Disestablished: Goodbye Church of England? But Meanwhile in America… by Robert Conner

New legislation scheduled to be introduced in Parliament on

December 6, 2023, proposes to finally, officially, separate the British government from the Church of England: 
“Perhaps the distressing sight of King Charles III kneeling before a bible and kissing it at his coronation ceremony hastened the decision to introduce this legislation. The coronation took place at Westminster Abbey, where Charles swore an oath before the bible to uphold the Church of England’s privileges during the ritual led by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The National Secular Society, which has been campaigning for the church’s disestablishment since its founding in 1866, reports that a cross claiming what was purported to be shards from Jesus’ crucifix (sic) was part of the ritual.”[1]
The new king’s oath “to preserve the Church of England, guarantees Church of England bishops and archbishops 26 seats in the House of Lords, and means state schools can be required to hold Christian worship.” Dr. Scot Peterson of Corpus Christi College remarked, “It’s been difficult to defend having an established church since the beginning of the 20th century but it is now becoming a figment of the imagination. The king being the head of the Church of England made sense in 1650, but not in 2022.”[2]

The constituents of Shakespeare’s sceptered isle have previously considered telling the established church to bugger off. Anglicanism was disestablished in Ireland as long ago as 1871 and Wales followed suit in 1920; whether or not Scotland has an established church depends on who you ask. In England, however, bishops and archbishops are “Lords Spiritual” who sit in the mostly ceremonial House of Lords, “making the UK one of only two countries in the world to include religious leaders in the legislature as of right (the other being Iran.)” The “establishmentarians” who argue in favor of a national church claim “that an established Church validates the role of faith generally in the public square” but a skeptic might well ask, 
“If faith needs state power in order to sustain itself, how much moral and intellectual legitimacy does it really have?…It is absurd to suppose that the modern Church of England — insipid, inward-looking, riven with internal obsessions about the status of women and homosexuality, and now fending off child abuse scandals on a scale previously only associated with the Catholic Church — can claim to offer a coherent source of moral guidance…given that the liberal social consensus is now well established, people would be unlikely to be influenced one way or another by the Church of England in any event.”[3]
The attitude toward the Church of England on the part of younger Britons generally ranges from indifference to annoyance and few Brits bother to attend church.
It is certainly no secret that membership and participation in the Church of England has taken a dive. In 2013, average attendance nationally just topped a million in a country of nearly 54 million, but by 2019 the number was estimated at around 850,000. Following the COVID-19 pandemic, the number dropped to about 690,000 country-wide. Between 2010 and 2019, 423 English churches closed and Christians currently comprise less than half the population.[4] As I’ve noted elsewhere, this represents the common trend across Western Europe and much of North America. Christian belief and practice are fading to black.[5] For increasing numbers of people in the developed countries, Christianity is irrelevant at best, and an active impediment to progress at worst — which brings us to activist Christianity in the United States.
Stephen Bullivant, a professor and sociologist from St. Mary’s University in the UK, offers a possible explanation for why Christian belief has persisted in the US: 
“What happens in America that I think dampens down the rise of the nones is the cold war. Because in America, unlike in Britian, there’s a very explicit kind of ‘Christian America’ versus godless communism framing, and to be non-religious is to be un-American. I think that dampens it down until you get the millennial generation for whom the cold war is just a vague memory from their early childhood.”[6]
As the boogyman of communism shrunk, church membership in the US declined as well — in 2020, the average congregation size had dropped from 137 at the turn of the century to a mere 65 people. A recent study identified several categories of the “dechurched,” including “cultural Christians” who once attended “but had little knowledge about the Christian faith,” “exvangelicals,” who had “often been harmed by churches,” aka “church casualties.” Surprisingly often, moving to another town or neighborhood (22%) or simple inconvenience (16%) was sufficient to cause a person to disaffiliate. Two authors who explored the issue concluded, “More people have left the [American] church in the last 25 years than all the new people who became Christians from the First Great Awakening, Second Great Awakening, and Billy Graham crusades combined.”[7]
If relocating or inconvenience is enough to break the church attendance habit, what do those statistics say about Christian commitment? In point of fact, even the definition of attendance itself varies: “What percentage of churchgoing people attend regularly depends on your threshold for what you consider regular attendance. If once a week, only 20% of Americans attend church at that rate, down from 32% in 2000. If we lower the threshold to once a month or more, the number of Americans in regular attendance jumps to 41%.” While hardly robust, the figures nationally are arguably even worse: “57% of Americans are seldom or never in religious service attendance” and “16% of Christians who attended church pre-pandemic have stopped attending entirely.”[8]
How are we to account for the ‘disestablishing’ of American Christianity? Let’s start with American evangelicals’ functional insanity, as James Peron has pointed out: 
“I have long argued evangelicals attain instant self-esteem — though not genuine — out of their status as God’s only representatives on earth. For people who tend to be less educated, less well-off, often in poverty, instant superiority to others is granted by being born again…Envy is inherently destructive, the envious don’t merely wish to have what others have, they want to see it taken from others. They enjoy the destruction of others. Hellfire is an evangelical obsession because the idea of all the people they envy suffering for eternity brings them comfort and joy.” 
Peron also notes the historical trend toward conspiracy: “They spoke of evil cabals promoting ‘race mixing’ and civil rights while their God insisted on segregation, if not racially based slavery. There were feminist plots, communist plots, homosexual plots and on and on. Evangelicals in America have always been a paranoid lot with an endless litany of plotters hiding in the darkness. They cling to conspiracies for the same reason they invented their version of God; both are used to explain in simple terms, a complex reality they can’t grasp otherwise.”[9]
Given their biblical literalism, their monumental self-regard is perhaps understandable. After all, they’re assured, “you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, Gods special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9) Chosen, holy, royal, special, and called out of darkness! Well, whoop-de-doo!
Bolstered by their exalted opinion of themselves, Christian nabobs are mentally blind, unable to accurately intuit the thoughts, emotions, or intentions of others. Religious autistics therefore remain comfortably racist, sexist and homophobic even after the culture around them has moved on. For example, support for same-sex marriage and civil rights generally remains at 70%[10] but pols backed by evangelical hate groups continue to push anti-LGBTQ legislation. Despite a clear majority of Americans supporting abortion access in “all or most cases,” and polls showing 47% of women “strongly disapprove of the [Dobbs] decision,” evangelicals and Catholic conservatives finally managed to get national abortion rights overturned. “About two-thirds of adults under the age of 30 (69%) say they disapprove of the [Dobbs] decision — including 55% who strongly disapprove.”[11] As recently noted, “Abortion has been on the ballot in seven states since that landmark court decision one year ago and in each instance, in red states and blue states, anti-abortion advocates have lost...anti-abortion positions have lost every time.”[12] As I’ve noted elsewhere, the Christian Right, which has longed for decades to become America’s established church, has instead become the dog that caught the car. The more points they score, the fewer fans they have.
Enter Mike Johnson, the bespectacled nebbish hastily elected Speaker of the House of Representatives apparently without having been vetted. To the horror of the general public — or elation, depending on how many lines of crystal Jesus you’ve snorted — Johnson confidently announced, “I am a Bible-believing Christian…” What does Mike Johnson think about any issue under the sun? “Well, go pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my world view.”[13] Interestingly enough, a survey conducted by the evangelical Focus on the Family that asked such questions as “Do absolute moral truths exist?” and “Is the Bible accurate in all of its teachings?” found that “only 9 percent of ‘born-again’ believers’ shared their definition of a “biblical worldview.”[14]
Writing for the Brennan Center for Justice, Michael Waldman noted of the newest Speaker, “Johnson was the congressional architect of the effort to overturn the 2020 election, advocating an interpretation of the Constitution so outlandish that not even the Supreme Court’s conservative supermajority could swallow it. Indeed, that was his only significant accomplishment in his few years in Congress…Johnson was the legal mastermind behind the doomed push to decertify the election results in Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. He pressured colleagues to sign on to his effort, warning them ominously that Trump would be “anxiously awaiting the final list to review.’”[15]
A new word based on Johnson has been proposed: idionut, “a person who is both willfully ignorant and insane” based, among other things, on Johnson’s  sincerely held Christian beliefs “that abortion and teaching evolution are the causes of school shootings, that climate change and COVID-19 are hoaxes, that people whose gender or sexuality do not fit his view of ‘normal’ should be denied human rights, that we should have a total nationwide abortion ban with no exceptions for rape, incest, or life of the woman, that doctors who provide pregnancy termination should be imprisoned at hard labor for up to 10 years…someone who thinks there should be trillions of dollars in cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid…”[16]
At the considerable risk of harshing the Christian vibe, it may well be time to ask if the disestablishment of religion in politics is at last approaching. And to remind ourselves that once upon a time in Christendom the established churches appeared to be immutable cultural fixtures, the basis of national mores, until those times changed.

