England's state religion is an accident sustained by apathy: lacking any logical existence at the heart of the nation, it survives because it is already there. No one would campaign to create an official Church of England, if we had not inherited one; other parts of the country do without it. Non-believers, when they think of the English church at all, tend to see a benign relic, the keeper of country churchyards, a modest, often helpful and mostly inoffensive part of the national fabric. Its rituals involve a declining number of citizens and its tortured internal politics are a mystery, but it is still an important – and often profound – part of many English lives. The fact that the monarch is also its supreme governor, that some of its bishops sit in parliament, and that its senior clerics are appointed by the prime minister is both indefensible and profoundly unexciting.
This tolerant indulgence, though, is being strained. The Church of England now expects both the benefits of establishment and the cultural freedom of private religion. At the very least, a national church should not become disconnected from the best values of the country it serves. But as the general synod, which begins tonight, will again confirm, the Church of England is strangely unwilling to do this. It devotes a shocking amount of energy to debating the supposed inferiority of women, gay men and lesbians. These issues matter intensely to some believers inside the church, but they make it look intolerant to the much larger number of people outside it. Read more