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  • Writer's pictureRoss Moughtin

When you speak to 4.1 billion people

Strangely I found myself seated in the very same place occupied by Prince Harry just nine months previous, three rows back and towards the left.  Except I did not have to peer around Princess Anne’s feathered hat to get a clear view.


This Wednesday evening I found myself of all places in Westminster Abbey:  it was the confirmation service for three of our granddaughters.  They attend Grey Coat Hospital, which as the name fails to suggest is a CofE comprehensive school for girls situated just down the road from the Abbey.  And they were being confirmed along with other girls from their school.


It’s one of those quirks of history in that the school, founded in 1698, started life in the Abbey itself.  Hence the venue.


Another quirk is that while the service was taken by the Bishop of London, (here I paste just to be entirely accurate) the Right Reverend and Right Honourable Dame Sarah Mullally, she has no authority in the Abbey.  In fact, this came up in a recent pub quiz!  Westminster Abbey is a Royal Peculiar which means it is under the sole oversight of the crown.  So there you are.


The service – despite the regal setting – went very well and reasonably relaxed.  Bishop Sarah spoke very well and centred on the cross of Jesus in which all our values are upturned.  This is to be the foundation of how we are to live our lives, she taught:  here is true wisdom. 


However, with the pulpit directly in front of me I couldn’t help reflecting on Archbishop Justin’s sermon for the Queen’s funeral service in September 2022 which was delivered from this very pulpit. I recall praying for him as he climbed the steps.  This was a unique occasion with no less than 4.1 billion people watching the service on television. 


Myself, I thought his address was brilliant, only six minutes.  Just five sentences in, he focused on Jesus, “who in our reading does not tell his disciples how to follow, but who to follow, said: ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’”


He continued: “Christ rose from the dead and offers life to all, abundant life now and life with God in eternity. As the Christmas carol says ‘where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.’”


Finally:  “We will all face the merciful judgement of God: we can all share the Queen’s hope which in life and death inspired her servant leadership. Service in life, hope in death. All who follow the Queen’s example, and inspiration of trust and faith in God, can with her say: ‘We will meet again.’”


The late George Verwer, the founder of Operation Mobilisation, even judged – somewhat over-the-top, but that was George - the service “to be the biggest evangelistic meeting in history.”  Certainly the Gospel message, albeit abridged, was given a huge international exposure.


There is much hostility to the role of the Church of England in our nation’s life.  That we are an “established church” would seem to be a quirk of history, like Westminster Abbey itself.  Mark Twain sounds very contemporary when he claims that “any established church is an established crime, an established slave pen.”


And it’s not just Guardian leader writers who would argue for the CofE to be disestablished.  Many Christians, Anglicans included, would gladly cast aside the responsibilities of establishment as restricting and compromising. 


I must say that I found it strange that as part of both my inductions as vicar I had to make a declaration of loyalty to the Queen.  As such I had no problem making such a public affirmation – but it did seem slightly odd.


Even odder is our current situation of a Hindu prime minister appointing senior CofE leaders including bishops and cathedral deans.  Okay, he is given the choice of two bishops in order of preference by the Crown Nominations Commission.  But sometimes the second candidate is recommended by the PM to the monarch.  In fact, I know of one case when Mrs Thatcher requested a further two names. 


And more widely, we have the place of the CofE very much embedded in our education system.  Grey Coats Hospital is just one of 4,630 church schools, all maintained by the state.  For being the established church has many manifestations.   In fact, I was widely reported – internationally, even - some 15 years ago for my comments on leading prayers before council meetings when I served as the Mayor’s chaplain!


So should we exclude the Church of England from the formal life of our nation and like the US have a clear separation between church and state?  You may have read just last week that Britain’s “strictest head teacher”, Katharine Birbalsingh, would ban prayer from all schools.  She would make Michaela Community School in Wembley, a secular place with religion firmly excluded.


Not least the stance on gay marriage by the General Synod is interpreted by many as the CofE being out-of-step with society at large, not least because it currently represents a small segment of our society.  


You can feel the pressure for disestablishment building up which may show itself not so much in a High Noon showdown but in a drawn-out process of detachment over time, as Radio 4 pulls “prayer for today,’ for example 


And yet the late Queen Elizabeth, herself a wonderful advocate for the Anglican faith, described her church as ‘an umbrella under which all faiths shelter.’ Certainly many from minority faith traditions would vastly prefer the current practice to an avowedly secular state, as in contemporary France.   


My own take is that we should think long and hard before undoing the structures which have been in place for centuries, indeed long before the Act of Supremacy in 1534.  We may have to stand our ground – for the sake of the nation, to represent those values which Jesus himself taught and exemplified.  


As I gazed around the Abbey waiting for the service to begin, I could only marvel at the pulpit before me where it (and possibly its predecessor) has stood for nearly a thousand years. 4,100,000,000 is a lot of people!


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