The relationship between the Church and the State is one of the most interesting differences between British and US politics. Britain, perhaps oddly, has never officially separated church and state - we still have an established Church of England, with the Queen as its official head and twenty-six bishops permanently sitting in the Upper House of our legislature. Their web site says they are there as 'an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God's word and to lead people in prayer.' This arrangement seems even odder when you consider that the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920, and the Church of Scotland - which is Presbyterian, not Anglican - was granted full independence from the state the next year. So in a country where only a third of the population describes themselves as religious, we have 26 permanent places reserved in our parliament, specifically for old men representing one particular Christian sect, from one of the four nations making up the United Kingdom.
Let me start by saying I find this anachronistic, and offensive to my secularist sensibilities - but what is particularly intriguing to me is that religion seems to have a far smaller influence on British politics than those of the USA - or indeed most of the rest of the world. If you're appalled by the idea of having a state church, it is sensible to weigh that against the fact that very few of our politicians ever talk about religion at all. David Cameron caused an uproar a few months ago with a passing suggestion that Britain is 'a Christian country', and I'm struggling to think of another time in recent memory when any British politician has made a big thing of religion at all; Tony Blair's adviser Alastair Campbell famously said 'we don't do God'. So when we hear about politicians routinely spouting 'God bless America', let alone state governments voting to have Christian mythology taught in science classes, we British secularists count our blessings. I've even seen it argued that our established church has helped save us from this kind of religious politicking, and that having a moderate established church does much to deflate the power of religious extremists. Michael Portillo's argument for establishment, in The Telegraph, is the strongest I have seen - I don't entirely buy it, but he does have a case.
The wishy-washiness of the Church of England, about which many critics complain, is the very point of it. The benefit that Britain has gained from having such a mild and watery institutionalised religion is incalculable.
It is clear that the formal separation of church and state is not sufficient to prevent religious meddling in political affairs, and there is something to be said for the opposite effect. Neither is it any guarantee against the exclusion from political life of anybody with the wrong kind of religious beliefs. Perhaps it helps to avoid the state directly interfering with the religious freedom of its citizens - although as with freedom of speech, the state is only one of many potential barriers to the practical exercise of that supposed freedom. It certainly makes it impossible, in principle, for a church to use the machinery of the state to oppress a country's citizens in the way that so many churches have been known to, throughout history, when they have had the power - but it has been a very long time since the Church of England was the sort of institution that one could imagine applying thumb-screws.
The practical arguments for disestablishment in Britain, then, seem inconclusive. That leaves us with the arguments from principle. Is it appropriate that the Prime Minister, who may or may not have any religious opinion, is in charge of appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury? No. Is it appropriate that the Head of State should double as Head of Church in a country where two thirds of the population say they are not religious? No. Is it appropriate that representatives of any one religion - let alone one particular sect of that religion, confined to one particular region of our country - should have an automatic voting right in our parliament? No. Is it appropriate that our country should have an official state religion which is so institutionally conservative that in 2012, it still vocally opposes gay marriage, and explicitly forbids women from attaining its highest office? No, it just really, really isn't.