commitments mean, and employ all democratic means to hold governments to account for fulfilling them.”  

Certainly, the members of the churches should do this but, in this context, Chaplin seems to be referring to the church an ecclesiastical institution and hierarchy. But is this how the churches’ political calling properly to be fulfilled? Very few employed in the churches have the political nous to address public policy and instead often engage in vapid moralisms. As a lay Christian engaged in political reflection, commentary, and engagement in public policy, I usually find it safe to ignore official ecclesiastical pronouncements.

We would be much better relying on the wisdom and perspicuity not of ecclesiastical pronouncements but of laity such as Jonathan Chaplin.

  1. This clause was not originally intended to prevent establishment but rather to prevent the federal government (’Congress’) from overriding the established churches that then existed in several states. In the next decades these states themselves dropped their establishments and eventually the U.S. Supreme Court used the 14th Amendment to apply the clause to the states themselves. This was arguably sleight of law, since the Court were applying to the states a clause intended to prevent the federal government from applying it to the states. But, since there was no serious constituency for establishment at any level, it has been accepted as settled law. ↩︎
  2. I would argue that the state should certainly be religiously neutral but that there cannot be a religiously neutral definition of what that neutrality is. This would apply to journalism and many other human endeavors. But that is an argument for another day. ↩︎
  3. My apologies but this one of the few times to make use of this, one of the longest regularly-formed words in the English language. My apologies to those who suffer from hippopotomonstrosesquippedaliophobia. ↩︎