Leading Article: Divorced, but still fit to play the King

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NEWSPAPERS like to scoop their rivals. But yesterday's Sun, which reported with characteristic gusto doubts inside the Church of England over the Prince of Wales's fitness to be King, may have outdone itself. If the Queen is blessed with as many years as her mother has lived already, the question of her succession need not be settled until the year 2019.

So it might be wise to pause before wondering what might happen if Prince Charles divorces the Princess of Wales. Over the coming 26 years, there will undoubtedly be more books, leaked telephone conversations and sneaked gymnasium photographs. But if the law remains the same, the only formal constraint on Prince Charles's private life will be that he may not marry a Catholic. Nothing in today's British constitution bars him from becoming King divorced.

Such constraints as there are will be informal. When George VI died in 1952, few questioned whether his diffident daughter was suitable to become Queen. Today, the institution of monarchy still wins broad support in opinion polls. But there is a palpable public yearning to have more say in the hitherto incontestable process of succession. Not, perhaps, by plebiscite; but certainly by exerting moral pressure. Hence the attention given by both the Prince and the Princess to the way they are portrayed in the press - and why the Archdeacon of York struck a public chord when he spoke on radio yesterday.

Behind the questions that the archdeacon raised lurks a more important issue: what a 21st-century British monarch can be for. Many answers will be possible - but if the proportion of the population that goes regularly to church continues to fall as it has since 1952, defending the faith will not be one of them. Britain has already become too diverse a religious patchwork for it to make sense any longer for the head of state to be also the head of an established church.

The remaining links between church and state are already weakening. (The strongest proof of that can be seen in the Queen's silence on the greatest controversy that has taken place inside the Church of England this century: over the ordination of women priests.) When the time comes, therefore, Prince Charles may prove an unsuitable figurehead for the church. But that alone will not prevent him from ascending the throne.