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Disestablishmentarianism refers to campaigns to sever links between church and state, particularly in relation to the Church of England as an established church within the United Kingdom.

Anglican disestablishment[edit]

Irish church[edit]

The campaign to disestablish the Anglican Church of Ireland began in the 18th century.[citation needed] A rich church, with 22 bishops drawing 150K a year, and a further 600K going annually to the rest of the clergy,[1] it was wholly disproportionate to the needs of its worshippers, and manned largely by absentee sinecurists.[2] Given that in Ireland not even nominal adherence by the predominantly Roman Catholic majority population could be expected for the (Protestant) established Church,[3] defence of the latter became increasingly difficult, especially after Catholic Emancipation. In 1833 a Church Reform Bill was passed, reducing the number of sees from 22 to 12,[4] but attempts to redistribute the church’s wealth failed amidst political controversy.

Eventually, as G. M. Trevelyan put it, “the disestablishment and partial disendowment of the Irish Protestant Church was carried out in a masterly and sympathetic manner by Gladstone, whose known position as an enthusiastic Churchman stood him in good stead during the negotiations”;[5] and in 1869 an Act of the British Parliament enabling the disestablishment of the Church of Ireland was passed, coming into effect on 1 January 1871.

English developments[edit]

The early 19th century saw Radicals like Jeremy Bentham formulating schemes for the disestablishment of the Church, which received new impetus after the success of Catholic Emancipation.[6] Following the Great Reform Bill, they were increasingly joined by dissenters and nonconformists in a Liberal campaign to disestablish the Church of England – dissenting ministers like Rev T. Binney proclaiming that “the Established Church is a great national evil”.[7]

The campaigners were called "Liberationists" (the "Liberation Society" was founded by Edward Miall in 1844); and gathered strength to the point where, mid-century, Anglicans and Dissenters alike would have been astonished to learn that the Church would remain established over a century later.[8] There were, however, several reasons why this campaign failed: parliamentary reform of the Church to make it more efficient; Whig acquiescence in a system whereby they could appoint Latitudinarian bishops with liberal views; and a dissenter focus instead on a process by which nearly all of the legal disabilities of nonconformists were gradually dismantled.[9]

The campaign for disestablishment was revived in the 20th century from ‘’inside’’ the church, when Parliament rejected the 1929 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, leading to calls for separation of Church and State to prevent political interference in matters of worship. In the late 20th century, reform of the House of Lords also brought into question the position of the Lords Spiritual. Nick Clegg, the former Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and Leader of the Liberal Democrats, said in April 2014 that he thought the Church of England and the British state should be separated "in the long run".[10] Prime Minister David Cameron, responding to Clegg's comments, said that disestablishmentarianism is "a long-term Liberal idea, but it is not a Conservative one" and that he believed having an established church works well.[10]

Welsh conflicts[edit]

The triumph of Methodism in Wales led by the 19th century to a situation where the vast majority of protestants were not members of the Church of England, which in turn fuelled a long and bitter struggle for disestablishment, only resolved in the wake of the Welsh Church Act 1914 when in 1920 the Church of England was disestablished in Wales, becoming the Church in Wales.[11]

Presbyterian disestablishment[edit]

Pressure to disestablish the Presbyterian Church of Scotland began in 1832, with dissidents like Thomas Chalmers arguing that a state church tended “to secularize religion, promote hypocrisy, perpetuate error, produce infidelity, [&] destroy the unity and purity of the Church”.[12] However, focus swiftly shifted to the question of lay patronage ‘’within’’ the Church, not its separation from the state;[13] and it was only well after the dissident split that created the Free Church of Scotland, on the grounds that “they quitted a vitiated Establishment”,[14] that the Free Church joined Gladstone in calling for the disestablishment of the Church of Scotland itself.[15]

The twentieth century saw Presbyterian differences gradually diminished, and in 1929 the Free Church joined the Church of Scotland,[16] to form the largest church in Scotland, in what can be considered a form of disestablishment.[citation needed]

Literary echoes[edit]

In Doctor Thorne (1858), the local parson is laughingly described as well-to-do: “He’s got what will buy him bread and cheese when the Rads shut up the Church: – unless, indeed, they shut up the Funds too”.[17]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ G M Trevelyan, British History in the 19th Century (London 1922) p. 288
  2. ^ G M Trevelyan, British History in the 19th Century (London 1922) p. 288
  3. ^ S H Steinberg ed., A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p. 70-1
  4. ^ E Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1963) p. 140-44
  5. ^ G M Trevelyan, History of England (London 1926) p. 680-1
  6. ^ E Halévy, The Liberal Awakening (London 1961) p. 31 and p. 278-9
  7. ^ E Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 150
  8. ^ E Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 418
  9. ^ E Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 152-8
  10. ^ a b "Nick Clegg advocates separation of Church and state". BBC News. BBC. 25 April 2014. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  11. ^ S H Steinberg ed., A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p. 385
  12. ^ Quoted in E. Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 135-6
  13. ^ E. Halévy, The Triumph of Reform (London 1961) p. 165
  14. ^ Chalmers, quoted in E. Halévy, Victorian Years (London 1961) p. 74
  15. ^ S Mitchell ed., Victorian Britain: An Encyclopedia (2011) p. 311
  16. ^ S H Steinberg ed., A New Dictionary of British History (London 1963) p. 71
  17. ^ A Trollope, Doctor Thorne (London 1947) p. 380