With all of the problems the Anglican Church is facing worldwide (I’ve blogged on that church’s controversies here and here), you would think its head — Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams — would want to avoid any additional controversies. But he has reignited one that’s over a century old (as the (UK) Guardian reports), but had been dormant for decades. That controversy is called “disestablishment,” whether or not to sever the ties of the Anglican Church to the the British government (specifically, the monarch’s status as head of the Church):

The Archbishop of Canterbury has reignited the debate over the separation of church and state by saying that “it would not be the end of the world if the established church disappeared”.

In an interview with this week’s New Statesman, Rowan Williams argues there is a “certain integrity” to a church free from state sanctions.

Williams, who was born in Swansea, grew up in the Church of Wales, a disestablished church, and spent 10 years working as one of its bishops.

He said: “I can see that it’s by no means the end of the world if the establishment disappears. The strength of it is that the last vestiges of state sanction disappeared, so when you took a vote at the Welsh synod, it didn’t have to be nodded through by parliament afterwards. There is a certain integrity to that.”

At the time of his elevation to Archbishop, it had been thought — or perhaps, in some quarters, feared — that Williams might pursue disestablishment; but he never did. This is the first time the matter has come up during his tenure.

It seems an odd time in the history of the Anglican Church for Williams to kick up this matter, which had been somewhat contentious near the end of the 19th century. The (UK) Telegraph offers a possible reason:

What the Archbishop’s supporters say he is doing is defending the Church’s place in a society where only a minority are believers. The Church boasts that 1.7 million people attend its services each month, but the other side of this statistic is that almost 50 million of the English population do not do so. Therefore it must point to the other good works it undertakes on behalf of those who are not to be found in the pews each Sunday. Anglicans are estimated to carry out 23 million hours of voluntary work each year, helping the sick, homeless and needy.

Indeed, the second most senior figure in the Church of England, the Archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu, recently said he wanted it to be more like a hospital and open to followers of any religion or none. “The Church remains the last bastion of defence for those who would find themselves close to jettison by society,” he wrote.

In other words, this is a way of converting the Anglican Church into the proverbial “Big Tent,” and giving it a wider appeal. Perhaps Williams is doing this at this very moment, precisely because he’s under siege by archconservatives within his own ranks and the Anglican Union already faces a pending schism … there appears no better time than this, to try to open up his Church.

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