Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Brown and the Church

It was always clear that Gordon Brown's first big political initiative as Prime Minister was likely to be in the area of "trust," for the simple reason that it is the loss of trust in politics, and specifically in New Labour, that forced his predecessor out of office before his time and threatens to force him out of office at the next election unless he can tackle it.

So the constitutional reform proposals announced by Mr Brown yesterday have to be seen in that light. The underlying message was not "I am a political anorak who sits up at night worrying about how to change our system of government," but simply "I am not like Tony Blair."

To that extent, I think it succeeded in its aim and I look forward to what else comes forward - particularly on the "English/West Lothian Question" which was rather dismissively glossed over. But for now, I want to focus on one specific proposal, namely ending the Prime Minister's role in the appointment of Bishops.

The question of the relationship between Church and State has always been a vexed one, and Tony Blair's answer on this at his final PMQs when he told the Lib Dem MP Richard Younger-Ross that he was "really not bothered" about it was as spectacularly disingenuous as anything he said in office.

In fact Mr Blair was deeply bothered about the church-state relationship during his time as premier. On at least two occasions, he used his Prime Ministerial power to promote his own brand of muscular Christianity, appointing James Jones to the Bishopric of Liverpool within months of coming to office, and making Rowan Williams Archbishop of Canterbury in the belief that he was the man to bring about a spiritual revival.

He wasn't the only recent Prime Minister to take a keen interest in church affairs. In 1990, Margaret Thatcher famously rejected the church's preferred candidate for Canterbury, John Habgood, and chose the second name on the list, George Carey. Ironically this turned out to be a smart move as Habgood was an exponent of the wishy-washy liberalism which is slowly driving the CoE into the ground.

Under Brown's proposals, the Prime Minister would be presented with only one name, selected by the church's own appointments commission, which he would then recommend to the Queen. I am not sure however that letting the church effectively elect its own leaders makes any more sense than letting politicians chose them. Some sort of independent scrutiny would still, in my view, be required.

On the whole I think Mr Brown is right to want to give up the power - but the question of who or what he gives it too is a matter that needs further careful thought.

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Anonymous said...

The appointments issue is beside the point - what Brown should be doing is disestablishing the CofE. It's ridiculous that people like this idiot Bishop are given a seat in Parliament.

Paul Linford said...

Well, they surely won't be, under whatever Lords reform proposals eventually emerge.

The Huntsman said...

We are constantly being told that his or that part of our heritage and tradition must be abandoned because it is anachronistic or no longer appropriate for a modern 21st. Century democracy. One remains puzzled therefore as to why it is thought appropriate for there to be a State Religion these days. Given that the Church of England, which has become, as an institution, a laughing stock, obsessed with homosexuality and the place of women in its ranks, and which is faced with an ever-dwindling and aging congregation, it is laughable that it remains the established Church, with its bevy of Pious Prelates in the House of Lords. The sooner that we abandon the medieval notion of a State Religion, the better.

At the same time the notion of Bishops having automatic seats in the House of Lords should be abandoned. Let the C of E choose its own Bishops, for most of us care not a fig for this institution which has become not just an anachronism but an irrelevance in the modern world.

Besides, as it has effectively become the Labour party at prayer, conservatives with any gumption ought to welcome any downgrading of its platform of influence.