With the latest absurdity from the Church of England – the idea that gay men in civil partnerships can become bishops so long as they promise to be celibate – could it be time to completely rethink the role of the Church of England in our society? And, perhaps, the role of all religious organisations? I have a somewhat uncharitable suggestion….
The first step seems clear to me: the disestablishment of the Church of England. By that I mean the full separation of Church and State: the C of E would no longer be the ‘official’ religion, seats in the House of Lords for bishops would disappear, and so forth . There are many, many arguments in favour of disestablishment – the current displays of bigotry, sexism and homophobia just emphasise the point. There’s no place in a modern society for an established church – particularly in a society as diverse as ours in the United Kingdom.
The church itself would benefit in some ways from this: once the Church is disestablished, those of us who are not members or followers of the Church of England would have far less right to say anything about the practices of the Church. It would free the Church to be as ‘traditional’ as it wanted – at least to some extent…. which leads me on to the main, uncharitable suggestion.
At the moment, the Church of England doesn’t just have the advantage of being ‘Established’; it has the advantage, in common with other religions, of charitable status. One of the official ‘charitable purposes’ allowed by the Charities Commission is ‘the advancement of religion’. For me, the next stage of sorting out the relationship between religion and the state would be the removal of that purpose – why should advancement of religion be seen as something of ‘public benefit’ if religions themselves effectively support bigotry, division and disadvantage? ‘But it’s tradition’ I hear people say – fine, keep your tradition, but don’t expect to get tax and other benefits for it.
In fact, I’d go further. Right now, as the Church of England is displaying quite dramatically, religious tradition allows organisations to avoid equality legislation – as many people have pointed out, what job other than ‘bishop’ could say that no women or gay men can apply, and get away with it? Not many – and most involve religion in some form or other. Why are they allowed to get away with it? ‘It’s tradition’? Again, I say, fine, keep your tradition, but there should be consequences. So, perhaps we could establish a new kind of status for organisations that want to avoid equality and other legislation, in the name of ‘tradition’: ‘Uncharitable Status’.
Any organisation that wishes to do this could apply to a newly established body, the Uncharities Commission, and put their case for bigotry. They must demonstrate that it’s properly ‘traditional’ – demonstrate that their views, though bigoted, are based in something historical and ‘cultural’, rather than just on ignorance and hate. If they fail to prove this, they cannot get ‘uncharitable status’, which means that they have to comply fully with all relevant legislation. If they do prove it then they can be registered as officially Uncharitable: this would allow them to practice their ‘traditions’, but would mean that rather than just not getting the tax benefits of being a charity, they have tax penalties – that donations to them are taxed at higher rates, that they themselves have to pay taxes in full, and so forth. They would also have to include a statement on their websites and letterheads announcing that they are officially uncharitable, to make their status clear…
A reasonable solution? Uncharitable… but fair?
P.S. In case you didn’t realise, my tongue is firmly in my cheek…