Leading Article: Charles cannot be a defender of all faiths

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THE PRINCE of Wales may be right to question, as he is reported to have done in a television interview to be broadcast this week, whether a British monarch in the next century could sensibly claim the title of Fidei Defensor, or Defender of the Faith. No incoming monarch should take the coronation oaths lightly; it would be reassuring to find the Prince thinking seriously about this aspect of his future role. But the suggestion from some quarters that he might become the defender of faith in general, rather than of the Church of England in particular, is constitutional and religious nonsense.

It is constitutional nonsense because the different religions that claim adherents in Britain make too many contradictory demands on public policy for them all to be met in a single country. It is religious nonsense because Muslims, Hindus, Jews and other religious groups would be unwilling to accord the British monarch any special status in their theological hierarchies.

Moreover, law-abiding atheists would have good grounds for resenting their own exclusion from the umbrella of monarchical protection. Yet it is easy to see how the Prince might have misgivings about swearing to 'maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant reformed religion established by law'. No future king who wishes to promote religious tolerance and who has an open mind on the question of disestablishing the Church of England could utter such words sincerely.

Fortunately, the religious position of the monarch in Britain is more flexible than it may seem. The first Defender of the Faith was Henry VIII, who received the title from a grateful Pope Leo X in 1521 after Thomas More attacked Martin Luther in print. Henry's decision to keep the title after changing sides against the Catholic church shows how seriously he took it. So if and when the time comes, there need be no constitutional difficulty in reconciling a Christian monarch with a disestablished church and a state that has citizens rather than subjects.

It would be laudable if the Prince wishes to use his coronation to extend rather than to narrow the franchise that he represents. But that cannot be done by expanding his duties; he cannot be a defender of all faiths, or of faith in general. A monarch must defend one faith or none. The second of these would inevitably require profound and difficult changes to the constitution, since the monarchy and the Church of England are mutually supportive. But a monarch without religious duties need be no worse a monarch for that.