Robert Conner is the author of The Death of Christian BeliefThe Jesus Cult: 2000 Years of the Last DaysApparitions of Jesus: The Resurrection as Ghost StoryThe Secret Gospel of Mark; and Magic in Christianity: From Jesus to the Gnostics


[1] Unattributed, “Jolly good! — Brits contemplate disestablishing church,” ffrf.org/news, November 16, 2023.

[2] Robert Booth, Pamela Duncan & Carmen Aguilar García, “Calls grow to disestablish Church of England as Christians become minority,” theguardian.com/uk, November 29, 2022.

[3] Richard Scorer, “Disestablish and be damned,” newhumanist.org.uk, October 16, 2017.

[4] Staff, “Atheist groups cheer as UK Parliament set to consider bill severing CofE’s ties to gov’t,” christianpost.com, November 25, 2023.

[5] Robert Conner, The Death of Christian Belief, 2023.

[6] Adam Gabbatt, “Losing their religion: why US churches are on the decline,” theguardian.com, January 22, 2023.

[7] Bob Smietana, “The Great Dechurching looks at why people are leaving churches,” washingtonpost.com/religion, September 15, 2023.

[8] Unattributed, “The State of Church Attendance: Trends and Statistics (2023),” churchtrac.com.

[9] James Peron, “Which Came First: Crazy Republicans or Crazy Evangelicals?” medium.com, October 1, 2021.

[10] Justin McCarthy, “U.S. Same-Sex Marriage Support Holds at 71% High,” news.gallup.com, June 5, 2023.

[11] Unattributed, pewresearch.org, July 6, 2022.

[12] Amanda Terkel & Jiachuan Wu, “Abortion rights have won in every election since Roe v. Wade was overturned,” nbcnews.com, August 9, 2023.

[13] Luke Broadwater, “9 Takeaways From Mike Johnson’s First Interview as Speaker,” nytimes.com, October 27, 2023.

[14] Staff, “What’s a Christian Worldview?” focusonthefamily.com, January 1, 2006.

[15] Michael Waldman, “Mike Johnson Is Now the Most Powerful Election Denier in Washington,” brennancenter.org, October 31, 2023.

[16] Robert S. McElvaine, “A Most Useful New Word for Our Times,” dailykos.com, November 27, 2023.