The slide into irrelevance if the Church of England has been well documented over the past decades. There are pockets of resistance here and there, and the odd bright spot, but the decline has been inexorable. One of the least appreciated reasons, I believe, is establishment - the fact the church is part of the state. This privileged position has allowed the Church of England to ignore fundamental structural changes in the nature of the country and the populace for far too long. Now, it seems, changing is just too difficult.
Johann Hari, a columnist for the Independent, a UK newspaper, has some stinging words for the Church of England. Having read his article, published online in GQ - Losing our Religion and republished at the Huffington Post under the title of this blog post, I can't see a single factual error. His criticism is aimed almost entirely at the upper reaches of the church, where a parade of Archbishops of Canterbury have presided over the decline, and been unwilling to engage in the hard work of dismantling the unwieldy superstructure of centuries of church privilege.
"How did it happen? For centuries, religion was insulated from criticism in Britain. First its opponents were burned, then jailed, then shunned. But once there was a free marketplace of ideas, once people could finally hear both the religious arguments and the rationalist criticisms of them, the religious lost the British people. Their case was too weak, their opposition to divorce and abortion and gay people too cruel, their evidence for their claims nonexistent. Once they had to rely on persuasion rather than intimidation, the story of British Christianity came to an end."
Despite being the official religion of the state, the C of E has actively campaigned, as Hari notes, to have itself exempted from much modern legislation, mostly that involving discrimination. They actively campaign to be allowed to discriminate against, oh, "the gays" (except the closeted gay bishops and priests, who get to keep all their ministerial privileges, including the right to exclude women from the club.) All of this just serves to make the church seem more and more out of touch. And we're not talking about hedonistic laws - we're talking about anti-discrimination legislation that belongs firmly in the universal human rights arena. It's an odd thing, but when it comes down to that kind of issue it seems more and more odd for the church (any church) to be fighting it.
The more time goes on, the more ridiculous knots the C of E ties itself into. The smartest move by far would be for its hierarchy to move as quickly as possible for disestablishment, letting go of an antiquated position that grows more ridiculous by the day (but oh, the agony of giving up those 26 seats in the House of Lords!). Only then will the church truly be able to rebuild itself into what it ought to be.