Richard Harries: We shouldn't expect the highest of standards from our royalty

Charles can be head of the Church, even if he won't marry in one

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The news of Charles and Camilla's engagement has once again brought forth calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England. It's a legitimate question to ask, but, paradoxically, the strongest defenders of the establishment of the Church of England at the moment tend to be Jews and Muslims.

The news of Charles and Camilla's engagement has once again brought forth calls for the disestablishment of the Church of England. It's a legitimate question to ask, but, paradoxically, the strongest defenders of the establishment of the Church of England at the moment tend to be Jews and Muslims.

The Chief Rabbi has argued that the Church of England acts as a kind of umbrella for other religions, enabling them to make a serious contribution to public debate. Zaki Badawi, the country's leading Muslim spokesman, has commended the Church of England's establishment on the grounds that without establishment, in France you get a fanatical secularism, and in the United States a fanatical fundamentalism.

So why should the marriage of Charles and Camilla raise the question of establishment afresh? Some suggest that the example of Charles's personal life makes him unfit to be a sovereign who will be designated Supreme Governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith. It is very good indeed when a sovereign can set a good example to the country as a whole, and we have been singularly fortunate with the present Queen and her father, King George VI. However, I suspect that historians will remind us that this is against the run of history. It is desirable that the sovereign should have high standards of personal conduct, but failures in this respect do not debar them from the throne and its associated church office.

As far as the marriage itself is concerned, the Church of England, after long and agonised debate, has decided that in certain circumstances, the remarriage of divorcees in church, when they still have a partner living, is not incompatible with the ethical teaching of Jesus. Rather, the recognition of failure, a willingness to repent (that is, rethink one's life), and a desire to start afresh are part of what makes a person a Christian in the first place and continue in that way.

Like many people in our society now, Charles and Camilla have experienced, in an excruciatingly public form, all the pain and shame of marital breakdown. They have decided on a civil ceremony, followed by a service of prayer and dedication; that simple service of prayer and dedication can be, as I have discovered in ministering to other couples in similar situations, a very profound experience for the couple.

Those who get married again can take marriage vows much more seriously than those who get married for the first time. The fact that their first marriage broke down does not mean that they sit light to the importance of such vows: on the contrary, the idea of a faithful and lifelong commitment will, despite failure, remain their abiding ideal.

It has been suggested, for example by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight, that it is odd, if not incompatible, for the Supreme Governor of the Church of England not himself to have been married in church. But this points out a very crucial difference in the understanding of marriage between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. For Roman Catholics, there is a valid marriage only when it takes place before a priest. For Anglicans, the ministers of the sacrament of marriage are the two people getting married, making their vows to one another in public before witnesses. This in itself brings the marriage about. So the marriage of Charles and Camilla before a registrar is a valid marriage both for the Church of England and, we would say, for God. The religious seriousness with which they take this is indicated by their desire to have a service of prayer and dedication after the ceremony.

It's important to realise that establishment is not a single thing. It is a cord made up of a number of different threads. Some of these threads can be cut, with the cord still remaining in place. In fact, some of these threads have been cut in recent decades, or at least weakened. The Church of England now has power to order its own forms of service, which it didn't in 1928. The prime minister no longer appoints his cronies and political supporters to be bishops in the Church of England.

All names for appointment have to come from the Crown Nominations Commission, a body which is, significantly, democratically elected by the church. The place of bishops in the House of Lords continues to be debated, but if their number was reduced or they were even expelled, the Church of England would still be the established church. The nature of the established relationship has changed, is changing and will no doubt change further, but it has a long way to go yet before anything that could be called disestablishment came about.

The church has, of course, had to live under, or with, all manner of regimes. If the Church of England was disestablished it certainly wouldn't be the end of the world. But there would, I believe, be a serious loss to the nation. For an established church like the Church of England stands in some strange symbolic way for the fact that there is something in life even more important than politics. Our unwritten constitution is not just about Parliament. It is about the Queen in Parliament under God. This means that governments are not simply accountable to the electorate but to that which is ultimate, namely God's own self.

Prayers in Parliament every day before business, both in the Commons and the Lords, with bishops taking their place in the deliberative assembly, are one way in which this ultimate accountability of government to God is indicated.

The Rt Rev Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford

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