What now for Prince Charles?

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The clerk with the rubber stamp at the Registry Department of Somerset House yesterday did more than make absolute the decree proclaiming the divorce of the Prince and Princess of Wales. His action gave official imprimatur to a new phase of deliberation over the future of the British monarchy.

The attention of the photographers may have been upon Diana, Princess of Wales, as she will henceforth be styled. But though the royal divorcee will undoubtedly remain meat for the gossip columns, her ability to make constitutional waves will fade. Attention will now focus on her ex- husband and the question of whether he will marry again.

Few can doubt that Prince Charles will now tussle with the eventual possibility of finally marrying the woman he is said to have loved for two decades. Secular liberals might be tempted to argue simply that he should be entitled to remarry. After all, the monarchy has changed dramatically during this century. Why not allow Charles to be a monarch in tune with his times? The problem is that Charles himself does not appear to want to be a monarch in the European bicycling mould.

It is the Church of England which, unusually, is the cause of the nation not being able to have it both ways. When the sovereign dies the Privy Council meets to pronounce the heir apparent as successor. But coronation is a religious service in which the king makes solemn vows "in the sight of God". The Church which conducts that consecration also holds that marriage involves similar lifelong vows. Prince Charles, its purists argue, failed to keep the former - so how can he undertake the latter?

The Church of England disapproves of remarriage in church. If Charles re-marries before the Queen dies, the Archbishop of Canterbury might be faced with the choice of refusing to crown a Queen Camilla or else requesting the disestablishment of the Church. Church constitutionalists insist the position of the Sovereign as Supreme Governor of the Church of England is inextricably intertwined with the relationship between the state and its official church. Pluck out that strand, and the whole knot will unravel by which bishops are appointed by the prime minister in the Sovereign's name, by which bishops sit in the House of Lords, by which there is a priest in every parish and a church for everyone in the land. The Church might then be taken over by rabid evangelicals.

This is all alarmist stuff. Instead, the British genius for compromise should deliver. Perhaps the Supreme Governorship could be transferred to Lambeth Palace. Perhaps establishment could be remodelled along the lines of the Church of Scotland, which has no Supreme Governor.

It might well be that disestablishment is exactly what Anglicanism needs to reinvigorate itself in a pluralist society.

Prince Charles is caught between two visions of what a modern monarchy should be: should it be a symbol of temporal and spiritual unity, or a family which epitomises the aspirations of its people?

This then is the stark choice which faces the Prince of Wales. He can remain single until he feels public opinion would come to accept a morganatic marriage or an uncrowned consort. Or he can decide that the time has come for the monarchy and the church to strike out. He should not rush his decision: unlike most others made by the Royal Family in recent years, this one may change our whole public polity.