Page last updated at 10:59 GMT, Thursday, 18 December 2008

Archbishop sees benefit in split

Dr Rowan Williams
Dr Rowan Williams drew on experience of the status of the Church in Wales

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said separating the Church from the state would not be "the end of the world".

Dr Rowan Williams said there would be benefits in the disestablishment of the Church of England.

There was a "certain integrity" in decisions made by the Church not having to be "nodded through by Parliament afterwards", he told the New Statesman.

However, Dr Williams rejected the idea of a disestablished Church in England in the near future.

'State sanction'

Establishment of the Church of England - with the Queen at its head and the prime minister responsible for senior appointments - gives it special influence denied to other Churches but it also means laws passed by its governing synod have to be confirmed by Parliament.

At the moment the Church of England is in its established position... and I'd be very loathe to lose that
Dr Rowan Williams
Archbishop of Canterbury

Dr Williams, a former Archbishop of Wales, where the Church is disestablished, said: "I can see that it's by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears.

"The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn't have to be nodded through by Parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that."

He said he would oppose disestablishment if it was motivated by secularists "trying to push religion into the private sphere".

'Helpful umbrella'

Dr Williams told BBC News he did not want to see disestablishment happen at the moment.

"I see the case for it, and I certainly don't think the Church would be destroyed by disestablishment.

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"I believe the Church exists because of God, not because of the state," he said.

"At the moment the Church of England is in its established position, a helpful umbrella for other faith organisations, a foot in the door of secular society, and I'd be very loathe to lose that.

"I think society would lose from it as well."

BBC religious affairs correspondent Robert Pigott said it had been clear previously that Dr Williams favoured cutting the link at some point.

However establishment was so embedded in the nation's constitution that undoing it would take a considerable time, our correspondent added.

'Unarguable case'

A spokesman for the Church of England said: "The government has repeatedly stressed the value it places on the establishment of the Church of England as something valued by people of all faiths and none.

"The Church is honoured to perform this service to the nation, which embraces a wide range of aspects - from the parish system and bishops in the House of Lords, to church schools and helping the nation mark important events."

National Secular Society president Terry Sanderson said the case for disestablishment was "unarguable".

"The Church of England's claims to represent all religious interests in this country are patronising in the extreme," he said.

"The non-religious and those unconcerned with religion are now in the majority and their wishes are being increasingly sidelined."

The Ministry of Justice, the government department with responsibility for constitutional matters, gave its support for the current position of the Church.

A spokeswoman said: "The Church of England is by law established as the Church in England and the monarch is its Supreme Governor.

"The government remains committed to this position and values the establishment of the Church of England."

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