Is an avowed atheist in line to be Prime Minister?

A. C. Grayling writes:

When Labour cabinet members were asked about their religious allegiances last December, following Tony Blair’s official conversion to Roman Catholicism, it turned out that more than half of them are not believers. The least equivocal about their atheism were the health secretary, Alan Johnson, and foreign secretary David Miliband.

Atheist leaders will not be tempted to think they are the messenger of any good news from above, or the agent of any higher purpose on earth. Or at very least, they will not think this literally.

Best of all, if David Miliband becomes prime minister, the prospect of disestablishment of the Church of England will have come closer. This is a matter of importance, for two chief reasons. The first is that the CofE’s privileged position gives other religious groups too much incentive to try sharp-elbowing their way into getting similar privileges, such as the ear of ministers, tax exemptions, public funding for their own sect’s faith schools, and the big prize of seats in the legislature.

Secondly, the CofE has far too big a footprint in the public domain, out of all proportion to the actual numbers it represents: just 2% of the population go weekly to its churches. Yet it controls the primary school system – 80% of it – and a substantial proportion of the secondary school system, with dozens more academy schools soon due to fall under its control.

Despite appearances, the world is not seeing a resurgence of religion, only a big turning-up of the volume of religious voices. This is itself a response to increasing secularism among people tired of the disruptions, obstructions and conflicts religion so often causes. Public acknowledgement of atheism by a senior politician who might soon lead his country is just one indicator of the fact that the tide is actually running in the opposite direction: and that is a welcome and hopeful sign.

Would it be healthy for the Communion if the Church of England became less reliant on the state for its survival? Would it be healthy for the Church of England if it operated from the margin of society rather from the center of power?

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Category : The Lead

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  1. Paul Woodrum

    Three questions:

    1. Is the Church of England mature enough to run itself?

    2. Who will be responsible for all the high maintenance tourist attractions the C of E now maintains?

    3. Will local affiliates like TEC survive without the prestige of connection with the C of E if it becomes just another (probably several) small, squabbling British club?

  2. I don’t know about how healthy it would be for the CoE, but it sounds like it would be distinctly unhealthy for England. No one with such a small share of the population could control 80% of primary schooling without having a very good “product”, and forcibly changing ownership of so many schools seems like it could very easily profoundly damage Englands educational system.


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