The zombie church has a new leader. So what?

Independent on Sunday, 11 November 2012

As events go, it’s not exactly earth-shaking. A couple of days ago, a pressure group announced the name of its new boss, a white bloke in his 50s who used to work in the oil industry. Admittedly the job couldn’t have gone to a woman – this particular pressure group isn’t up to speed with equality – but did they have to pick an Old Etonian? Even more puzzling has been the reaction, with lots of people rushing around and using words like “daring” and “unexpected”. I even heard a woman on Radio 4 saying she was “excited”. That’s probably because the new Archbishop of Canterbury,  Justin Welby, is replacing Rowan Williams, a cleric who sounded thoughtful but was actually incomprehensible.

Whatever Welby’s qualities, however, the truth is that he’s taking charge of an organisation which doesn’t matter to most of the population. Desperate attempts to make the Church of England sound “relevant” can’t avoid that fact that most of us never set foot in any of its buildings except as tourists. And we hold a wide range of beliefs that include agnosticism, atheism, other forms of religion and devotion to the Jedi. The Anglican church long ago lost any claim to authority, and its special status is an outrageous anachronism. Disestablishment is long overdue and so is the removal of 26 Anglican bishops from the House of Lords. They’re actually just senior officials in an NGO, with no stronger claim to sit in the legislature than the head of Amnesty International or the RSPB.

It’s hard to see why I should care what the new Archbishop thinks about gay marriage, and even harder to see why he should be able to vote on it if and when legislation comes before the second chamber. One of the reasons church leaders are so touchy, I suspect, is that they know that these are extraordinary and indefensible privileges. A former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, gets acres of space to complain about discrimination against Christians, but he doesn’t say much about all the ways in which Anglican clerics continue to enjoy special status.

In a modern democracy, no religion should be treated as part of the state apparatus, dominating public ceremonies and automatically having the ear of the prime minister and monarch. I’m perfectly happy for clerics to lobby on any subject, but they should get in line with all the other organisations that would like the Government to listen to them. By cincidence, the Anglican church announced its new leader in the same week that the re-election of President Obama demonstrated the failure of the religious right in American politics. In a secular society, faith and politics are a combustible but not necessarily winning combination.

When he was Dean of Liverpool, Welby once gave his blessing to a Halloween service entitled Night of the Living Dead, in which a man in Gothic costume leapt from a coffin. The zombie church? It’s a great metaphor for an institution that steadfastly refuses to modernise.

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