Support grows for splitting church and state link

Nearly half of all British voters believe it is time that the Church of England lost its privileged position as the only official national church, according to the results of this month's Guardian/ICM poll. As Tony Blair prepares for his task later this year of choosing who should succeed Dr George Carey as the Archbishop of Canterbury, some 48% of voters say it is time to end the role of the prime minister and break the historic link between church and state. Only one in three voters - 36% - says that it should keep its special position as the only state recognised religion.

The ICM poll is the first for many years showing that support for the idea of disestablishing the Church of England outstrips opposition to the move.

The pollsters asked the voters: "Do you think the Church of England should keep its special position as the only state recognised religion, which means, for example, the prime minister has the final say over who should be the Archbishop of Canterbury."

Mr Blair will be asked to choose Dr Carey's successor from a shortlist of two drawn up by the crown appointments commission, which will meet in the summer.

The poll result also mirrors a change of mind among some leading members of the church itself, including the Archbishop of York, David Hope, and the Archbishop of the Church in Wales and a contender for the top job, Rowan Williams, who have both supported disestablishment.

Even a vice-chairman of the traditional church party, the Conservatives, called this month for a "grown-up" debate on whether to break the link between church and state.

"There needs to be a wider debate about whether the Church of England should remain established," Gary Streeter, MP for South West Devon, told GMTV.

"It doesn't quite work any longer. It's important that whoever is the next Archbishop of Canterbury should recognise they are spiritual leader of the entire nation... not just the Church of England."

The supporters of the established church argue that breaking the link would give the signal that religion no longer matters and that the CoE's special status is generally welcomed by the Roman Catholic, Muslim and Jewish communities.

The ICM survey shows that support for disestablishment is strongest among the professional and more affluent classes (57% support); among those aged 35-64 (50%); in the north of England and in Scotland (54%) and among Liberal Democrat voters (59%). This distribution of support in northern Britain and among Lib Dem voters may reflect the historical roots of the nonconformist tradition.

Support for the continued establishment of the Church of England peaks at 39% among the over 65s; at 41% among the unskilled and unemployed, and at 41% in the Midlands.

In terms of political support, Conservative voters are marginally in favour of retaining the link, by 45% to 42%, but Labour voters are against, by 45% to 36%.

The movement to sever the link between the Church of England and the state was started by the Liberation Society in 1844. A bill was presented to parliament in 1870 to disestablish the Church in Wales, a year after the disestablishment of the Anglican church in Ireland. It took another 50 years before the Liberals removed the House of Lords veto on the measure and the Church in Wales was created under its own archbishop.

ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,003 adults over 18 by telephone from January 18-20 across the country. The results have been weighted to the profile of all adults.