WHERE OATHS DO NOT BIND
It would be hard to dream up a more comprehensive mess than that into which the Church of England is drifting over the divorce of the Prince of Wales and his possible remarriage. The issues involved – constitutional, doctrinal and personal – could not be better designed to show up the weaknesses of the National Church.
Constitutional issues first. Charles say the ‘experts’ – all the brightest shirts in Jermyn Street, and Lord St John of Fawsley – can enter upon his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England whether or not he remarries after a divorce from Diana. All that is constitutionally required in order to be Supreme Governor is that he should be Sovereign. And all that is theologically required of him in order to be Sovereign is that he should not be a Roman Catholic. This may seem on the face of it, rather negative, and not very flattering to a significant number of his loyal subjects. But as it turns out, and all things being considered, it is probably for the best. Recent events have conspired to demonstrate that theological conviction on the part of the monarch might be wholly inappropriate
Some, it is true, have maintained that his role as Sovereign will require him to defend, and so presumably accept and uphold, the doctrines of the Church of England But apparently not. Whatever the wording of the Coronation Oath – and whatever literal construction may be placed upon it – that awesome declaration (and so presumably the entire panoply which surrounds it) amounts to nothing in actual constitutional hard cash. As Mr Justice Lightman ruled in Court 9 of the Royal Courts of Justice on November 11 1994, the oath does not merely involve an undertaking to uphold things of which the monarch could reasonably be assumed to be cognizant (that is to say, doctrines already formulated and declared) but things of which he must, by definition, be wholly unaware (that is to say, the doctrines of the Church of England as by Parliament proclaimed, at any future time during his reign, even where those overrule and contradict those in force at the time of his accession). In short, whatever it is, it is not an oath.
In any case, the monarch is also constitutionally a member of the Church of Scotland, whose doctrines may well (and as a matter of fact do) contradict those of the Church of England, not least in the matter of divorce and remarriage. Unlike other members of the C.of E. its Supreme Governor can, if things get a little too demanding at home, simply pop over the border to his own nation-sized constitutional Gretna Green. (In Palace circles, I am told, this is called ‘taking the Anne option’)
The ethical and doctrinal issues raised extend far wider than the simple matter of divorce and remarriage. The Church of England is going through a crisis of identity which is also a crisis of authority. As a church of the reformation it has customarily defined itself over against the Roman Church, and done so in terms of a greater fidelity to scripture. The Marian dogmas of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, were rejected by Anglicans as being insufficiently scriptural. But now, on the issues of women’s ordination, homosexuality and divorce it is the Church of England which is forsaking scriptural authority with nothing more substantial than a majority vote in its curiously constituted General Synod to put in its place. The blessing by an erstwhile evangelical archbishop of the remarriage of a Supreme Governor who had publicly admitted adultery on prime time television would be a decisive step in that process. And yet it would be one to which all recent developments lead logically and inevitably. Put in the kindest possible way, Charles and Camilla would be helping the Church of England to decide what it is by making it declare where it stands.
The personal issues in the affair are simple. Whilst constitutional commentators have tried, where Charles is concerned, to make the necessary separation between the person and the sovereign, between his role as Supreme Governor and the conduct of his personal life, such a distinction (whilst eminently desirable) is difficult to make in the case of Dr Carey. He has made uxoriousness a mark of his ministry. The entire Anglican Communion knows Eileen, in her slightly uncomfortable role as a theological Norma Major. George Carey the genial family man is inseparable from the rather more forbidding figure of Dr Carey, the exalted prelate. Not surprisingly the Careys have had family difficulties like the Windsors: four children; two divorces. Common humanity and straightforward consistency require that the Archbishop should be no less understanding to the Queen’s offspring than he is to his own. We cannot know what he counselled them in their problems. But we can be sure that whatever decision he reaches in the matter of Charles and Camilla will be reported by a press eager to expose the slightest hint of hypocrisy.
So there it is. In a simple domestic upset (albeit one involving the heir to the throne) the nakedness of the established church stands revealed. She makes no more demands of her Supreme Governor (perhaps less, if that were possible) than of her other members; she cannot make up her mind about the meaning of the very scriptures to which she appeals for her distinctive identity; and her teaching authority, in such circumstances, is inevitably compromised by the personal concerns and predicaments of those who exercise it.
In 1936 the proposed marriage of a monarch to a woman twice divorced provoked a constitutional crisis of major proportions. In 1957 the Princess Margaret made a moving statement which ended speculation about her intention to marry Group Captain Townsend.
In 1996 such a crisis and such a statement are simply inconceivable. Nobody, it appears, in any walk of life, is inclined to take the established church that seriously any more.
Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St Stephen’s Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark.