Fidei Defensor? A Case for Disestablishment of the Church of England

Justin Welby

For some people, the mere mention of “unelected Bishops in the House of Lords” causes hackles to rise. But for most, establishment or disestablishment of the Church of England is well towards the bottom of the list of issues to be concerned about. But, as I will argue, it matters.

Firstly, there is the serious challenge faced by Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, in keeping the Anglican communion from splitting apart. He needs to find a way to reconcile vehemently held opposing views: on one side there’s the American Episcopalian church taking a liberal view of homosexuality and same-sex marriage, a sort of Sermon-on-the-Mount “Who am I to judge?” approach; on the other there are the ultra-conservatives, particularly in Africa, to whom homosexuality is an abomination, per Leviticus 20:13 “‘If a man has sexual relations with a man as one does with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They are to be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads”. It is hard to imagine two views more opposed, yet Justin Welby has somehow to accommodate both to keep the Anglican communion intact. He invited all 27 Anglican primates from across the world to a summit conference in Canterbury this month (January 2016), in order to try to resolve the crisis. The outcome: the  conference voted  to suspend the entire U.S. Episcopal Church over its embrace of same-sex marriage, which they said has caused “deep pain” and “deeper mistrust” within the communion. This in effect directed the  Archbishop of Canterbury to relegate almost 2 million American Episcopalians to non-voting “associate” status within their own communion, so that they won’t be allowed to participate in decision-making on issues of doctrine, and can’t officially represent the Anglican Communion on interfaith commissions.

With such problems, the Church of England needs to be free to get on with tackling them as it sees fit. But exercising such freedom in this case has resulted in taking a position which directly opposes the law of the land: legislation to allow same-sex marriage in England and Wales was passed by the Parliament of the United Kingdom in July 2013. To say that this sits uncomfortably with the C of E being the established church,  is an understatement. The C of E must follow its conscience on this matter, as on others, but it is hamstrung by its status as the established church in England, and the concomitant requirement not to espouse views which run counter to the law. That alone looks to be a powerful  argument for disestablishment.

But as with most matters in politics or religion, it is not as simple as that. Part of the context is the position of the reigning monarch as Defender of the Faith, and Her Majesty the Queen’s well-known strongly held personal religious faith.

You might recall that last September, 9th September 2015 to be precise,  Queen Elizabeth II reached a notable milestone as the longest serving monarch, overtaking her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria. There were tributes made that day in the UK parliament. David Cameron and Harriet Harman both made well-judged and respectful statements, with a lovely blend of deference and humour. Yes, Harriet Harman was still standing in as leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. (It was a few days B.C – before Corbyn).

I enjoyed listening. While one might take the view that hereditary monarchy is in principle a poor system, hard to justify on any objective basis, in practice it seems to me that the results have been very good indeed for the UK, the Commonwealth, and probably the whole world, over the past 60 years or so. Those like me who are uncomfortable with the principle of choosing a head of state on a hereditary basis, find ourselves hard pressed to propose an alternative which would perform better. Much of this success can be attributed to the admirable way the Queen has conducted herself. There have been times during her reign that things have looked rather rocky for the monarchy, but she has always won through, in large part I believe to the enormous esteem and affection which the British public hold for her personally. It will be interesting indeed to observe whether things will continue in that vein when the Queen eventually gives way to her successor.

However, immediately following the tributes made by the party leaders in parliament, the first back-bencher who took the floor was Sir Gerald Howarth, MP for Aldershot. What he chose to do was celebrate the Queen’s position as Fidei Defensor, and extol what he saw as the virtues of the established Church of England, as key to a Christian heritage that “has made Britain what it is today”.

My immediate reaction was dismay– why would he choose to raise a point about the established church, at a time like this? So I had to draw a breath and ponder. On reflection, I concluded that Sir Gerald saw an opportunity to reinforce what he sees as a positive and virtuous association between the monarchy, the Church of England, and the Government; an opportunity to state what he feels is right and proper, and reinforce his view that “the UK is a Christian country”, and the better for it.

Perhaps he didn’t recognise at all that his point was controversial and divisive to many people, and inappropriate for a moment of celebration and recognition of service.

Whatever his motivation, I feel the need to state vigorously another view, and one which I think will resonate with large numbers of the people of this country, and of which Sir Gerald, and others who share his line of thought, would be well advised to take account.

It is necessary here to understand the history and meaning of Fid Def, or Fidei Defensor. I apologise if I’m teaching granny to suck eggs, but precise meaning is important here. Let’s start with some Latin grammar: Sir Gerald Howarth was entirely right as a statement of fact, that “fidei” is singular. 5th declension genitive singular, in fact. So fidei defensor means Defender of the Faith. It is interesting to note why the male form defensor rather than the female form defensatrix is used- this is not an accident, but rather reflects a deliberate depersonalisation of the title – a nuance unavailable in the case of a male monarch.  If the Queen used the grammatically correct form defensatrix, it would be more likely to be seen as reflecting a personal role in defending the Church of England to the exclusion of other faiths. By using “defensor”, the title is honorific, rather than a personal responsibility- recognition of the fact that she is head of a multi-faith and multi-cultural country and Commonwealth. For example, although the Queen is not the head of the Church of Scotland, which is Presbyterian and Calvinist, she worships there when in Scotland. If she were defensatrix, she would be declaring a position to defend the established Church of England, against all comers: Roman Catholicism, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, the Methodists, Congregationalism, the Eastern Orthodox Church; against the many non-Christian religions of growing numbers of her subjects, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Sikhism; and against those who profess no religion, such as the British Humanist Association. The Queen is wise not to adopt that position. If Sir Gerald’s remarks in Parliament on 9th September 2015 imply that he thinks she should, or indeed does, then I take issue with him.

The term Fidei Defensor has a long and interesting history. It was first granted to Henry VIII in 1521 by Pope Leo X, in recognition on Henry’s opposition to the reformist ideas of Martin Luther.  Leo X was himself an interesting character, and reported to have said “How well we know what a profitable superstition the fable of Christ has been for us and our predecessors” , at a Good Friday banquet in the Vatican in 1514 (though some dispute that the record is reliable) . With Henry’s matrimonial imbroglios, and the break from Rome in 1530 to establish himself as head of the Church of England, the Fidei Defensor title was revoked by Pope Paul III, and Henry was excommunicated from the Church of Rome. In 1544 the title Fidei Defensor was again conferred on Henry VIII, this time by the English Parliament, with the new meaning of defender of the Anglican faith. During The Protectorate (1653–59), the republican heads of state Oliver and Richard Cromwell did not adopt the title Fidei Defensor, but it was  reintroduced after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II,  and has remained in use ever since.

There is little question that the title Fidei Defensor, from 1544 onwards into the first half of the 20th century, has unequivocally meant defender of the Anglican faith. The large majority of UK citizens were God-fearing church-attending Christians, and there was little cause to question the prevailing religious orthodoxy. If there was religious debate, it focused on the schism between the Protestant and Catholic arms of the Christian church, and for most UK citizens, any religion other than Christianity was little known or understood. There was an arrogance of religious rectitude and certainty, as evidenced by the Christian missionary movement, spreading out across the world to convert “savages”, “heathens”, and “infidels” to Christianity – which of course we British all knew was “right”.

The world is very different now. It is a much smaller place, with international travel commonplace. We have instant access to news and pictures from across the world. We can access information on any subject we choose on the internet. We have large scale resettlement of people of different religious and cultural backgrounds. People in the UK no longer feel they have to pretend to subscribe to a worldview they find unconvincing or flawed. It is acceptable to say things like “I am an atheist”, or even “I think that religions are wrong, and do more harm than good”. Such views have been reinforced enormously by the rise in Islamic terrorism: the 14th anniversary of 9/11 passed just two days after The Queen attained her milestone of longest serving monarch.  Prominent scientists and authors express firmly anti-theistic views: examples are the late Carl Sagan and Christopher Hitchens, and a current mix of well-known authors, philosophers and physicists, such as Richard Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Lawrence Krauss, and A.C. Grayling.   The place of religion as a means of explaining the world and how it works has withered away, as previously accepted religious explanations have been replaced by rational scientific ones. It is notable that there are no examples of the process going in the other direction.

Libby Purves in her Times column [1] a few months ago referred to remarks of Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols, head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, who said that in many western countries, it was “an act of courage” to admit to any faith. Believers were, they said, routinely assumed to be “naive, unsophisticated and narrow-minded”, and it is difficult, therefore, for them to argue publicly: there is always a discount instinctively applied to anything an affirmed believer says. Those views are acutely observed. When Alastair Campbell intervened in a 2003 interview to prevent the then Prime Minister Tony Blair from answering a question about his Christianity, saying “We don’t do God,” he was recognizing the electoral harm it could do for a UK politician to be associated with religious belief. It is interesting to compare this situation prevailing in the UK with that in USA, where the constitution is secular. In the USA, the opposite is true: anything said by an affirmed atheist is automatically somewhat suspect. There are even some states in the USA where atheists are barred for public office. So we have the apparently contrary situation where religion is less respected and subscribed to in the UK, with its established church, than it is in the USA, where freedom of, and from, religion is constitutionally protected. An argument that we should maintain the established church in the UK, in order to encourage and support religion, flies directly in the face of this evidence.

I now want to look at some data about the prevalence of religiosity in the UK. The following excerpt is from published work of the academic Vexen Crabtree [2]

The religious make-up of the UK is diverse, complex and multicultural. The 2011 Census shows that minority and alternative religions are steadily growing, as is Islam. Less than half of the British people believe in a God, and from 2009 the annual British Social Attitudes results has revealed that over 50% of us say we’re not religious. A 2014 YouGov poll saw 77% of the British public say they’re not very, or not at all, religious. Comprehensive professional research in 2006, by Tearfund, found that two thirds (66%, or 32.2 million people) in the UK have no connection with any religion or church.

However people continue to put down what they think is their “official” religion on official forms. As a result of this Census Effect in the 2011 National Census, 59.3% of us put their religion down as “Christian”. Half of those who tell pollsters they have no religion nevertheless put one down on the 2011 Census. Even despite this, Christian numbers are substantially down from the 2001 figure of 72%. Religion in Britain has suffered an immense general decline since the 1950s. Between 1979 and 2005, half of all Christians stopped going to church on a Sunday. Four in five Britons want religion to be private, not public, and have no place in politics. All indicators show a continued secularization of British society, in line with other European countries such as France.

When Sir Gerald Howarth MP made his remarks about Fidei Defensor in parliament last September, he was not reflecting the views of the wider British public. If he had been arguing from a point of view of his personal faith, then he is entirely free to hold whatever religious views he chooses. If he were arguing from a point of view of tradition, then there is a clear argument to be made that the UK’s development, governance, and institutions over the centuries have indeed been inextricably linked to religion, in particular, Christianity. It is entirely proper to point this out, but it not proper to conclude that this “tradition” must automatically be carried forward into the future. It is also arguable that many aspects of the “tradition” are not wholly admirable: the slave trade, the brutal treatment of religious heretics, the burning of “witches”, religious crusades, and colonial exploitation are some examples. No-one would claim that this is representative of the Christian church in the UK today, thankfully, but if one is to invoke tradition and history as a justification, one must address the whole picture.

However, Sir Gerald did not choose to argue from personal faith, nor from the point of view of tradition. He chose to cite Fidei Defensor , as a basis for saying that Britain is a Christian country, and that we all should get on with accepting that and conforming to the implications. Yet, as I have just demonstrated, Britain is far from being a country of even majority Christian faith. With respect to the established church,  the evidence shows that Church of England attendance is waning almost to insignificance in the UK, with less than 2% of the adult population of England attending a Church of England service on an average Sunday  [3]. Whether one celebrates or deplores such a trend, the argument for maintaining the established status of the Church of England is tenuous at best. When an MP uses it in parliament to justify the notion that Britain’s government should be conducted according to a Christian theocratic  ideal, then it is high time for us to address  disestablishment .

There is more “political form” using the fact that we have an established church as an argument for trying to impose a Christian view on British society, whether it wants it or not. When in April 2014, Eric Pickles, then Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, called on “militant atheists” to “stop imposing ‘politically correct intolerance’ on UK’s Christians”,  he said they should accept that Britain is a Christian country and “get over it”.  He said, and I quote, “I’ve stopped an attempt by militant atheists to ban parish councils having prayers at the start of meetings if they wish. Heaven forbid. We’re a Christian nation. We have an established church. Get over it. And don’t impose your politically correct intolerance on others.”   What Mr Pickles failed to comprehend or acknowledge is that a parish council is a tier of local government, a civil local authority, which is secular: there is no requirement for elected councillors to adhere to any religion. Parish councils comprise members from all sections of society, and of any and all religious views. Holding Christian prayers at the start of council meetings would be divisive, and highly likely to be unacceptable to parish councillors of other faiths, or to atheists. It would in fact be an imposition of “militant Christianity” on a secular body.  It was Mr Pickles, not atheists, who was being intolerant here.  Religious people should be free to follow their religion unfettered, in their own time, but in a liberal democracy it is not acceptable for them to try to insist that people of other faiths, or none, should be constrained to follow it too.

Around the same time as The Queen achieved her milestone as the longest serving monarch, another religious controversy was unfolding across the pond: the Kim Davis affair in Kentucky, USA. If you were  hiding under a rock at the time and don’t know what this was about, I’ll explain briefly. The lady in question is an elected official, the county clerk for Rowan County, Kentucky, and responsible inter alia for issuing marriage licences. She had recently converted to Christianity, and announced that her faith forbade her from issuing marriage licences to same sex couples; she said  that “God’s authority” sits above the law of the land. She was instructed by a judge to fulfil her duties. She refused, and being an elected official, couldn’t be sacked; she was found in contempt of court, and jailed. Kim Davis has an extremely chequered personal history, with multiple divorces and marriages of her own, and so could be accused of religious hypocrisy. More importantly, what she was demanding was in effect the right to declare, by personal edict, that Rowan County, Kentucky, is a mini-theocracy not beholden to the laws of the land, but to the religious views of Kim Davis. Despite her clearly illegal action, the case became a cause célèbre for the US Conservative religious right, being held up as an example of “oppression” of Christian religious freedom. Of course, it is not. It is an example of an attempt to impose one person’s religious views on other people, so denying them freedoms and rights to which they are entitled by law.

This has some redolence with Eric Pickles’ view that parish councils should be able to insist on Christian prayers at the start of their meetings, irrespective of the views of non-Christian council members. I note the reference in Mr Pickles’ remarks “We have an established church. Get over it“. If ever we needed a clear argument for disestablishing the Church, this is it.

Disestablishment is desirable – as I have argued, having an established church is not effective in any way as a support to Christian religiosity or observance. If one deplores the decline of Christianity in the UK, as many will do, the monarch’s title Fidei Defensor is not helping the case. It is on the other hand potentially very divisive, in what is now very clearly predominantly not a Christian country.

If disestablishment is a step too difficult in the lifetime of Queen Elizabeth II, or of too low a priority, then a compromise is possible. It is less than ideal for the many atheists and humanists amongst us, but Charles, Prince of Wales, the present heir apparent, has long ago expressed a preference to change the style and the spirit should he succeed to the throne as expected. He commented in 1994, “I personally would rather see my future role as Defender of Faith, not the Faith”. Fiderum Defensor, perhaps?



1             “Queen shows Isis the true power of faith” Libby Purves, Times Opinion, 7 September 2015

2              “Religion in the UK: Diversity, Trends, and Decline, Vexen Crabtree

3              Just 800,000 worshippers attend a Church of England service on the average Sunday



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