04 August 2007

Anyone but a Catholic...

The grandson of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II, has fallen in love and wants to marry the young lady. Peter Phillips, the son of Princess Anne, is tenth in line to the throne, so there’s not much chance he’ll be wearing the crown anytime soon. But he needs to renounce his right if he wants to marry the girl. The problem is, she’s a Catholic. Now, if she happened to be a Muslim, that would be fine. Or she could be Hindu, or Jewish, or Mormon, or any other religion, and there’d be no problem. But she’s a Catholic.

The Act of Settlement of 1701 forbids the British monarch and the heirs of the monarchy from becoming or marrying Catholics. That’s the only class of people they’re forbidden to marry. And even with the recent attempts to repeal the Act, there is strong reluctance to do so. In fact, the British newspaper, the Telegraph, defends the Act as “the lesser of two evils.”

Here’s that article:

If Peter Phillips, the Queen's grandson, marries his Roman Catholic girlfriend, Autumn Kelly, he will have to give up his place in the line of succession to the throne; either that, or Miss Kelly will have to renounce her membership of the Catholic Church. That is not a very happy situation. The prohibition on the heir to the throne marrying a Catholic, when he or she is perfectly free to marry a member of the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo or a militant jihadist, is hard to defend. None the less, this newspaper does defend it - reluctantly - as the lesser of two evils.

The greater evil is this: drastic constitutional change at a time when our historic national institutions, such as the monarchy and the Church of England, need to be left alone. The repeal of the Act of Settlement of 1701 that forbids monarchs and their heirs from becoming or marrying Catholics would bring us to the brink of the disestablishment of the Church of England. It would (at the very least) necessitate a long, agonising and eye-wateringly complex discussion about our constitutional settlement. Moreover, should Labour remain in power, all this would be taking place under a government whose enthusiasm for reform far outstrips its ability to implement it. Every constitutional change since 1997 - the abolition of hereditary peers, devolution, the emasculation of the office of Lord Chancellor - has been botched to some degree. The idea that this Government, with its uncertain feel for our heritage, could unpick the threads that bind the monarch to the Church and the Church to the English people and weave them into something better is simply ridiculous.

In any case, this is no time for any government to pull down constitutional architecture. It is hard to overstate the value of unchanging institutions to a country experiencing a mixture of terrorist threats and disorientating demographic change, as we are. Mr Phillips's dilemma is painful and will strike many people as unfair; but he is, after all, only tenth in line to the throne. What happens if Prince William or one of his heirs wants to marry a Catholic? Let us cross that bridge when we come to it.

Having been an Anglican clergyman in the Church of England, and working within the system of the “Established Church,” believe me, disestablishment couldn’t make the Church of England any weaker than it is. To think that the bonds of establishment between the Church of England and the English state are somehow beneficial to either one is to deny reality. In fact, maybe a Catholic monarch would be just the ticket.