Monday, February 18, 2008


What kind of state are we in? That is the one of the important issues lurking behind various contentions about religious and civil jurisdiction, faith and society, establishment and disestablishment right now. The Economist, herald of a brave new globalised order, has weighed in on the latter this week, calling for the cord between church and state to be cut in England. They are wrong about many things, but not this one. It is, I have suggested, a matter of establishing fairness for church and society. It also raises powerful questions about the nature of Christian discipleship and the church. The issue about what a post-establishment church settlement would be like is also a neglected topic, with many people assuming (wrongly, and for worse more than better) that what we have in the USA now would naturally follow. The Economist falls into that trap, incidentally.

Then there is, as I have said, the state. How should the mechanisms of governance relate to civil society? How far does the regulation of the state extend? What really is the state in a changing, multi-layered world (not for nothing are 'state theorists' on the wane!), and how does the concept and reality of 'sovereignty' work across the overlapping effective magesteria of different regulative institutions, where the boundaries between power, control, influence and persuasion often overlap? These are tough questions. Much tougher than current popular discourse allows.

As I mentioned the other day, part of what lies behind Rowan Williams' recent interventions, apart from a specific issue (family Sharia), a general concern (religions as communities of obligation in a plural society and a unitary system) and a network of interest and privilege (the Church of England itself) is a good deal of thought about the pluralist state. The late David Nicholls' book of that title (1975) is well worth reading to get a handle on this. But the debate has moved on since some earlier Anglo-Catholic Anglican thinkers and political theorists on the centre-left tackled it. Which is where RW may be getting a bit tangled.

See also 'Associational Socialism in a Pluralist State' by Paul Hirst, in the Journal of Law and Society, Vol. 15, No. 1, issue on Law, Democracy & Social Justice (Spring, 1988), pp. 139-150, and his own fine overview of thinking in this area. In addition, there is the website dedicated to Nicholls himself. A fascinating man (pictured). His work on power was very revealing, but he was also comfy in a way that sits uneasily with some of today's sensibilities.

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