Don't be fooled - there's nothing to stop us modernising the Royal Family

`If anybody really is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England today, it is Tony Blair'

THE GOVERNMENT is reported to want to alter the law which prevents the Sovereign from being a Roman Catholic, or from being married to one. It is prepared to see the Act of Settlement of 1701 amended so as to remove the prohibition. This may seem a measure which should have been put through over 150 years ago when the last of the restraints on Roman Catholics were being removed, but then in constitutional matters we are reluctant to put anything away. We leave old arrangements in place while we press on with the new.

How long did we delay removing the hereditary peers from the House of Lords, 50 years, 100 years? Only recently has the Lord Chancellor given up walking backwards from the throne at the State Opening of Parliament, itself a ceremony that this year, with the addition of vainglorious, New Labour sentiments to the Queen's Speech, has moved from the quaint to the ludicrous.

On hearing news of the Government's intentions, I guessed that Lord St John of Fawsley, usually described as a constitutional expert, would come forward and say that this is all too rushed, the time is not ripe. I wasn't disappointed. On cue, Lord St John said that while he agreed "in principle" that the law of succession should be changed because it was "insulting to Catholics", the timing was wrong. "The Royal Family has had too many ups and downs recently. They need a period of peace."

Now we all know the Royal Family. We don't actually have to have met them for that. They are the leading characters in the national soap opera. We can easily assess whether Lord St John is likely to be right. When the Queen saw the story, did she really say: "My goodness, Tony Blair is planning to let us marry Roman Catholics or even change our faith. How upsetting; whatever will he think of next?"

If the "don't upset the Queen" objection begins to appear implausible, then those who hate all change in case it is for the worse, will retreat to a more elaborate position.

You see, they will say, our constitutional arrangements are intricately interlinked, everything is in perfect balance. Change any aspect, and you will ruin the beautiful structure. While the reasons, say, for still having a Privy Council, with its regular, ceremonial meetings may be obscure, who knows when it might suddenly be needed after 300 years of neglect - or, more seriously, what else still hangs upon its existence.

Thus Lord Forsyth, a former Conservative MP and Scottish Secretary, is criticised by his own party for taking the lead in altering the Act of Succession. He plans to table a motion in the House of Lords. For his pains, Lord Forsyth is already being chided for playing into Labour's hands. Doesn't he realise that, because everything fits together, Labour will build on his proposal, go much further and also remove the Church of England from its role as the national church?

Here is the linkage. Since Henry VIII invented the presumptuous role of Supreme Governor of the Church of England in the 1530s for his own narrow purposes, successive sovereigns have held the title, as the Queen does now. As such, it is a completely empty office, and has been so for many generations. But clearly it would not be appropriate for a Roman Catholic to hold it.

So the question is - if it ever arose - what would happen if the sovereign were no long Supreme Governor, no longer charged with maintaining "the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law" and the Church was disestablished.

Henry VIII's measure has had two consequences. As well as giving the Church of England its national role, with its bishops sitting by right in the House of Lords, it has also allowed Parliament to interfere in its doctrine and administration. And although there have been no Parliamentary interventions in matters of belief since the Prayer Book controversies of the 1920s, in the appointment of bishops the prime minister, right up to the present time, has often interfered. If anybody really is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England today, it is Tony Blair (who is married to a Roman Catholic).

Naturally, the "leave-well-alone" thinkers are untroubled by the prospect that the Prime Minister's patronage would be diminished. What bothers them would be the loss of the first half of Henry VIII's inheritance, the Church's role as the official church. Well, what difference would that make? I say none at all. The Church's national role has long been purely ceremonial. When a religious dimension on a state occasion is required, the Church of England's bishops say the prayers. That is all. In truth, the influence of any religious group on national life depends upon the way its members bring moral insights into the national debate, not upon its constitutional status. For this reason the late Cardinal Hume had far greater influence than any recent archbishop of Canterbury.

No danger, then, that I can see in removing the remaining anti-Catholic provisions from the Statute Book and dismantling Henry VIII's religious measures. At the same time, though, we should respect the framers of the Act of Settlement. As well as securing a protestant succession to the throne, the legislation was aggressively aimed at curbing the power of William III, the Dutch king, the same King Billy revered by Ulster Protestants, who in "The Glorious Revolution" had succeeded the last of the Stuarts, the Catholic James II. The Act secured that monarchs could no longer leave England without Parliament's permission and could no longer appoint foreigners (ie Dutchmen) to government office; they were also stripped of their ancient right to dismiss judges, which was passed to Parliament.

Christopher Hill, the historian, summed up the meaning of the Act of Settlement best when he wrote that "the clause in the Act of Settlement excluding Catholics from the succession finally freed the country from the spectre of absolutism enforced by foreign arms. All but an ineffective group of sentimental squires deserted divine right monarchy and put their money in the Bank of England". Sentimental squires still exist, of course. Only now they believe the Act of Settlement to be sacred text, never to be altered.

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