If the Archbishop of Canterbury does not crown our next monarch, then who will? The president of Europe? A multi-faith collective? Nobody at all? In which case, what sort of country will we then be and where will ultimate authority and legitimacy come from? Perhaps the prior question is why there should now be serious doubt about the Archbishop's role at the heart of our constitution.
It says something about the state of the worldwide Anglican Church that it seems more interested in homosexuality than in anything else. Last month we were entertained by the Archbishop of Canterbury's U-turn on the appointment of a homosexual bishop. Now the Episcopalians have broken the taboo. It is probably safe to say that, as regular attenders at places of worship, Anglicans are now easily beaten in this country by both Muslims and Catholics. As they cast around for a solution, both the adherents of the Church, and, indeed, those who have no special love for it, have arrived at the same conclusion: disestablishment.
Some, such as the leader-writers of the Guardian, believe that it is wrong and discriminatory that one faith should take constitutional precedence over another. Some evangelicals talk increasingly of cutting the 'corrupting' link with the State, on the ground that no political arrangements or figureheads should mediate between themselves and God. Others believe that it is demeaning for the Queen to be associated with the unorthodox crowd that now governs the Church. Yet others think the Church would simply derive a new energy and charisma from its independence. They are all wrong.
Before we come to the effects of disestablishment on the country, and on our lives, let us consider the impact on the Church of England itself. Many of the arguments for making Anglicanism unofficial are based on the idea that it would be healthier and more vigorous on its own.
This isn't necessarily true. Consider the United States, where, under the Constitution, Church and State are separate. America's branch of Anglicanism, the Episcopal Church, has lost almost a third of its members in the last 30 years, mainly because – unrestrained by anything – it has modernised and liberalised even more frantically than its English cousin. There was once an informal American establishment: Episcopalianism was the religion of the Wasp elite. Now the US has been taken over by a new governing class, and the Episcopal Church is little more than an upper-middle-class sect, chasing every fashion in liturgy and theology – and sexuality. On Tuesday Canon Gene Robinson, of New Hampshire, became the first openly homosexual priest to be made a bishop in the Anglican communion.
The Episcopal Church stands for just about nothing. Its decline is a formidable achievement in a country where religion is still considered normal and churches are full. But if the Church of England were liberated from the last lingering obligations of its national role – and renamed the Church in England or something of the kind – it would be in even worse shape than the Episcopal Church.
Things are bad enough as it is. Having long avoided a final split between Catholic and Protestant because it had more important things to worry about, it has now all but divided into its component parts and begun to ignore its national responsibilities. You can tell from its awful General Synods and its never-ending modernisation of prayers and Bible that it yearns for the wilder limits of theology, far beyond satire. Peter Simple's Bishop Spacely-Trellis and Private Eye's Rocky Horror Service Book have long ago been surpassed by the awful reality. This is why they are all reduced to debating the sexuality of prelates, because they have been allowed to become more interested in themselves than in the cure of souls. These people need more establishment, not less.
In many ways, they are already disestablished in all but name. As it is, in a shrinking number of parishes and some of the great cathedrals, the Church is still forced by tradition and responsibility to be what it is supposed to be rather than what it wants to be, and in some of the darkest places in the Kingdom it still does its unique duty, as poor parsons minister to the desperate and forgotten long after the social workers have gone home and the police have driven away.
And the knowledge that one day it will have to crown our next monarch helps to keep it just a little bit more serious than it otherwise would be.
So the argument that the Church needs its freedom to flourish doesn't really work. The true objective of the modernisers is not to change the Church, but to change the State. They may not know exactly why, but they can sense that it would make a great difference. For cutting the knot that binds Church to State would set us adrift on an unfriendly and uncertain ocean. British people tend to assume that their ordered liberty is a natural phenomenon, like our temperate climate or breathable air. It is just there and always will be. They are, again, wrong.
If we cease formally to be a Christian country, what will we be?
Perhaps, in the end, we might yet become an Islamic state – by no means as remote a possibility as some might think, given the present fervour and energy of that very different faith. But for a little while at least the British poor are not clamouring for the introduction of Sharia law, and the minarets are not overtopping the spires or the muezzin drowning out the bells. Not yet .
In the meantime, what would a purely secular, post-Christian state mean, and do we really want to live in one? Christianity is woven into our laws and government. The foundations of English law are biblical. Each morning when Parliament is sitting, the Lords and Commons begin their deliberations with prayers. Some of them may just be reserving their seats for the coming debate. Yet, whatever banalities and squalor may follow that day, both chambers have briefly been sanctified through the acknowledgement of a higher power.
