The bishop of Oxford, John Pritchard, went with Church of England minister Keith Hebden to deliver a letter to British Prime Minister David Cameron’s constituency office in Witney, about 70 miles northwest of London.
The letter, signed by 46 bishops and more than 600 church leaders, called the British government to take urgent action about food poverty after it was revealed that more than 900,000 people have used United Kingdom food banks in the last year.
Cameron’s office refused to even open the door to the bishop. And after the priests refused to leave quietly and continued to seek to deliver the letter properly, Cameron’s staff called the police.
In recent weeks, bishops and other church leaders made a loud noise about the reality of food poverty.
In addition, the End Hunger Fast campaign created front-page news in three national newspapers.
The campaign has combined the compassionate activism of churches that run food banks with the concerns about the injustice of food poverty. The practical and the political have been a powerful combination.
But the crazy thing is this: When the next vacancy arises and a new bishop is appointed, who will make the announcement? Will it come from the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace or Canterbury Cathedral?
No, the announcement will be made by the prime minister from No. 10 Downing Street.
Despite all the disputes and disagreements, the fact is that the Church of England is still anchored to the state.
Gwyneth Paltrow’s description of her split from Chris Martin as a “conscious uncoupling” may have been widely derided, but it’s a good phrase to describe what should happen between the church and the state.
And, of course, the Easter season is a good time to talk about the relationship between religion and state power.
The interplay between the Jewish establishment and Roman authority, both seeking to maintain the status quo which Jesus threatened, is at the heart of the Easter story. Jesus’ death was a political execution.
I do not advocate a withdrawal of the church from public life. Whether anyone likes it or not, the church will always play a role in the political life of the nation.
This is why the early church was persecuted by the Roman Empire – because it challenged its authority. The phrase “Jesus is Lord” was intrinsically political – if he was Lord, then Caesar wasn’t.
This is why the New Testament always calls the church the “ekklesia,” which means public assembly. It was never understood as a private cult with a purely personal message.
But the church’s public role should be one that bears witness to the radical message of Jesus, which should not be bound up with the trappings of state pomp and power.
The Church of England should recognize that disestablishing itself would liberate it to be more influential in the public square.
The fact that 24 bishops automatically get in the House of Lords, irrespective of their abilities to play that role, compromises Christian witness rather than increases it. It is a hangover from history.
Disestablishment would mean relinquishing this kind of power awarded in a previous age.
This is not easy to give up; the institutional ego and vanity of the church and key individuals are easily tempted by being close to power.
Having key roles in national events such as coronations, royal weddings and the baptisms of future kings is seductive, but it is in forsaking them that the Church of England will find greater integrity.
Make no mistake, however many disagreements happen, the Church of England will have to make the first move to disestablish. The status quo suits the state too well.
As we have seen in recent weeks, Cameron, like many prime ministers before him, likes to herald the church’s “good work” in communities.
This simply illustrates the problem for the Church of England, which can be seen in the same manner as a pretty country church with a kind but ineffective vicar.
This is not a role the Church of England should accept. Those churches of any denomination that will survive in the future will be congregations of conviction and courage.
The church’s best role in society comes from its faithful service in local communities and its willingness to speak the truth to power.
It is a role that has been illustrated by the End Hunger Fast campaign and by previous campaigns for justice led by the church.
It is a role summarized brilliantly by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
Jon Kuhrt is the executive director of social work at West London Mission and is a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London. He grew up in the Church of England. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, Resistance and Renewal, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter: @jonkuhrt.
Jon Kuhrt is chief executive of West London Mission and a member of Streatham Baptist Church in South London.