New optimism for disestablishment of church in UK, RSA webinar told

Si Gladman / 02 March 2024

Increased public scrutiny over church-state relations in the United Kingdom is providing hope for disestablishment of the state church, the latest RSA Webinar has heard.

At Wednesday’s webinar, guest speaker Stephen Evans outlined how recent developments had helped to “perfectly illustrate” many of the problems with religious privilege in the UK.

Evans, the Chief Executive Officer of the UK’s National Secular Society, said that last year’s Coronation of King Charles – at which the King was anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and transformed into an agent of God – brought the relationship between church and state into public focus.

Given recent speculation that Prince William was not comfortable with religion and may not take the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England upon becoming king, Evans said it could be no longer assumed that all future monarchs would be believing Anglicans.

“Under the Act of Settlement, Prince Williams couldn’t actually become king without being in communion with the Church of England. Whilst this criteria could quite easily be met on account of his baptism, the optics of a Supreme Governor of the Church of England and ‘Defender of the Faith’ not being particularly religious, not being a particularly enthusiastic member of the Church of England, I think that would undermine both church and state,” he said.


“[It would be] somewhat embarrassing and demeaning for the church, I think, to have a Supreme Governor and ‘Defender of the Faith’ that doesn’t even practice the faith or believe in its doctrine. 

“The role of head of state in the UK being reserved exclusively for Christians is really at odds with the monarch’s supposed support for freedom of religion or belief. It really contravenes every principle of non-discrimination ever drawn up. Our head of state should be free to hold any religious beliefs they wish.” 

In the webinar, Evans outlined how having an established state church manifests in public life, including the automatic appointment of bishops to the House of Lords, the continued role of the church in education, and the prominent role of the church in events such as the National Service of Remembrance.

He said having an established church, especially when the population had become increasingly non-religious and diverse, was archaic and unfair.

“…it really privileges one part of the population, one institution and one set of beliefs. So it really undermines the principle of equal citizenship,” he said.

He predicted that the election of a Labour government at the next election – due before the end of January 2025 – could open the door for reforms.

“Lords reform may possibly be on the agenda. And we’ll certainly be arguing for the bishops – or their removal – to be part of the reform,” he said.

“I think the whole concept of reserved seats for clerics or faith leaders is nonsensical in a modern liberal democracy… Seats as of right for religious leaders should be removed.”

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Si Gladman is Campaigns & Communications Coordinator for the Rationalist Society of Australia. He also hosts ‘The Secular Agenda’ podcast.

All the more reason.