Despite being an atheist, I would like to argue that the Church of England actually plays a very important role in society, but not likely the role it would like to see itself play.
At present, the Church of England is under attack from several sides. The Fabian Society has proposed that the Queen be removed from her position as supreme head, and the continuing clashes over the appointment of a gay man as Bishop of Reading are a headache for church officials and parishioners alike.
So, perhaps it is time to reassess the role of the Church of England in the modern world, and the most important role I see it playing in the 21st century is as a protective against religion taking an effective hold on Britain.
Richard Dawkins has likened religion to a “mind virus,” something which replicates among a population of susceptible individuals and which can be communicated between them. The best defense against this kind of thing (and not just religious mind viruses) is critical thinking. We can view critical thinking as an “immune system” for the mind.
If we push the analogy further, think about how we boost our real immune systems. In order to alert the system to the presence of an invader, we deliberately inject the patient with a weakened, ineffectual strain of the pathogen involved. The first immunizations were against smallpox, using the related but far milder disease cowpox. I believe that the Church of England serves its purpose as a weakened, ineffectual strain in a religion immunization.
Virtually everyone in England is exposed to the Church of England at some point, either at school through religious education, or through Sunday service with the parents, or even by tuning in accidentally to “Songs of Praise” on a Sunday evening. It is difficult to get any other impression from these activities that Church is dull, boring, irrelevant–and for old people.
Deserved or not, it is a comedy staple that Church services are legendarily tedious. The figure of the Vicar preaching his sermon to a snoring audience is now just a clich’. And if you look around at the makeup of a typical congregation, the majority of them will be older people. This serves to make the Church look unattractive to the young and otherwise impressionable.
With the recent, and very public, in-fighting over ordination of women and adoption of gay clergy, people can easily get the impression that the Church is irrelevant and out of touch with modern-day norms of accepted behaviour.
Now, the Church of England is the official religion of the country, and is therefore endorsed by the Queen (likewise regarded as somewhat anachronistic these days) and the officials in Government. Again, not exactly a recipe for excitement.
Finally, the Church presents itself as touchy-feely, nice, welcoming, with a soft voice and a warm heart. When it then turns around and publicly exposes its dirty washing, it comes across as snide, whiny–and in some cases just plain bigoted. This contradiction, more than anything else, serves to bolster skeptical immunity. If the Church says one thing, but does something else, it is very difficult to ignore. When faced with this kind of conflict, people will normally make up their own mind based on the evidence, and will start to distrust what will be said in the future.
Once people get used to seeing the official state religion as something to be distrusted and questioned, then they will hopefully apply the same measures to other, more virulent versions of religious mind-viruses. And this is exactly what we need–especially when faced with more and more evangelical religion in the American mould.
So, long live the Church of England, defender against faith.