University of Botswana History Department

Some notes on the Church of England and "Establishment"

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The St George's Cross:
the flag of England, widely used by the Church of England

The legal and constitutional position of the Church of England is an unusual one. Outside Britain it is little understood; even within Britain many people are not at all clear on it. It is, however, necessary to understand it in order to understand many important issues which the Church has had to deal with in the twentieth century.

The Church of England is an Established Church. This is a technical term, meaning that the Church has a special legal position within the state and is not simply a voluntary society in the eyes of the law. The term will be familiar to Americans, as the First Amendment to the United States Constitution begins "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...", though this may mislead them as it has been interpreted by the American courts in modern times to require the state to be rigidly secular and completely exclude religion from all governmental business, schools etc. Most "secular states" are much less rigid. That is, in the United States "establishment of religion" has been interpreted to include almost any conceivable connection, real or apparent, between the state and religion, rather than the more specific connection usually understood in England. Paradoxically, although its government is rigidly secular, the United States is one of the most religious societies of the western world in terms of active church membership.

The influence of the United States in cultural matters is very great, and it is not uncommon to find people who assume that the American concept of secularism is an essential of democratic politics. Although some may consider that it should be the norm, in fact it stands at one extreme, and many democratic states take differing views.

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What is "Establishment"?

What is "Establishment"? It may be easiest to answer this by looking at the concrete examples. Establishment came about as a result of historical circumstances.

Before the Reformation, there was for practical purposes only one, international, Church in Western Europe. Furthermore, many of what we would now consider the functions of government were dealt with not by states or rulers, but by the Church. For example, the Church had its own courts which had jurisdiction over the law of marriage. The Church as well as the State made laws, and both sets of laws bound the ordinary person.

The Reformation saw some parts of the Western Church reject the authority of Rome and thus become separate. In most places only one Church was permitted to operate freely - religious pluralism was not generally seen as a good thing. Thus, the power of the state backed up the officially approved church. Over time, greater toleration developed.

Where the official church was no longer the international Western (Roman Catholic) Church, it was now organized on a national basis. Often the decision as to whether or not to break with Rome was made by the ruler, and the relationship between the ruler and the church was a clearly unequal one, with the state making laws to settle which type of Christianity was now the officially approved one.

The Church of England and the Church of Scotland were among those parts of the Church which split from Rome. The Church of Scotland adopted Calvinism and Presbyterian church government. The Church of England initially split from Rome as a result of the political needs of King Henry VIII, who was not otherwise very sympathetic to religious reform, and (despite a complicated series of reversals over the next hundred years) retained more of its "Catholic" character than other Protestant churches (indeed, many Anglicans do not accept the description of their church as "Protestant").

(To summarize this complicated history: Henry VIII was not keen on religious reform, except for the abolition of monasticism, which enabled him to loot the monasteries. However his rejection of Rome made some move toward Protestantism almost inevitable, and under his successor Edward VI the trend went much further. Edward was succeeded by Mary Tudor, who restored Catholicism but died childless, and her sister Elizabeth I again broke with Rome. Elizabeth died childless and was succeeded by King James VI of Scotland (James I of England), thus uniting the crowns of the two states (although they remained legally separate countries until 1707). James and his son Charles I attempted to move the Church of Scotland towards the position of the Church of England, causing considerable dissent there. A conflict between Charles I and the English Parliament led to Civil War breaking out in 1642: a major issue was religion, with Parliament seeking a much more Protestant church. Charles I was executed by Parliament in 1649, and a Puritan republic ("Commonwealth") was established, led by Oliver Cromwell. After the death of Cromwell it collapsed and both the monarchy and Anglicanism were restored with the return of Charles II in 1660. Essentially this was a restoration of the Elizabethan settlement, though with a few minor alterations. The Church of England's Book of Common Prayer is the version agreed in 1662. Charles II's successor James II was a Roman Catholic, and his attempts to improve the status of the Roman Catholic Church were seen by Anglicans as preliminaries to another religious revolution: James was overthrown in 1688 and Roman Catholics were excluded from the succession for the future.)

The Church of England retained many of its pre-Reformation powers. For example, its courts had jurisdiction over marriage, and its assemblies (the Convocations) retained the power to legislate. However, the State had now asserted its supremacy. The Church's courts could be overruled by the State's; the Church's canons were valid only within limits set by the State.

The government asserted its control by taking charge of the top appointments. It did not however incorporate the Church directly into the State's bureaucracy; instead it set up procedures for monitoring and commanding the Church's administration. Bishops were ordained as before, following election by a Church body, but now the monarch would choose who was appointed, by sending a legally binding order as to who should be elected. (It is worth noting that in some times and places the Roman Catholic Church has conceded this power to rulers.)

As time passed the situation changed. In 1707 England and Scotland were united as a single United Kingdom of Great Britain, but the Church of Scotland remained the official church in Scotland and the Church of England remained the official church in England. The development of religious toleration led to the granting of more rights to other churches, and some of the Church's powers either lapsed or were transferred to the State. However, the residue of the Church's special status remains. As one historian has put it:

English pluralism was not ancient like that of the Ottoman Empire. It was not a negotiated settlement like that of Germany or, with some qualifications, France. It was not a foundation principle of a new country, like that in most of the United States. Rather, English pluralism was the result of a gradual wearing away of a unitary system through concessions made because it seemed right to make them.

