Leading Article: Crisis for the church? Why?

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The Independent Online
The heir to the throne and the leader of the Conservative Party do have one thing in common. Neither seems unduly worried by the idea of living in sin. When Camilla Parker Bowles is involved in a car crash on a country road in Wiltshire, she is concerned that she is going to be late for dinner at Highgrove but not because she is a guest. She needs to be there because she is the hostess. When Lady Thatcher suggests that it would be more seemly if William Hague and Ffion Jenkins slept in separate rooms at the Conservative Party Conference, Mr Hague lets it be known that he has every intention of sharing a bed with his fiancee, just as he does in London. Whether their elders and betters like it or not, they are behaving like a large majority of their contemporaries to whom living in sin is a concept that belongs in literature and theology. Although one will become King and the other hopes to become Prime Minister, each appears to share a modern suspicion of institutional authority. They do not want people telling them how they ought to behave. That being the case, Mr Hague will marry when it suits him and his wife-to-be. As for the Prince of Wales, we wish he would marry Mrs Parker Bowles - if that is what they both wish - and put himself out of his misery. He has a problem, however, because his mother is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, a job he would expect to inherit.

The text for this week comes from the Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who is visiting Australia, where he said that he believes that should Prince Charles choose to remarry it would create a crisis for the church. Dr Carey was careful to distinguish between divorce - "not an issue at all" - and remarriage, which is an issue because no Supreme Governor of the Church of England has been divorced, never mind remarried. The Church of England may not now be divided by the idea of a divorced man becoming its Supreme Governor, but significant sections of it do vigorously oppose remarriage after divorce. This seems hard to square with the fact that the Church of England's own priests are allowed to remain in their ministries after they have remarried. The church justifies this apparent contradiction with guidance suggesting that remarriage should not be allowed when the new partner was instrumental in the break-up of the original marriage. Presumably, neither Prince Charles nor Mrs Parker Bowles qualify on those grounds. So, if they did propose to remarry - and they can always do so in the Church of Scotland, as Charles's sister, Princess Anne, did after her own divorce - the Prince would be forced to reconsider his future as the Supreme Governor of the Church. This excellent move should be encouraged.

In her day, Elizabeth I assumed that church and state were identical, and, since dissent threatened the stability of both, dissenters were outlawed. The Church of England was truly the Established church, but its absolute authority lasted for little more than 100 years. Church and state were still a powerful political alliance in the 19th century, but over the past 100 years the relationship has withered. The church's General Synod, not parliament, is now the final arbiter on matters of doctrine, and a Church Commission, not 10 Downing Street, selects bishops. Apart from 26 bishops in the Lords - who are unlikely to outlast the Blair regime - the links with the past are part of the national heritage. And the more the church clings to these links, the less relevant it seems.

Disestablishment of the Church of England may sound like a drama, but in reality it is no more than tying up a few loose ends. The principal change would be that the Church of England would no longer be under a special obligation to baptise, marry and bury anyone who asks, whether they are members of the church or not. This obligation does weld the Church of England to the fabric of the nation and, although some priests would enjoy the freedom to reject faint-hearted Christians, it would be a small- minded church that turned its back on a citizen.

Although it is unlikely that his mother would willingly give up the title of Supreme Governor, Prince Charles could, and should, make a single, original gesture and simply lay it down, like Alexander cutting the Gordian knot. It would be a favour to himself, since there would no longer be any institutional barrier to his remarriage. It would also be a favour to the Church of England, which would no longer be in danger of falling into crisis because of the marital problems of a prince.