THE Queen should lose her constitutional role as head of the Church of England, Nick Clegg has said. In comments that divided the Coalition, the Deputy Prime Minister became the most senior politician of modern times to propose the disestablishment of the Church.
Mr Clegg believes that the Anglican Church would “thrive” if no longer “inhibited” by its role at the heart of the British constitution. The Prime Minister immediately rejected Mr Clegg’s call to disestablish the Church, saying that the proposal was “not a Conservative one” and will not be implemented by the Government.
The Deputy Prime Minister, who as Lord President of the Privy Council is one of the Queen’s most senior advisers, made the comments amid a growing political debate about the role of religion in British life.
David Cameron last week insisted that Britain remained a Christian country, a statement that was attacked as divisive by prominent atheists and intellectuals.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, entered the debate, saying Britain was not a Christian country if solely measured by the number of people attending churches, but that the country was undeniably “shaped by and founded on” Christianity.
The debate over the role of religion has highlighted divisions between politicians. The disestablishment of the Church would undo a constitutional settlement that has stood since Henry VIII rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in 1534.
The Queen holds the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
As a Privy Councillor, Mr Clegg swore an oath to “assist and defend all jurisdictions, pre-eminences and authorities granted to Her Majesty”.
The oath, sworn “by Almighty God”, also promised not to “understand of any manner of thing to be attempted, done, or spoken against Her Majesty’s person, honour, crown, or dignity royal”.
Mr Clegg, an atheist, speaking on his weekly LBC Radio phone-in programme, said that Church and State should no longer be “bound up” together in Britain.
“In the long run it would be better for the Church and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans, if the Church and the state were to stand on their own two separate feet,” he said.
Mr Clegg and the Lib Dems have a long-standing commitment to disestablishment, but this is the first time he has publicly backed the cause since entering government in 2010.
Aides said Mr Clegg believed it was an anomaly for one denomination to have a constitutional role, given Britain is a multi-faith society with almost as many Catholics as Anglicans.
Sources close to Mr Clegg said he had a “huge admiration” for Christians and their contribution to Britain, but that he believed the Church was “inhibited and circumscribed” by its constitutional role.
If disestablishment took place, “it would be answerable to itself and God, if that’s what you believe, rather than other institutions”, a senior Lib Dem source said. “It’s a liberal stance of self-governance.”
Many countries such as America are more religious than Britain but have no established Church, the source added.
Nevertheless, Mr Clegg said he believed Britain was a country whose history, heritage and architecture are “infused by Christian values”.
“I’m not a practising man of faith but I don’t find it a problem to say we have an important Christian identity,” he said.
“That is not to say we are exclusively Christian; everyone is a Christian; or indeed that we have one Christian denomination. We should remember one of the greatest Christian values is tolerance. We are open to people of other denominations and faiths, of all faiths and none, and that’s what makes our country very special.”
Mr Clegg’s wife, Miriam, is Catholic and his three children are being raised as Catholics.
Mr Cameron swiftly rejected the comments, and said the established Church was central to Britain’s status as a “Christian country”.
Other faith leaders said that status makes Britain “understanding and tolerant” towards other religions.
“I don’t want to see what the Deputy Prime Minister has set out.
“It’s a long-term liberal idea but not a Conservative one. I think our arrangements work well in this country,” he said.
Mr Cameron last week prompted a debate about the role of the Church in Britain when he declared before Easter that the country should be unashamedly “evangelical” about its Christian faith.
He also disclosed details of his own faith, referring to “Our Saviour” and how he had been “healed” by the Church.
Disestablishing the Church of England was a central demand of Catholics, liberals and Christian nonconformists in the 19th and early 20th centuries.
It is also a demand of many atheists, who believe religion should have no position in the British constitution.
Meanwhile, the Most Rev Justin Welby argued that everything from art and music to the health service and the school system had been “earthed” in Christianity. Even if the number of believers collapsed, faith would continue to shape “what we are, what we care for and how we act”, he said in his personal blog.
“It is a historical fact (perhaps unwelcome to some, but true) that our main systems of ethics, the way we do law and justice, the values of our society, how we decide what is fair, the protection of the poor, and most of the way we look at society … all have been shaped by and founded on Christianity,” he wrote.
The Archbishop added: “It is clear that, in the general sense of being founded in Christian faith, this is a Christian country. It is certainly not in terms of regular churchgoing, although, altogether, across different denominations, some millions attend church services each week.
The Archbishop expressed delight at the debate over David Cameron’s claim that Britain was a Christian country and even welcomed the protests of atheist campaigners, saying that Christianity thrived amid “hatred and opposition”.
Culled from The Telegraph of London