Is it now time to elect the monarchy?

'The problem of the hereditary system is obvious'; The present incumbent may be above reproach, but the future is uncertain, writes Canon Eric James
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The Independent Online
I WAS chaplain to Her Majesty The Queen from 1984 to 1995. Therefore, writing on the future of the monarchy without a pastoral concern for the Royal Family is, to my mind, unthinkable.

It seems appropriate to address the question in The Independent, where Canon Alan Wilkinson, the noted Anglican historian and Diocesan Theologian of Portsmouth, wrote an article a week after the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales, which concluded:

When things go wrong with hopes and relationships, we often react by wanting to be rid of the source of the pain. This is how many people are reacting to the failures of the monarchy. But ought we to abandon an institution which is woven into every period of our history, out of disappointment or a fit of pique? There is still time to salvage the monarchy, but there is not as much time as some in authority once seemed to assume.

The death of Diana, Princess of Wales, was the occasion, but not wholly the cause, of many of the questions that people have been asking about the monarchy. But mortality is something close to us all: however much we avert our gaze.

Her Majesty The Queen - I am myself keenly aware - is less than a year younger than I; and the Duke of Edinburgh is but four years older. If Prince Philip were to die, would the Queen, without the huge help of a consort alongside her, retire from the scene, like Queen Victoria? Or would she abdicate? Or would she continue to serve as monarch as devotedly as she has done for over 40 years?

And what would happen were the Queen herself to die? The Prince of Wales waits in the wings, so to speak; though his waiting is both active and creative; and, in time, will no doubt have his own thoughts about his role as monarch.

There is another very relevant question. The Government has raised the question of hereditary peers There is, surely, a certain illogicality, even naivete, in thinking you can raise - as a matter of principle - the question of hereditary peers of the realm, but think you can leave entirely undisturbed the question of the hereditary monarchy.

As we contemplate entering a united Europe, we clearly foresee a degree of union with countries which have other models of monarchy, with which we can compare and contrast our own.

Membership of the Commonwealth also has something to say to our British model of monarchy. The idea - and more than the idea - the recent live process of Australia becoming independent of Britain and free of the monarchy, and rediscovering its identity, is not without its implication for what we used to call "the Mother Country". The isle - this isle - we may yet discover, if we have ease to hear, is full of noises, of voices, seeking to rediscover our own identity.

Finally, there is the role of monarchy in relation to the Church of England. The title given to the Queen - "Defender of the Faith" - is one conferred at his own request on Henry VIII, in 1521, by Pope Leo X. Parliament recognised the style as an official title of the English monarch, and it has been borne since that day by all British sovereigns.

It would be foolish to think that the future of the monarchy could or should be discussed without the Church of England playing a significant part in the discussion. The future of the House of Lords begs the question of the future representation of the Church of England in that House - and, indeed, of other Christian bodies, and other religions - and the relation of the Church of England to those other bodies.

I respectfully suggest that the archbishops should set up a broad-based Commission on Church and Nation, with special reference to the future of the monarchy. So far, the churches have been strangely silent on the modernising of the monarchy, though, surely, they have much to contribute through what the Bible says on monarchy - not least through the prophets, but most through the self-revelation of God in Jesus, and the model He provides of leadership in His Kingdom, in contrast with our all too human requirements of distance, rank, status, possessions, hierarchy - which, of course, meant originally "rule by the priests". This necessity is what Shakespeare called "degree": "take but degree away, untune that string, and, hark! what discord follows". Such a commission would surely have valuable insights for our secular, multi-racial and multi-faith society.

We shall not get the subject of monarchy right in a day, nor dare we use that word "mystery" as an escape. Shakespeare knew that part of the problem of royalty is the court: the cult and class that hedge the monarch - for which, of course, the monarch is, in part, to blame. Security is the breeding ground of toadying sycophants. And few of us have the courage to rise above that excessive deference to royalty which defeats its object.

The question needs to be posed again, in our own time, whether the mere accident of birth can ever now be expected to produce a man or woman fit for the role that royalty requires. In our age, from birth, the fierce glare of publicity is directed on to the heir's upbringing, education, and development; followed by the investigative glare of the media on his making of friends, wooing, and so on. The relation between the private person and the public role - it must be faced - now makes all but impossible demands.

In England, until 1213, the monarch was elected. Maybe the time is returning for election to the task and role.

As an Extra Chaplain to Her Majesty, I want to pay tribute to the devotion with which I believe, the Queen has served the country as monarch. Nor do I believe that now is the time for an immediate change in our mode of government; but it is, surely, time for a profound reflection upon and reconsideration of the role of monarch.

The problem of hereditary monarchy is obvious and simple. The monarch now may be above reproach; but you can never tell what you are going to get. And there's not a lot to be said for such a lottery.

This article is based on a lecture given by the author last night in Westminster Abbey.