London (CNSNews.com) - Separating church and state in Britain would undermine social cohesion, weaken morality and could even sow the seeds of authoritarianism, the leader of the Church of England has warned.
In a speech in front of a private audience Tuesday night, Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey said that the "sense of a higher, transcendent authority" formed the basis for key British values.
"Without that sense, our human arrogance and selfishness, our inability to distinguish adequately between what is temporarily expedient and what serves the long-term common good may all too easily get the better of us."
The archbishop took issue with the argument that the events of Sept. 11 showed that religion should be separated from politics, saying that the abandonment of faith in public life makes atrocities "possible" and "acceptable."
"Those who would dwell on the misuse of religion in world affairs might also like to reflect upon the mass slaughter of civilians under the messianic, but secular, regimes presided over by Stalin, Hitler and Pol Pot.
"Removing the spiritual underpinning of the state would inevitably tend to cast religion as a purely private matter, one of a range of lifestyle options, like buying organic food or living in the country, of no greater public or communal import than stamp collecting or birdwatching," the archbishop said.
The Anglican Church and the British government have been intertwined for hundreds of years. The British monarch also serves as supreme governor of the Church of England, and 26 bishops sit in the House of Lords. Elected leaders have influence over Church appointments, while Church officials are involved in public policy, as demonstrated earlier this year when the Bishop of Oxford led an advisory panel on embryo cloning.
The National Secular Society, which campaigns for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church, called Carey's remarks "self-serving nonsense."
"At best, his plea was exaggerated," said NSS executive director Keith Porteous Wood. "The Church of England is not representative of the population in this country."
Porteous Wood said that maintaining the link between church and state would increase tensions amongst religions and between believers and non-believers.
"Only by secularizing our society can we ensure that the interfaith hostilities that we can see growing before our eyes do not spill over into our political system," he said. "Only by creating a level playing field that favors no one can we be sure that no religion can claim superiority in public life and in our shared institutions."
Speaking at his London residence on the feast day of St. George, England's patron saint, Carey also used the opportunity to praise patriotic values.
"Perhaps patriotism is out of fashion, or at least certain expressions of it," he said. "I am no friend of the 'little Englander' mentality, nor of the kind of nationalistic fervour that can all too easily be tinged with jingoism and xenophobia. But patriotism - a measured pride in the values, achievements and aspirations of a culture and society - seems to me to be a positive thing."
Britain's church-state link has recently come under fire from opponents both inside and outside the Anglican Church. Carey's address came as The Guardian newspaper, long skeptical of the monarchy, is waging a legal challenge to the rules of succession to the English throne. Among other things, the succession laws forbid Roman Catholics from ruling the country.
Several high-ranking church leaders have come out in favor of disestablishment and a survey by the Church Times newspaper showed that 28 percent of respondents did not want the Queen to remain as the Church's supreme governor.
Archbishop Carey plans to retire in October after overseeing a momentous state occasion: the celebrations surrounding the 50th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth II's ascension to the British throne.
E-mail a news tip to Mike Wendling.
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