On Tuesday 15 May, the Norwegian Parliament voted to introduce a constitutional amendment to disestablish the Lutheran state church of Norway. Those besotted with outdated ideas of historical “progress” might cheer such a development, but on the same day in England the BBC published the result of a ComRes poll which found that 79 per cent of people believe Queen Elizabeth II has an important faith role, with 73 per cent believing that she should remain Supreme Governor of the Church of England and retain her title of “Defender of the Faith”.
The monarchy’s not lacked good publicity of late. After sixty years on the throne, the Queen’s more than earned her place with Alan Bennett and Judi Dench as a “national treasure”, and last year’s trip to Ireland won over many of her more sceptical Irish subjects. Prince William’s April 2011 wedding, at which Richard Chartres, the Anglican archbishop of London, preached a sermon that may have been heard by more people than any other in history, was an occasion for national celebration that seemed to go far beyond cynical opportunism at an extraordinary public holiday. And, of course, the public image of the monarchy could hardly have been better served than by 2010’s Oscar-winning film The King’s Speech.
One of the film’s most arresting scenes takes place in Westminster Abbey, when Colin Firth’s soon-to-be-crowned George VI demands that his speech therapist, Geoffrey Rush’s Lionel Logue, vacate the coronation throne, the seat of Saint Edmund the Confessor.
“Listen to me,” cries the king. “Listen to me!”
“Listen to you? By what right?”
“By divine right if you must. I am your king.”
The idea of kings ruling by divine right may have a rather seventeenth-century air about it, but even now the idea that there is something holy about the monarchy underpins the British constitutional settlement. “The monarchy by its religious sanction now confirms all our political order,” wrote Walter Bagehot in his 1867 classic The English Constitution, still widely regarded as the most insightful book ever written about the structures of the British State.
Bagehot’s book is one of two treated almost as training manuals by young members of the royal family; the other is Elizabeth R: The Role of the Monarchy Today, written in 1992 by Anthony Jay, best known for his work on television’s Yes, Minister. Jay recognised, and the royal family have clearly embraced his explanation, that the monarchy has two roles: the Queen is called upon formally to be “Head of State” and informally “Head of Nation”.
It’s surely in the latter sense that she’s understood her role as “Defender of the Faith” as having developed over the decades. When she was crowned in 1953 she swore to the utmost of her power to maintain the laws of God, the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law, and the settlement of the Church of England.
It seems, though, that she does not regard her role as a narrowly sectarian one; on the contrary, she sees the Church of England as having a role in fostering pluralism. Earlier this year she explained that, “Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
There’s a lot to be said for having a public figure or institution whose role is to stand as a permanent reminder of what religious faith does and has done for the country, especially at a time when, according to a recent parliamentary enquiry, religion is being marginalised in public life.
The report Clearing the Ground found that although Christians are not being victimised in Britain, religious illiteracy has created situations where religious belief is misunderstood and restricted; court decisions have established a hierarchy of rights with the freedom to manifest religious belief and act in accord with one’s conscience being deemed less important than other rights.
Of course, it’s impossible for a Catholic to discuss Britain’s monarchy without acknowledging the fact that, in a sense, Catholics are second-class citizens in Britain, the only people explicitly barred by law from marrying into the line of succession; any royal who wishes to marry a Catholic must abdicate their position in the line. Recognising that this is discrimination, David Cameron has made noises about changing this, in order to make the monarchy more modern, and the Archbishop of Westminster has welcomed this.
I’m not so sure. I think we all know that in a meaningful sense, British Catholics have the same rights as all other British citizens, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to start pulling threads out of Britain’s constitutional tapestry in order to achieve what would be but the tiniest and most cosmetic of symbolic gains.
Besides, Zara Phillips is off the market.
-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 31 May 2012.