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Royal Wedding "Last Hurrah" for Church Of England?

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By Rob Boston

As much as I love our friends across the pond, I suspect I’m not the only one who’s already tired of hearing about England’s royal wedding – and it hasn’t even happened yet. I’m thinking of engaging in a media blackout on Friday.

But one aspect of the event did catch my attention: The gala affair has put the spotlight on the Church of England and the close relationship between religion and government in the United Kingdom.

Religion News Service ran an interesting story speculating that the wedding of Prince William to the (gasp!) commoner Kate Middleton might be one of the last times the Church of England gets to strut its stuff at government expense. As the U.K. becomes increasingly secular, some say demands for disestablishment will increase.

Undoubtedly, many English clergy will resist this. In a special message lauding the upcoming wedding, two top clerics, the Very Rev. John Hall and Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, made note of the church’s historic ties to the state.

Unfortunately, the two didn’t take the time to examine how those ties have affected their church. The answer is that establishment seems not to have been helpful. The Church of England provides a necessary dose of pomp, high ceremony and cool robes for royal weddings and state funerals; the pageantry looks great on TV.

But how many people actually want to worship at this state-embraced church? Not many these days.

In fact, Brits are voting with their feet. The Church of England points out that about 1.7 million people attend its services at least once a month. That might be impressive if the population of England were, say, five million. But it’s close to 51 million. So the country’s “official” church represents a little more than 3 percent of the population.

Scholars debate why the Church of England and other European official churches are in decline. It’s possible that a process of cultural secularization in those nations might have taken hold anyway. But I can’t help but think that establishment hastened the trend. People came to view these churches as lapdogs of the state. They saw no reason to support them – the government was taking care of that. Interest in the official churches dwindled, and people wandered away.

Contrast this to the United States, where our policy of church-state separation has created a vibrant and robust religious community encompassing many faiths – all supported with billions in voluntary contributions and countless hours of volunteerism.

Religious Right groups often accuse Americans United of wanting to destroy religion. That’s nonsense, of course. But if that were AU’s goal, I know how we’d go about it: end church-state separation and move toward a bland state establishment. Nothing guarantees devitalization of a church quicker than being yoked to the government.

If you doubt that, just ask the clerics at the royal wedding.


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