Britain’s Royal Family is often — no, make that always — in the news. Its position in the public mind has utterly changed over the past four decades — from something that held a real, and understood, place in the constitutional scheme of things into something more like a soap opera, and often described as such. Which makes for a problem for people like me, who truly value the constitutional bit and could comfortably do without the soap opera, thank you very much.
Recently a child in Scotland decided — or, at least, it was announced in the press that he had decided, but it is possible that his parents had some influence on his decision, since he is only eight years old — that he didn’t want to affirm his loyalty to the queen when making his Cub Scout promise. The problem is that if you can’t make the Promise (“to do my best to my duty to God and the Queen”), you can’t really be a Cub Scout.
I daresay some special arrangement will be made for him, but what was the reason given for his refusal of loyalty to Her Majesty? He’s a Catholic, and apparently feels very strongly about the Act of Settlement and the fact that it bans Roman Catholics from the throne or from marrying into the royal family.
Leaving aside for a moment the question of how much this eight year-old knows of our constitutional and religious situation as it has developed over the past few centuries, this does give us all an opportunity to explore an interesting question.
As is well known, the curious twists and turns of English history have resulted in a situation where, in the 21st century, there exists a law banning any member of the royal family from marrying a Roman Catholic without express permission from the monarch, and anyone in direct line to the throne from marrying one at all.
So are most Catholics now calling for a change in the law?
Well, no, not really. Of course the law is absurd. No one thinks it is useful or necessary — or, at any rate, no one who is prepared to say so publicly. When recently a minor member of the royal family married a Catholic, who was choosing to abandon her religion in order that her new husband would remain eleventh in line for the throne, a discussion on a British radio program had to be abandoned because they couldn’t find anyone to defend the current law. It has become a cliché to state that it is possible for the Monarch’s heirs to marry a Moslem, Sikh, Hindu, or Buddhist — but not a Roman Catholic.
Second, any disentangling of this muddled law — for it is a muddled law — would lead us all into the depths of the complexities about the exact status of the Church of England. And before you say, “Jolly good thing, too — high time it was disestablished. Stupid bunch of woolly thinking people with liberal theological and wobbly moral opinions,” please think again. The Church of England is only the latest manifestation of a bond between monarch and church that has created our nation. This can’t be dismantled so easily.
And is it really useful to spend time — a great deal of time — ensuring that Britain becomes, legally and structurally, a totally secular state? There will be implications for a thousand things: Will we be allowed to crown and anoint our monarch in a Christian ceremony? Start Parliament’s proceedings with Christian prayers? Have a cross on our flag? We’ve seen all these dreary debates in America — and the law suits filed by the American Civil Liberties Union. No, thank you.
Third, we need a sense of proportion. As a Catholic teenager, I enjoyed giggling about the idea, when it came up in our history class, that none of us could marry the Prince of Wales. We didn’t lie awake at night worrying about it. As an adult, I’ve found it useful being able to claim my status as that very fashionable thing — a Member of an Oppressed Minority — without actually suffering any inconvenience as a result of this oppression. It has proved useful several times in debates; it does no harm to remind people, once in a while, that religious freedom is a fragile thing, and our country’s history is proof of it.
And finally, Catholics in Britain are loyal to the crown. We honor the queen, and it is partly our faith that makes us do so. She sticks by things that matter to Catholics: God, personal and public responsibilities, service to others. She is a devout and regular churchgoer. She took her coronation anointing seriously. She makes sacrifices in order to fulfil her duties.
So frankly we aren’t bothered in getting a change in the law, and we place a higher value in the stability of the monarchy and its constitutional value than we do any sense of mild irritation that we have about our technical status in the eyes of the law.
So we’re left with only the absurdity of the thing. And it does have to be admitted that when we examine particular cases of the law banning Catholics from the line of succession to the throne, it does all seem pretty daft.
Why did Autumn Kelly decide to convert to the Anglican Church in order to marry Peter Phillips, a grandson of the queen? Do we assume that that Miss Kelly was suddenly struck with the wisdom of the Thirty-Nine Articles, or wrestled with the exact meaning of Christ’s words about the keys of the Kingdom, and the implications for the Petrine succession? We can, alas, probably assume that she wasn’t well-instructed in her faith (at a guess, some Jesus-loves-me stuff in junior school, a white frock for First Communion, and a bit of social-justice talk in high school, with no real instruction on the Mass, the Sacraments, the life of prayer, or, well, anything much. Usual current Catholic education). She was cohabiting with Mr. Phillips before her marriage. She doesn’t seem to have been attending Mass.
We have to recognise the possibility that Miss Kelly became Church of England because she really did think it would be prudent to leave open the door to a possible glittering future following some catastrophe occurring to ten members of her fiancé’s family. Which is ridiculous, and rather horrible, and frankly makes us think the less of her.
I’m afraid there’s no getting away from it: Insofar as the news that Miss Kelly had decided to renounce her Catholicism made any impact at all, it was to cause some minor, though polite, derision. Why abandon something of priceless worth — your family’s heritage of faith, passed on down the generations — for something so daft as the thought that your fiancé might benefit from the deaths of most of his nearest family?
Thus the absurd Kelly Saga ended with really just one, rather sobering thought. A bright, ambitious young woman marries, and in order to make things smoother all around, decides to abandon the vestiges of her Catholic faith: a faith for which martyrs have died, a faith that commands the respect and admiration of many. Had she chosen to retain even her nominal link with it, it is likely that she would have earned the respect and admiration of her future in-laws. Queen Elizabeth II is a sincere Christian, whose own commitment to Sunday worship has never wavered, who speaks with evident faith when she speaks of Jesus Christ in her annual Christmas message to her people, who is no bigot, and whose respect for her Catholic subjects is clear.
It was all just a bit sad, but it didn’t start a major constitutional debate. What is, however, relevant about any discussion connected to the religious aspects of royalty is that God and monarchy are all bound up together. In an increasingly irreligious Britain, the solemn anointing of a sovereign is not a concept that will resonate as much as it should in the hearts and minds of most of the people. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in the austere and war-wounded Britain of 1952 (food rationing had not long been abolished, and London was still visibly bomb-damaged), the ceremony was followed with deep religious faith and respect. People prayed. Church attendance was a big part of many people’s lives. If you had started the Lord’s Prayer among an average crowd of people gathered at some public event, all but a tiny minority would have known the words.
Today it is different. At Remembrance Day services at war memorials in November, many (most?) Cub Scouts and Brownie Guides gathered there with their flags can’t join in the prayer that was once the heritage of all, shared across the generations. Those who do know it might find it “uncool” to join in, and may be bullied for doing so. Hymns like “Praise my soul, the king of Heaven,” “Abide with me,” or “Eternal Father, strong to save” are strictly for the oldies. Young Catholics brought up on “Lord of the Dance” are not keen to share it with anyone, and mostly don’t know the vaguely American choruses that are the staple of evangelical worship, itself a minority activity in Britain.
That is the real issue confronting the future of the monarchy in Britain. A soap opera cannot sustain a constitution, and a fascination with the minutiae of royal domestic life is no substitute for a nation rallying to a time-honored institution rooted in a sense of shared heritage and nourished by spiritual values. Next time you are reading a bit of royal gossip, think about that.