Mr Woolas told The Times: "Disestablishment - I think it will happen because it's the way things are going. Once you open debate about reform of the House of Lords you open up debate about the make-up of the House. It will probably take 50 years, but a modern society is multifaith."
It was not the view of the rest of the government:
The Ministry of Justice issued a statement last night making clear that it has no intention of taking any step to disestablish the Church as part of constitutional reforms. The statement said: "The Church of England is by law established as the Church in England and the monarch is its Supreme Governor. The Government remains committed to this position and values the establishment of the Church of England."
The Times report then went into what would be at risk by disestablishment:
- The presence of a parish priest for every community
- The right of all, unless there is a separate legal inhibition, to be married, baptised or given a funeral at their parish church
- The Church's central role in helping the nation to mark important events, such as royal weddings
- The role of the Church as an education provider through church schools
- The public enactment of church legislation. The laws of the Church are part of the laws of England - measures passed by General Synod also need to be passed by Parliament - and therefore the Church's courts are part of the English legal system
- The role of the Sovereign as supreme governor of the Church
- The role of the Crown in appointing bishops and other senior clergy
- The presence of bishops in the House of Lords - they are not there to protect self-interest but to represent communities in a non-party-political way
My response to such is this:
- There isn't now a parish priest for every community, and priests are now often called to go outside their own parishes.
- The right to rites of passage is a function of a Church outlook, which a disestablished Church can easily maintain.
- The question is whether the Church in England (if it were so renamed) should be the automatic institution to add a religious gloss to State events - some it would for reasons of continuity, but others could go elsewhere. Royal Weddings already take place in register offices and a different denomination in Scotland. Spreading it about adds and takes away nothing.
- Personally I would cut the link between religious organisations and State schooling: faith schools are sectarian but expose the old more sleepy connection between Church and State.
- It is bizarre that the rules of one Church are part of the law of the land: just let it make its own mind up with no need for the State to be involved at all.
- I would have an elected President: we should not be subjects (though we are EU citizens).
- Already the government is removing its active role in selecting Church of England senior clergy, but this ought to be complete and constitutional.
- I would have no appointed people in the House of Lords: I would favour lifetime elections that would have the same effect as the current House of Lords but would begin with a vote: selecting someone for life would then be an election based on experience and achievement.
Phil Woolas is right, and the Churchiness of a Church is not based just on a connection with the State but on its own intention and theology, which should be wholly its own.