The Notion of Religious Establishment and Modern Democracy

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From a modern perspective religion undoubtedly has been on the decline in the UK, however as the UK is one of the most pluralistic societies in Europe it would be inappropriate to rule out the importance of religion completely. Religion has become an increasingly important topic within government, illustrated by the enactment of specific legislation such as Human Rights Act 1998 and Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006[1]. Despite the practice and promotion of several faiths in the UK, Morris argues that “The United Kingdom remains locked constitutionally so far as religion is concerned.”[2] It is suggested that the existence of the established Church of England (COE) contributes hugely to this due to its anachronistic representation in a modern society.

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This essay will explore whether the notion of establishment is compatible within a modern democracy and other systems in Europe will also be given brief consideration to demonstrate how disestablishment of the COE should not be sought immediately and how our current system provides more benefit than harm. Defining Establishment According to Ogilive, “an established Church is that single Church within a country accepted and recognized by the State as the truest expression of the Christian faith.”[3] Lord Rogers provided an English perspective on establishment by acknowledging that although the COE has “certain important links”[4] with the State, the aims and objectives of the COE differ from those of the State as they have a “religious mission.”[5] Establishment is generally defined by inspecting the relationship between public bodies and religious authorities. It has also been classified into high and low[6], with the former focusing on the Monarch’s role as Supreme Governor of the COE in addition to the presence of Bishops in the House of Lords (HL). In comparison, the latter focuses on the influence of the COE in the ordinary lives of citizens in areas such as prisons or education. Incidents of Establishment The Act of Supremacy[7] affirmed the monarchs position as the only Supreme Head of the COE which was later renamed to Supreme Governor of the COE . The monarch’s position with regard to the COE was further enhanced by the Coronation Oath Act[8] which provides a duty “to maintain the true profession of the gospel and the protestant religion.” Whilst this preserves the symbolic status of the COE, it also calls into the question the legitimacy of such statutes in a diverse society. Further controversy relates to the Act of Settlement[9] which deliberately rules out the possibility of a Catholic monarch and for many today, the existence of such principles is “shocking to modern eyes.”[10] The underlying purpose of the act was to ensure Protestant succession to the throne and to place limitations on instances where the monarch could marry a person of the Roman Catholic faith.

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