The cost of the royal snub to Carey

More self-indulgence by Prince Charles marks a new stage in privatising the monarchy, argues Paul Vallely
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The Independent Online
The Queen even cracked a joke, apparently. The reports were that it was a relaxed, even jolly occasion at Windsor Castle yesterday when Prince William affirmed acceptance of the teachings of a Church founded by his ancestor, Henry VIII, in the castle's 500-year-old chapel. The Prince and Princess of Wales behaved civilly, cordially even, onlookers said. The Bishop of London, Rt Rev Richard Chartres, was as urbane, dignified and traditionalist as everyone had hoped.

There's the rub. For this was the first time this century that the Archbishop of Canterbury was not asked to officiate at the confirmation of a future monarch and head of the Church of England. The Palace had denied there was a snub. Dr George Carey issued a face-saving statement to the effect that he wholeheartedly approved of the choice of Bishop Chartres: "The Bishop of London is dean of the Chapels Royal, so it is entirely appropriate that he should be asked to officiate." The archbishop was, he insisted, anxious to encourage warm relationships between other senior bishops and the Royal Family.

Few in the Church were convinced. It is said that neither the Prince nor the Princess of Wales is keen on Dr Carey. Prince Charles dislikes his happy-clappy, evangelical bent in worship. He was also less than impressed with the answers the primate gave on radio the morning when he appeared to launch his crusade to re-moralise Britain - which unluckily coincided with the announcement of the Charles and Di divorce. The princess is said to be unhappy about the way the Archbishop counselled her before the divorce.

Add to that Dr Carey's East End earnestness compared with the assured ease of Dr Chartres, one of the Church's wealthiest clerics, who was at Cambridge with the Prince and whose churchmanship is firmly in the traditionalist camp; he is an opponent of women priests and an enthusiast for the Shakespearean cadences of the Book of Common Prayer.

Does this really matter? Only insofar as it is another step in the unwitting privatisation of the British monarchy. What Prince Charles has done, and his mother has apparently sanctioned, is a further confusion of the institutional and the private. In a country with an established church the confirmation of its future head is a matter of state, and not one for the exercise of "personal choice" with which contemporary society is fixated.

There is more to this than mere muddled thinking by an heir apparent who wants to broaden his future role to that of Defender of Faiths, though his broad-mindedness does not even stretch the full width of the Church of England. Prince Charles must have known the signals that would be sent by his decision not to involve the Archbishop of Canterbury. Charles, his brothers and sister and the Queen herself were all confirmed by the holders of that office.

The idea that the abstractions which undergird any society are vested in offices rather than resting in individuals is now rather unfashionable, and one that our tabloid culture seems to find impossible to comprehend. Certainly the present royal family has not been astute in guarding the distinction, as Ben Pimlott's biography of the Queen pointed out, with its catalogue of misjudgements of which the royal It's a Knockout was only the most egregious.

It is not the personal style of George Carey which ought to be the issue, any more than it is the personal merit of the Prince of Wales that ensures that he is accorded respect. Were matters of state to be reduced to that, then what would stop some future House of Commons choosing to invite the Princess Royal rather than the King to open Parliament, on the grounds that she is more popular in the opinion polls?

Of course, it may be that we do not need an established church. Perhapst we do not need a monarchy. But tmany still see value in a nation's identification with something beyond the temporal - and, within the temporal, beyond the merely political and economic. The Royal Family ought to be custodians of this sense of national soul. If, self-indulgently, they are willing to forfeit it, that may be something we all come to regret.