Rowan WilliamsWhen Rowan Williams announced that he will be stepping down as Archbishop of Canterbury in December, exchanging life in the trenches of Anglicanism for the more peaceful surroundings of Magdalene College, Cambridge, humanists and secularists could have been forgiven for wondering why the news should possibly matter to them. In an age when, according to the British Social Attitudes Survey, only 20 per cent of the population say they belong to the Church of England – and 48 per cent of those never actually attend church – the identity of the next occupant of Lambeth Palace should really be of no more import than who gets the manager’s job at Wolverhampton Wanderers.

A decade ago, this may have been the case. When Williams took the job in 2002, Britain’s status as a secular state seemed secure, and few leading public figures would have argued for a greater role for religion in public life. Fast forward to 2012, however, and something has changed. Religious observance continues to fall, but clerical voices are growing louder, and they are now explicitly attacking secularism as a source of Britain’s ills. Williams is widely known to sympathise with the more liberal wing of the Anglican church (though he has suppressed his inclinations in an ultimately futile attempt to hold the fractious global Anglican communion together), but it could be that the Church of England, which conventionally alternates between liberal and traditionalist Archbishops, is set to throw its institutional weight behind what is increasingly looking like a war, or perhaps more accurately a rearguard action, against secularism. Take, for example, the current frontrunner to succeed Williams, the Archbishop of York John Sentamu. Days after Williams’ announcement, Sentamu launched an attack on secularists. “I’ve never been against secularisation because it allows the possibility for good debate and disagreement,” he told an audience in Newcastle. “But there is a strand within it which has become so intolerant. It is the assumption that religion should have no space anywhere.”

The faultline in this renewed war of words between secularism and religion, just as it is within the fractured Anglican communion itself, is sexuality. Williams’ predecessor George Carey has recently become one of Britain’s most strident opponents of secularism, arguing that Christianity is being “increasingly marginalised”. In a series of intemperate outbursts, Carey has plundered the headlines for examples of believers apparently persecuted by intolerant secularists, and his examples speak volumes about what is really on his mind – he cites the cases of Lillian Ladele, the registrar who refused to conduct civil partnerships, Gary McFarlane, the relationship counsellor who would not work with same-sex couples, and Peter and Hazelmary Bull, the Cornish bed-and-breakfast owners who turned away a gay couple who wanted to share a room. As appears so often to be the case, what religious conservatives really care about is sex.

At the moment this fixation is attached to the apparently contentious proposals to legalise same-sex marriage. Carey has called the reforms “one of the greatest political power grabs in history”, suggesting that they will “fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths”. If that seems hysterical, it barely compares with the reaction of Cardinal Keith O’Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who took to the airwaves to compare gay marriage to slavery, and declare that “it’s time now to call a halt to what you might call ‘progress’ in society”. In a touching display of inter-faith unity the proposals were also condemned by the Muslim Council of Britain, which said that “redefining the meaning of marriage is in our opinion unnecessary and unhelpful”, and Lord Singh, head of the Network of Sikh Organisations, who described the plans as “an attempt by a vocal, secular minority to attack religion”.

Given that it is the government that is pushing forward the marriage reforms, newcomers to this debate could be forgiven for thinking the state was firmly on the side of secularism. If only things were so simple – look beyond the issue of gay marriage, and secularism appears to have become a dirty word in the corridors of power. How else to explain the remarks of the Conservative Party chair, Baroness Warsi, who took to the pages of the Daily Telegraph in February to launch an extraordinary attack. Arguing that Europe should “become more confident and more comfortable in its Christianity”, Warsi warned Telegraph readers that “a militant secularisation is taking hold” of society. “For me,” she wrote, “one of the most worrying aspects about this militant secularisation is that at its core and in its instincts it is deeply intolerant. It demonstrates similar traits to totalitarian regimes.”

Baroness WarsiAs a Muslim woman with a seat in the House of Lords, it’s baffling that Warsi would decry the effects of secularism, but her enthusiasm for Europe’s Christian heritage is in keeping with the government’s position on faith. It certainly reflects the view of her Prime Minister, who used this year’s Easter gathering at Downing Street to tell faith leaders that he welcomes the Christian “fightback” against secularism. And beyond the rhetoric, Conservatives have been keen to bolster the role of belief in public life. Faith groups are central to the nebulous Big Society pitch, and the minister responsible for that initiative, the Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, has stressed that, while “some see religion as a problem that needs to be solved”, the Coalition “see it as part of the solution”.

Pickles put his words into action in February, when his position as the minister responsible for local government required him to respond to a High Court ruling which found that Bideford council in Devon was acting unlawfully by including prayers as a compulsory part of its meetings. “While welcoming and respecting fellow British citizens who belong to other faiths,” said Pickles, “we are a Christian country, with an established church governed by the Queen. Christianity plays an important part in the culture, heritage and fabric of our nation. Public authorities – be it parliament or a parish council – should have the right to say prayers before meetings if they wish. The right to worship is a fundamental and hard-fought British liberty.” The message from Pickles was clear – while freedom of belief is protected in modern Britain, ultimately it is still a “Christian country” and thus secularism should only go so far.

For all their disagreement on gay marriage, the government and the religious conservatives certainly agree on this point. And from listening to the rhetoric, you could easily get the impression that the general public are in agreement too, seeing secularism as merely the preserve of noisy atheist activists. Yet a recent IPSOS Mori poll, conducted on behalf of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, tells us quite the opposite. Surveying those who identified themselves as Christian in the Census (72 per cent in 2001), the pollsters found that 74 per cent of them believe religion should not have special influence on public policy, and 46 per cent think the UK should not have an established church, compared with 32 per cent who think it should. On social issues, the survey showed religious lobbyists to be similarly out of touch with “Census Christians”, of whom 61 per cent agreed that gay people should have equal rights, 62 per cent favoured abortion rights and 59 per cent supported the introduction of assisted suicide legislation.

Secularists may often be portrayed as existing at the margins of public debate, but these statistics show that even a majority of self-described Christians support their arguments, opposing the awarding of a privileged position to religion at a time of declining belief. In selecting a successor to Rowan Williams, the Church of England faces a crucial choice. If it wants to reflect the views of the majority of its adherents, it should choose someone who is not hostile to secularism, and who does not take a reactionary stance on social issues.

But this seems unlikely. The Archbishop of Canterbury is not merely the shepherd of the Church of England’s flock, but the head of a global communion riven by divisions over gender and sexuality. The conservative wing is powerful – evangelical churches are the only ones with growing attendance, bringing in a significant proportion of the Church’s revenue, and they will not acquiesce quietly in the anointing of another liberal leader. So perhaps the hierarchy will opt for the current bookies’ favourite Sentamu, and align the Church fully with the phony war on secularism. This would certainly please the likes of Carey, but it could also prove a fatal mistake, alienating moderates and underlining the archaic paradox of an increasingly irrelevant established Church.

More likely, then, that we will see a canny bureaucrat, a steady hand on the tiller whose remit will be to hang on to the Church’s increasingly unmerited privilege come what may. In the end though, the Church of England is surely fighting a losing battle – disestablishment may seem like a dead issue, but in an age when even the Church’s own adherents believe in a secular Britain, can it really be postponed for much longer?