Robert E. Rodes, Law and Modernization in the Church of England: Charles II to the Welfare State (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991) p.  147.

In 1801 Great Britain was united with Ireland (formerly a separate kingdom, though in fact under English and then British control) to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Church of Ireland, which was the Irish analogue of the Church of England, was united with the Church of England as the "United Church of England and Ireland", the rules of the English Church prevailing. (Act of Union, 1800, article 5.)

In 1871 the Church of Ireland was separated again and disestablished, and in 1920 the Welsh dioceses of the Church of England were separated and disestablished (see below).

What, then, has Establishment meant in the twentieth century?

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The official aspects

The Sovereign: The King or Queen is required to belong to the Church of England; or, at least, not to be a Roman Catholic. He or she is crowned in a ceremony which is a service of the Church of England, although representatives of other religious traditions may also take part.

The Sovereign has the title of "Supreme Governor of the Church of England". It is often stated that the monarch is "Head of the Church of England", but this is not correct; Henry VIII claimed this title, but it was rejected by Elizabeth I, who preferred the theologically less contentious "Supreme Governor", which implies that the monarch has jurisdiction over its running, but not that he or she has spiritual authority.

Bishops in parliament: Most European parliaments or "Estates" originally contained representatives of the three most powerful groups in society - the Church (meaning the clergy), the nobles, and important commoners. In many countries the three met separately (as students of the French Revolution will recall) but in England the Church's representatives, the bishops and abbots, sat with the nobles. In England the Bishops of the Church of England, or rather some of them, are still members of the House of Lords. (Due to the increase in the number of bishoprics, only the more senior bishops are members.)

Formally it is the Queen who chooses new bishops, but with the rise of parliamentary government the power passed, in practice, to the Prime Minister. (This is of course true of many aspects of British government; there are all sorts of things which legally are decided by the Queen but which in fact are done strictly on the Prime Minister's "advice".) In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, bishops had a major political role and political considerations were very important in selection. In the twentieth century this has been far less significant - .much less significant than is often imagined, in fact. For example, in 1942 Churchill strongly disliked William Temple's politics, but accepted that he was the obvious choice as Archbishop of Canterbury. But because of the bishops' continuing role in the House of Lords it is still sometimes a factor. Since the 1970s a new system has been introduced whereby a Church committee forwards two names in order of preference to the Prime Minister, who normally accepts the choice but is not bound to. (It is believed that Margaret Thatcher made her own choice on a few occasions). Thus, fossil traces of the whole history of the Church of England can be found in the process: the Church tells the Prime Minister to tell the Queen to tell the Church who to appoint.

Anglican clergy, meanwhile, were disqualified from membership of the House of Commons. This was held in common law but was not in statute until 1801. When the Welsh Church was disestablished, its clergy were exempted from the ban, but this was (probably by oversight) not the case with the disestablihed Church of Ireland. The ban also applied to Roman Catholic priests. The origins of the disqualification are not entirely clear; it is generally suggested that it was originally connected with the clergy's status as a separate order who were represented, and until 1665 taxed, through Convocation (the assembly of the clergy). The 1801 Act seems to have been justified more with reference to the possible use of Crown influence. The House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act, 2001 removed this disqualification.

Laws: As the Established Church, the Church of England is not a voluntary society with rules made by compact. Instead, its laws are part of the English legal system. Because of the severe limitation on its power to legislate by canon, many changes require the amendment of statute law. Until 1919 this could only be done by Act of Parliament, which caused great difficulties as Church business was crowded out by ordinary legislation. In 1919 a new system was set up for passing "Measures" by a special procedure. These Measures, in effect special statutes dealing only with Church matters, would be debated by a "Church Assembly" and then passed into law by a single vote in each house of Parliament. In the 1970s the Church Assembly was replaced by the General Synod, but the basic procedure remains. This means that it is possible for Parliament to block a change agreed by the Church. This happened in 1928-29 when Parliament refused to agree to a new Prayer Book.

Since the laws of the Church are part of the laws of England, the Church's courts are part of the English legal system. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries this caused considerable tension when decisions of Church courts were overturned by secular courts applying what seemed to many Anglicans to be an inappropriate legalistic approach.

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The unofficial aspects

So far we have been dealing with the legal position of the Church. The continuation of Establishment must however be seen in connexion with the peculiar position of the Church in English society. Traditionally, the Church of England was seen as somehow "belonging" to any English person without other religious affiliation or positive non-religious identity. The Rector or Vicar (local parish priest of the Church of England) was and in many places still is a recognized local figure with duties to all his (or now her) parishioners in a way that is not true of a minister of another church, whose duty is essentially to his or her own congregation. Although only a minority attend services, a much larger number of English people retain a vague Christian belief, and even many non-believers look to the Church of England to provide rites of passage such as baptisms, marriages and funerals. Any baptized English person (unless divorced) has a legal right to be married in his or her parish church, and most parish priests are glad to oblige. More controversially, any English person has a legal right to have their child baptized in the parish church, although many Anglicans are unhappy at doing so unless an explicitly Christian upbringing is intended.

