Advantages to church and state split says Archbishop

The Archbishop of Canterbury has sparked controversy after speaking out about the potential benefits of disestablishment.

Dr Rowan Williams said he could see a case for breaking official ties between the state and the Church of England which has held its privileged position for centuries.

Dr Williams said in an interview with New Statesman magazine: “I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears.”

However he did make it clear that he did not believe a split would be right at this time because of the “very shaky time for the public presence of faith in society.”

The Church of England’s position is established by law and has the monarch as supreme head over the church. Total disestablishment could involve nine acts of Parliament, including changes to the role of the Queen.

Dr Williams was head of the disestablished Church in Wales before taking his role as Archbishop of Canterbury.

He stressed that the motives to drive disestablishment must not be on the basis of pushing religion into the private sphere, which he fears would be the present agenda for change.

Chairman of the Commons justice select committee Sir Alan Beith commented: “There is no massive demand from minor religious groups like Muslims, Jews and Sikhs for disestablishment.

“Dr Williams is the kind of person if asked a straight question will give a straight answer, which is clearly what he has done here,” he added.

Comments from the Archbishop of Canterbury come just months after Immigration Minister Phil Woolas caused a stir for saying that a split between church and state was inevitable and will probably happen within 50 years in this current modern multi-faith society.

“Disestablishment – I think it will happen because it’s the way things are going,” he told The Times. “Once you open debate about reform of the House of Lords, you open up debate about the make-up of the House. It will probably take 50 years, but a modern society is multi-faith.”

The Government was quick to distance itself from his comments, saying disestablishment was not on the agenda. Colleagues said Mr Woolas was speaking “off-message”.