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The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has two established churches, the Anglican Church of England and the Presbyterian Church of Scotland. In broad terms, “establishment” refers to a formal relationship between a church and the state it operates in.

Church and state

This relationship takes different forms in England and in Scotland. While the King is “Supreme Governor” of the Church of England, he is an ordinary member of the Church of Scotland. Anglican bishops are members of the House of Lords, but there is no place as of right for the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. And while Church of England Measures (laws) require parliamentary oversight, the Church of Scotland is entirely self-governing.

Historically, establishment was opposed in parts of the UK where most of the population were not Anglican. As a result of political and religious pressure, the church was disestablished in Ireland in 1871 and Wales in 1920.

Church of England

The Church of England took its current form in the 1530s when King Henry VIII renounced papal authority. Until 1919 the church was reliant on the UK Parliament for legislation to govern its affairs. Legislation devolved power from Westminster to a new “National Assembly”, which assumed greater control of church affairs. This was replaced with a General Synod in 1969. A Second Church Estates Commissioner represents the Church of England in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister (or another delegated Minister) is responsible for advising the monarch on church appointments.

Church of Scotland

The Church of Scotland emerged later in the 16th century and on a different basis than the Church of England. The independence of “the Kirk” was recognised in the 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England and in subsequent legislation. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 recognised the church’s autonomy in the spiritual sphere.

This briefing covers the historical background to and structural basis of the Churches of England and Scotland. It also explains how the Church of England intersects with the Crown and Parliament, as well as the Government’s role in advising on church appointments. There are shorter sections on the Church of Ireland and Church in Wales, as well as a summary of proposals to reform the established church in England.

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