Antidisestablishmentarianism

Dr Edward Norman, Canon Treasurer of York Minster, argues that the sins of Prince Charles have no bearing on his public role. This article first appeared in the Church Times.

Few Supreme Governors of the Church of England have practised Anglicanism to the letter. Two sovereigns have not been Anglicans at all (the first two Georges were Lutherans), one was a secret Roman Catholic (James II), the founder of the C of E was himself divorced (Henry VIII), one was a practising homosexual (James I), several have been known adulterers, and all of them, when north of the border, are Presbyterians.

This is not a record which suggests that personal adhesion to the church establishment teachings has consistently been regarded as an essential requirement for the office of Supreme Governor. The fact is that the Church is built into the fabric of the Constitution: it is the body entrusted with the maintenance of spiritual truth and which serves as the reference for the moral foundations. When anyone asks what is the moral basis of the law in England, they can be pointed towards this constitutional provision.

The link of Church and State is an historical survivor of the ancient confessional state; it is society continuing to uphold a belief that behind the fickleness of politicians, the easy manipulation of opinion, and the general shabbiness of public conceptions of truth and duty, there nevertheless resides a permanent reference to higher principles unaffected by the squalid natures of all of us.

Some people occupy posts which symbolise the historic vocation of society and preserve its formal structures for future generations. Their personal worthiness - indeed the worthiness of any of us for anything - scarcely comes into it. The State and the Constitution are taken to have permanent features which are untouched by the personal circumstances of their present guardians.

It may be, of course, that the time has come to revise or to destroy this provision. It may be that the pursuit of liberal freedoms and the existence of a pluralism of values within the intelligentsia and the governing elites - and perhaps even within wider society - is now such that the exclusive maintenance of the Christian religion as the higher note of public association is outmoded.

The Prince of Wales himself, in his suggestion that his future constitutional role might be broadened to embrace the defence of other faiths, has hinted at an adjustment. It is not actually a very likely one. The only really serious philosophical difficulty with the State Church derives, not from unequal patronage, but from the existence of a link between government and religious opinion of any sort.

The idea of a future sovereign undertaking, in the Coronation Oath, to maintain Hinduism, Islam, and so forth, alongside the Christian religion, happens to match the prevailing penchant within educated opinion for regarding all religions as more or less the same. But it is a transient phase. Truth, particularly religious truth, has exact content, and the relativising of religion is an indication not of higher wisdom, but of increased scepticism.

This difficulty apart, the Prince of Wales is admirably suited to be Supreme Governor of the Church. That he is a confessed adulterer and may soon be divorced - which, even in the most generous moral understanding of the Anglican divines, are not helpful qualifications - is hardly relevant. He is plainly a man given to public duty, who has a marked dedication to the historical continuity of the Constitution. His duty as Supreme Governor will be to see that the union of throne and altar is preserved, and that he will do.

If the constitutional process itself determines change, on the other hand, and if a future parliament decides upon a disestablishment, then he is a man who can be relied upon to do his duty, and to help in winding up the present arrangements with as much dignity as may be available.

Such an eventuality, incidentally, would not be without support within the Church itself. The link with the state dedicates the life of the nation but only in a highly symbolical sense. No one can any longer suppose that the governing elites, or Parliament, refers to the bishops when determining public policy - even in the most precise questions of personal morality.

But while the present arrangements exist, the person who symbolises the state's adhesion to higher truth is not to be regarded as personally exempted from the moral frailties of us all.

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