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The Church of Scotland is the established church in Scotland, but has a less close relationship with the State. In the seventeenth century, the Stuart kings tried to make it more like the Church of England (including episcopacy), but when James II was overthrown in 1688 the new government considered the Presbyterians to be more reliable, and allowed them to re-establish a Presbyterian system. The Episcopalians became a persecuted minority; leading to the odd situation that the United Kingdom favoured Anglicanism in one part of its territory and persecuted it in another. Because of the Presbyterian system of government in the Church of Scotland, the issues connected with the appointment of bishops in England do not arise. (On the other hand the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland had a special status as a national forum when there was no Scottish Parliament.)

The Church of Scotland split in the 19th century over the question of independence from the state; in particular, the right of congregations to control appointments of ministers (which was limited by "lay patrons" who had the right to nominate ministers). This culminated in the "Disruption" of 1843 when many members seceded to form the "Free Church of Scotland". It is important to note that although they sought freedom from state control, they continued to see an Establishment as the ideal. The leading figure, Thomas Chalmer, wrote that "we quit a vitiated Establishment, but would rejoice in returning to a pure one." He advocated "a national recognition and a national support of religion" and explicitly denied that the Free Church were "Voluntaries" in principle.[1] Eventually (skipping over some interesting events in between) the Church of Scotland and the United Free Church were reunited (this being completed in 1929). To facilitate this the Church of Scotland Act 1921 was passed, which gave the Church complete internal self-government over all spiritual questions and appointments.

The Queen is represented at the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by a Lord High Commissioner. In Stuart times this office had been one of actual influence. Later it became mainly symbolic. The Lord High Commissioner used to dissolve the Assembly when it closed, but since 1927 the Commissioner merely bids them farewell, an interesting sign of the Church of Scotland's insistence on spiritual independence.[2] When the monarch is in Scotland, she and her family are considered to belong to the Church of Scotland. This point was of significance when Princess Anne remarried after having been divorced. In England the Church of England disapproves of the remarriage in church of divorced persons, but the Church of Scotland has different views, and so Princess Anne was able to marry in a Scottish church entirely legitimately.

Ministers of the Church of Scotlnd were disqualified from membership of the House of Commons, but this has been abolished by the House of Commons (Removal of Clergy Disqualification) Act, 2001. The disqualification never applied to the new Scottish Parliament (see Scotland Act, 1998).

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Disestablishment and antidisestablishmentarianism

"Disestablishment" means the ending of established status. In the nineteenth century, the Free (or "Nonconformist") Churches, that is the non-Anglican Protestant churches in England, often sought the disestablishment of the Church of England. In the twentieth century, however, they have in many cases had second thoughts. With the rise of ecumenism on the one hand, and the decline of the influence of the churches in general on the other, many non-Anglican Christians feel that the Establishment gives the Churches in general a certain assistance in society. Perhaps even more interestingly, some non-Christian religious leaders have also chosen a position of antidisestablishmentarianism, considering that disestablishment would advance secularism rather than religious pluralism. Thus, although the increasing religious pluralism of Britain is often advanced as an argument for disestablishment, it tends to be advanced by secularists.

However, these are recent developments. In Ireland, the (Anglican) Church of Ireland was established but was clearly a minority church, and as a result was disestablished in 1871 (Act passed 1869). The Church of England included Wales, but in Wales Anglicanism had been overtaken by the Free Churches, and so in Wales the Church of England was disestablished in 1920 (Act passed 1914, but implementation was delayed by the First World War). This required the separation of the Welsh dioceses as a separate "Church in Wales". Thus, in England the Church of England is established; in Scotland the Church of Scotland is established, and in Wales and Northern Ireland there is no established church.

Note on "antidisestablishmentarianism": although there are longer words in dictionaries, "antidisestablishmentarianism" is probably the longest English word which is actually used seriously (with the possible exception of some chemical names).

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Outside Britain

Outside Britain, establishment is more or less unknown in the English-speaking world. This has led to the common misapprehension among English-speakers (even in England) that it is unique to Britain. In fact, forms of establishment can be found in a number of other European countries. The closest parallels are in the Scandinavian states, all of which have until quite recently had established Lutheran episcopal churches with much closer State-Church links than in England. For a review of the various types of Church-State links found in modern Europe, see David McClean, "Establishment in a European context", in Norman Doe, Mark Hill and Robert Ombres (eds) English Canon Law: Essays in Honour of Bishop Eric Kemp (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1998) pp. 128-38.

Many English thinkers and writers in the liberal political tradition promote a strictly secular state after the American fashion. This is perhaps a little surprising in view of the fact that in general such people often favour a European rather than an American cultural orientation. The question is complicated by the fact that culturally Western Europe is (in most parts) much more "secular" than the United States, and some European elites show a degree of hostility toward religion in public life.

[To be added: the interesting case of the Anglican Church in South Africa]

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Copyright © 2000 Bruce Bennett

Last updated 11 June 2005