Magazine article The Spectator

Why Not Share Anglican Churches among Catholics, Muslims - and Anglicans?

Magazine article The Spectator

Why Not Share Anglican Churches among Catholics, Muslims - and Anglicans?

Article excerpt

Suppose a public body owned tens of thousands of acres of real estate across England, mostly in prime residential areas. Suppose it showed little inclination to rationalise its holdings in any tough-minded way, but drifted on, barely able to maintain the property it owned. Would there not be a strong case for HM Government to step in and reclaim some of these assets from the inertia-bound body?

Such a body exists. She is called the Church of England. There can hardly be a reader who within a few minutes' walk from his own doorstep could not identify acres of land with a crumbling building in the middle of it, often of no architectural interest at all, which is locked and empty for most of the week or, when open, used to only a fraction of its capacity.

That all Church lands and buildings are ultimately the property of the Crown is surely beyond dispute. Unless Henry VIII reigned in vain he must be judged to have seized from Rome the ownership and control of the Church's fixed assets in England. Nor is it plausible to contend that the English Church was thereafter implicitly privatised and handed back to her own clerical hierarchy. The monarch became and remained supreme governor, and Parliament gained its own authority over the Church regulation. So far as the things that are Caesar's are concerned, the human organisation we call the Church of England holds her material property and exercises her secular powers on sufferance from the Crown. What the Crown giveth, the Crown may take away.

For 'Crown' read 'HM Government'. The evolution of constitutional monarchy since Henry VIII's day has seen the assumption by Parliament from the monarch of almost all powers relating to government and administration, as well as effective possession of the instruments of government and the property that goes with them.

Very well, then: as the Church's requirements and resources diminish, and as parts of her immense and sprawling property portfolio languish unexploited, it may be time to start thinking about returning them to their owner of last resort: the state.

To venture into this territory is, I realise, to enter a minefield of ancient wisdom and dignified expertise. Sir Patrick Cormack MP will have a view. Lord St John of Fawsley will have a view. But though constitutionalists may wrangle until the cows come home, there remains to most of us something clear and elemental about what Henry VIII did.

He seized lands and buildings from Rome and licensed a reconstituted Church hierarchy to take the reins, subject to God and the English monarchy. His successor, who these days is really Parliament, is free to take all or any of it back.

A case can be made for doing so in the interests not only of secular England but of the Church of England herself. As regards her own property, the Church is now grotesquely overstretched. She owns about five times as much land and buildings as she needs or can keep in good repair; and many within the Church know that. The looming presence all across the land, in every neighbourhood, town or village, of an imposing church on a generous piece of turf gives a vastly exaggerated impression of the power, influence and active membership of that organisation. All three are but a shadow of what they were in Henry VIII's time. Without disrespect to the good and enthusiastic work still being done within the Anglican Church's dwindling flock, it is hardly a caricature to describe the outward and visible presence of Anglicanism -- its property -- as a sort of huge husk. …

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