Until recently, they prayed 'that all things may be so ordered and settled by their endeavours, upon the best and surest foundations, that peace and happiness, truth and justice, religion and piety may be established among us for all generations'. Now, more prosaically, they ask that they 'may never lead the nation wrongly through love of power, desire to please, or unworthy ideals, but laying aside all private interests and prejudices keep in mind their responsibility to seek to improve the condition of all mankind'. With all the public galleries empty, the MPs stand facing away from the despatch boxes as they pray that the Queen 'may alway incline to thy will and walk in thy way', and as they ask the Creator to 'endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts, grant her long to live, strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally after this life she may attain everlasting joy and felicity'. All that would go if the Church were disestablished.
In a few unreconstructed Anglican churches the vicar still prays each week for the Queen in words identical to those used in the days of the first Elizabeth, 'that under her we may be Godly and quietly governed; and grant unto her whole council, and to all that are in authority under her, that they may truly and indifferently minister justice, to the punishment of wickedness and vice, and to the maintenance of thy true religion and virtue'. These are all reflections of the invocations during the coronation service as the monarch is presented with the sword, ring, spurs, sceptre and crown, and reminded of the solemn duties which are the accompaniment of power. Nobody reading these things could doubt that the fundamental contract binding this country to gether is a Christian one, or imagine that it has no effect, even now. Others may manage without such a contract. They have different histories, different ways of keeping the sword in its sheath and remaining peaceful. But could we manage without our contract between Church and State? Or would its dissolution endanger us? Already there are many signs that the contract is breaking down, in the greater use of arbitrary power, increased disorder and declining trust between rulers and ruled.
That contract is governed by the belief that authority is only granted to those who hold it on condition that they exercise it according to a higher law which they cannot overrule or challenge. This is the secret English ideology. Here are the origins of the great ideas which, slowly growing in an uninvaded island, have brought about the unique combination of liberty and order for which we were once famous and which we passed on to a few other lucky nations. Law, which is divine in origin, is above power at all times. Actions are judged not only by the effects that they have now, but on an eternal measure, so that what we do here matters somewhere else and can be judged on some other scale apart from our own immediate advantage. The duty of the law, to discover what is right and just through precedent and reason, derives from this. So does the ability of the courts and of Parliament to question the absolute authority of the sovereign. And when the Reformation placed the Bible in the hands of every boy that drove the plough, the law became the property of the whole people, who obeyed it not because they were forced to but because they understood and shared the principles it embodied. Modern coronations are celebrations of our sovereignty over ourselves, as a free and Christian people.
What do the secularists offer as a substitute for this? What is the origin of the new Godless authority, and what restrains it from absolute, lawless power? The current government seems to think that the personal virtue of the Prime Minister, who appears to be a Christian of a very modern sort with a rather Marxist belief in the 'hand of history', should be enough to reassure us that we are in good hands. All other checks and balances, from the hereditary peers and the law lords to the old neutral Civil Service, are being ruthlessly reformed into equal-opportunity servants of party and state.
After the case of Dr David Kelly and all that has followed, this is not terribly reassuring. Others might suggest that democracy itself is the rock on which our society is built. But democracy, without the restraint of law and tradition, easily turns into a tyranny of the majority. It has no special virtue of its own, and with its intolerance of minorities and its tendency to elective dictatorship and crowd-pleasing it often threatens liberty, without which democracy is not all that much use. The Thatcherites seemed to think that the market could replace religion, a folly that hastened their downfall and left them morally and culturally empty. As for the left-wing virtues of the egalitarian social conscience, unlike individual conscience this tends to lead people to think that their acts of power and war are justified, not restrained, by the higher good they serve. In many ways they are more autocratic – if they get the chance – then any mediaeval Christian monarch would have dared to be. History, they proclaim, will forgive them.
Well, perhaps it will, though it's not clear whether such forgiveness is worth having and it depends quite a lot on who writes the history. But history is better at giving warnings than at giving absolution, and what it seems to show is that our liberties, laws and safety do have quite a lot to do with the existence of the Church of England by Law Established – and that a country whose parliament says its prayers and where bishops sit, whatever their private romantic inclinations, will be a better place to live than one which does not have these advantages.
Peter Hitchens is a columnist for the Mail on Sunday.