The Royal Separation: Prince could still be head of Church

THE FAILURE of his marriage does not debar the Prince of Wales from becoming the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, the Archbishop of York told the House of Lords yesterday.

Reading a statement on behalf of himself and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr John Habgood said: 'From a legal viewpoint, marital status does not affect the succession to the throne and hence to the title of Supreme Governor. The monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church by virtue of being the Sovereign: there is no other legal requirement.'

Under the 1700 Act of Settlement, the monarch is required to receive Holy Communion in the Church of England. He or she must not be Roman Catholic or be married to a Roman Catholic, but otherwise, as far as the law is concerned, can separate, divorce or remarry without damage to the constitution.

Dr Habgood said he and Dr George Carey shared 'the great sorrow' brought by the announcement, and asked people to pray for the Royal Family. 'In continuing to perform their unique and stressful public duties despite their personal difficulties, the Prince and Princess will have our strong support and, we believe, that of the nation as a whole,' he said.

'The Church teaches that, although its members should all strive to follow Christ's perfect example, we can never fully achieve this ideal . . . In the case of unsuccessful marriages, the Church of England accepts that there are sometimes circumstances, however sad, where separation is the lesser evil and hence the best way forward.'

In 1936, Edward VIII abdicated from the throne in order to marry the divorcee, Wallace Simpson. But Brian Hanson, legal adviser to the General Synod, said that Edward VIII would have been under no legal obligation to take this step. 'There was much more of a social stigma (attached to marrying a divorcee) in 1936 than there would be in 1992,' he said.

But the Bishop of Birmingham, the Right Rev Mark Santer, said that although remarriage was technically permissible, 'it would be emotionally much more difficult for the Church if Prince Charles remarried. By separating he has done nothing reprehensible; a divorce could be accepted; but it's remarriage, in the lifetime of your former spouse, that is the problem.'