An uncharitable suggestion…

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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….

Disestablishment

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.

Uncharitable Status?

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…

12 thoughts on “An uncharitable suggestion…

  1. In writing this I declare an interest as a Methodist (and ex treasurer of my church), yet one who does not believe in 10 impossible things before breakfast. My mother is housed in a Methodist Home for the Aged. In Bristol we support a Methodist Centre for the homeless.

    Yes, indeed, to disestablishment of the CofE, but please don’t stereotype “church” nor even “faith groups” (by which I mean non Christian groups).

    Look, for instance, at the work of the Salvation Army, chaplaincies in Universities, hospitals and care homes: ministry to the poor, dispossessed, ill and bereaved. Much of what is called the “big society” is provided by faith based groups, usually without any pre-supposition of faith of any kind on the part of the recipient. “You were there when I needed you”

    The Church of England has lost its way, as it had 300 years ago when John Wesley rebelled. It is obsessed by what goes on behind closed bedroom doors, and has lost sight of its raison d’etre, which should be focussed on social justice and spiritual need. I would hazard a guess that the undemocratic, self selected voting laity who recently destroyed the aspirations of women clergy are predominantly made up of non-employed (or pin money) wives of wealthy businessmen, who have never wanted careers, who have a strong sense of entitlement, and who therefore see “God” as “male provider” with masculine leadership in the church. These are the women who have time to arrange harvest festivals and flowers, sit on lay committees etc – “ladies that lunch”. They are representative of nobody except themselves.

    Yes, yes, yes to disestablishment of the Church of England, but no to loss of charitable status to those of us who have embraced equality for many years and whose raison d’être is genuinely charitable.

    • I do acknowledge the point – and apologise for the generalisation. However, when groups like yours do charitable things – and they do, I know, wonderfully charitable things – then under this kind of a scheme they could get charitable status without any need for a ‘religious purpose’. Wouldn’t that work just as well?

  2. It needs thinking through. Much depends on the definition of “religious purpose”

    What would loss of charitable status actually mean? Being taxed on surplus? Surplus, however, gets ploughed back into charitable activity, or into reserve funds to keep the churches and their buildings going.

    Quite apart from socially charitable exercises, churches have a responsibility to maintain some of our finest historic buildings. In this context also it should not be denied charitable status any more than the National Trust and English Heritage. “Religious purpose” includes maintaining places of worship and indeed this is by far the largest cost carried by churches everywhere.

    Believe me, if these costs related to historical heritage could be carried by non religious groups, many churches would feel radically liberated. There are many atheists as well as religious folk who would mourn the loss of ancient parish church buildings and cathedrals if churches refused to carry the burden any longer. This loss would be a natural and rapid consequence of removal of charitable status for “religious purposes”.

    • It’s not exactly a fully developed policy, to say the least… but now you’ve got me thinking! Restoration and maintenance of historical buildings seems a definite ‘public good’ to me, so should be able to be ‘charitable’…

      Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-church at all, I just think we need to reassess the place of religion in our society.

  3. Good writing – Maybe I’m missing something but I thought we had equality laws in this country – laws of human rights etc.
    if the C of E has the position of being part of the establishment how are they entitled to make demands that flout these laws?
    It’s seems ludicrous that C of E can seek to make demands on how their ’employees’ live their private/personal/family lives when those ’employees’ are breaking no laws.
    I believe they should not be allowed to ‘have their cake and eat it’. For what reason should they be exempt from the law?

  4. No worries, I think the dialogue is interesting. To religious groups, having a place to worship together is very important. In Methodism people started by meeting in each others’ homes (we still have house groups) and aspired to have a place of worship.

    My great great great grandparents gave land in Huddersfield to build a Methodist Church, and another piece of land to build a Mechanics Hall – part of the Mechanics Institute that offered education to the working classes.

    A few years ago I digitised the burial register. Of the first 100 burials, more than half were children under 2. At that time the C of E would not bury unbaptised children in consecrated ground, but the Methodists did. It was a social service.

    To many religious groups such heritage matters. It creates a sense of context and stewardship within which worship has more meaning. Our time in the world is transient and we need spiritual support through worship to help us make best use of it. Shared worship (religious purpose) to those who value it is a source of energy by which they can work out a meaningful and (hopefully) valuable purpose in the world.

    There is no doubt that this “purpose” is sometimes seriously distorted in all faiths, leading to downright wickedness in extreme cases. As a Muslim once said to me: “We all have our nutters and it’s best that they are dealt with by their own community”. Look, also, at the abuse of children in some so-say Christian communities in the name of “exorcism”, because it is believed that the devil has taken them over.

    Such incidents, though rare, attract much publicity, and rightly. They distort the public perception of what faith groups are mainly about.

    In my opinion the C of E should have been disestablished many years ago. It’s ages since Prince Charles said he wanted to be Defender of Faiths (but let’s not get distracted by issues around “monarchy”)! Removing charitable status for religious purposes is a completely different and unrelated issue.

    • I’m not sure they’re entirely unrelated – they both relate to the underlying issue of the role of religion in our society. You may be right that the overall impact of religion is to improve the ‘public good’, but you may also be wrong – at the very least, it’s not a foregone conclusion either way.

  5. And I suppose we can also consider the end of that famous passage from 1 Corinthians vv1-13

    “And now there remain faith, hope, and charity, these three: but the greatest of these is charity”

  6. Yes they do indeed. But in Greek there are 4 words for love and the kind of “love” that is intended in this passage is the one that implies charity – as in “love your neighbour as yourself”

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