Secularism is belief in the complete separation of Church and State. Religion should be a matter of private conscience, for the home and place of worship; it should not have privileged input into the political arena, where history shows it to bring conflict and injustice. We want a society in which all are free to practise their faith, to change it or to not have one, according to their conscience. Belief or lack of it should neither advantage nor disadvantage.
The historical background in England
The Church of England broke with Rome at the Reformation. The immediate cause was the refusal of the Pope to annul the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, but underlying this was a nationalist belief that authority over the English Church properly belonged to the English monarchy. There followed over a century of religious conflict and changes in the status quo, culminating in the settlement of 1689, which has remained the basis of the constitutional position of the Church of England as the established church in England. (There are no longer established churches in Wales or Northern Ireland, and the Church of Scotland is in practice the national church rather than a state church.)
The present situation
Over the years, increasing religious and civil rights have been granted to other Christians, those of other faiths, and those professing no faith at all. But the Church of England has retained to the present day a range of legal privileges and responsibilities. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, the Monarch must be a confirmed member of the Church of England, and is forbidden to marry a Roman Catholic. More importantly, twenty-six bishops of the Church of England sit ‘as of right’ in the House of Lords. The UK is the only Western Democracy in which religious representatives are members of the legislature. This would have continued under the latest attempts at reform.
The Church of England is at the centre of many ceremonial events, such as the Coronation and Remembrance Ceremonies, although its support in the country has declined dramatically. In 2005, less than 2% of the population attended its services on a normal Sunday and its membership was less than 1.3 million. This number is likely to fall further, as the majority of teenagers are non-believers.
The Church is having increasing difficulty in maintaining a united front when dealing with issues such as gay clergy and female bishops, in the face of conflicting views expressed by churches in Africa, America and Asia. The influence of forces external to the UK makes establishment even more unacceptable.
Perhaps the most disturbing development in recent years is the determination of the present Government to increase the number of faith schools.
What should be done
There is no longer any justification for the continuance of the privileged position of the Church of England. We should follow the example of Sweden and end the link between Church and State.