Cameron moves to disestablish the Church of England
One expects a Conservative prime minister to conserve all that is good in our Constitution. Where reform is necessary, one expects a Conservative prime minister to implement change in accordance with Burkean precepts – evolutionary, not revolutionary; consonant with social mores and sensitive to national customs and traditions. And one expects a Conservative prime minister to be fully informed of the facts of the nation’s political and religious history, and if not informed, certainly well advised.
It is depressing to observe that all those Conservative MPs with any grasp of history and politico-theology are languishing on the back benches: we have a government of constitutionally-illiterate technocrats, more concerned with the politics of economics and ‘modernisation’ à la Cool (if bust) Britannia.
This week, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Australia, David Cameron went where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown did not dare: he chipped away at the Act of Settlement 1701. He announced the end of male primogeniture in the Royal succession, and of his intention to lift the ban on the Monarch being married to a Roman Catholic. As His Grace has previously pointed out, such a change will require a raft of historic legislation to be amended. The BBC mentions the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Royal Marriages Act (1772). To these, we must add the Coronation Oaths Act (1688), the Crown in Parliament Act (1689), the Accession Declaration Act (1910) and the rather more sensitive Act of Union (1707), Article 2 of which specifies that Roman Catholics may not ascend the Throne of the United Kingdom. The Treaty of Union 1707 is the founding charter of the United Kingdom. Tamper with this, and the whole house of cards comes tumbling down.
Scottish unionist politicians have never wanted this truth out. They have feared the day Scots became aware that the United Kingdom is the creature of a treaty between two equal parliaments: a living, legal document, capable of amendment and adjustment to contemporary needs. These are the unspoken ‘constitutional ripples’ which so haunted Donald Dewar, and the reason successive prime ministers of the United Kingdom and unionist Scottish secretaries of state had no intention of ending the ban on the Monarch either being a Roman Catholic or married to one: they were quite happy to let historically-ignorant politicians continue banging on about the Act of Settlement 1701 when, all along, the hurdle was the Act of Union 1707.
This fact has not escaped Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond who demands ‘equality of faith and gender’. He found it ‘deeply disappointing that the reform has stopped short of removing the unjustifiable barrier on a Catholic becoming Monarch’. He said it was ‘a missed opportunity not to ensure equality of all faiths when it comes to the issue of who can be head of state.’ He added: "It surely would have been possible to find a mechanism which would have protected the status of the Church of England without keeping in place an unjustifiable barrier on the grounds of religion in terms of the monarchy."
Actually, no, it wouldn’t. It is no more unreasonable to expect that the Supreme Governor of the Church of England should not be Roman Catholic than that the Pope should not be Protestant. Of course it is ‘unfair’ and ‘discriminatory’ that the Monarch may not be or marry a Roman Catholic, but the very act of choosing a religion manifestly necessitates discrimination against all the others. It is also ‘discriminatory’ that the Pope may not be Anglican, and even more ‘unfair’ that he may not marry at all (not to mention that he is always a ‘he’). But there are sound theological and historical justifications for the restrictions upon both the King of the Vatican and the Queen of the United Kingdom, and none of these amount to a violation of their ‘human rights’. The firstborn of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge would always have been perfectly free to marry a Roman Catholic should he or she have so desired: that would have been his or her human right. But the firstborn would not then have been free to be Monarch and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. But to be King and Supreme Governor is not a human right.
The Prime Minister expounds his profound beliefs: "The idea that a younger son should become monarch instead of an elder daughter simply because he is a man, or that a future monarch can marry someone of any faith except a Catholic – this way of thinking is at odds with the modern countries that we have become."
This way of thinking?
If the Prime Minister actually bothered to think about the anachronistic tensions inherent in the very institution of monarchy, he would instantly profess democratic republicanism. Divine assent? Anointing with oil? The lively oracles of God? Oaths sworn on pain of preternatural wrath? Are these things not also ‘at odds’ with modernity? And if he dared to consider the last vestiges of patriarchy, he would insist that his own children took the maiden name of his wife, and that she remained a Sheffield after their marriage, for is not taking the man’s surname ‘at odds’ with an aggressive assertion of gender equality? The British Monarchy does not only discriminate against women and Roman Catholics: it discriminates against every man, woman and child who is not a member of it. Monarchy is antithetical to ‘equality’. If you wish it to conform to the European Convention on Human Rights, you abolish it.
The Prime Minister further clarified his ignorance. He said: "Let me be clear, the Monarch must be in communion with the Church of England because he or she is the head of that Church. But it is simply wrong they should be denied the chance to marry a Catholic if they wish to do so. After all, they are already quite free to marry someone of any other faith."
Firstly, a quibble. The Monarch is not the Head of the Church of England: he or she is merely the Supreme Governor; Jesus is the Head. But it is quite wrong to state that the Monarch is free to marry someone of any other faith. The Act of Settlement requires the Monarch and his or her consort to be ‘in communion with’ the Church of England. Whilst it would be possible to write more than a few pages on the meaning of koinonia in this context, it must be noted that it is not only Roman Catholics who are prohibited from taking bread and wine in Anglican churches: communion would be problematic (not to say prohibited) to Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. The Roman Catholic Bishop of Motherwell Joseph Devine talks of the Monarch being 'free to marry a Scientologist, Muslim, Buddhist, Moonie or even Satanist but not a Catholic', but this is utter nonsense. The adherents of many faiths are barred from being ‘in communion with’ the state Church, not just Roman Catholics.
And let us remember that it is the Roman Catholic Church which prohibits the communion: a Roman Catholic monarch or spouse would not be barred by the Church of England. So when, at some point in the future, we have a firstborn Anglican queen married to a Roman Catholic consort, while she goes to Westminster Abbey for the Eucharistic symbols, he’ll need to go to Westminster Cathedral to get the transubstantiated real thing. Their children will be caught somewhere in between: while they are carnally at the Abbey with mummy, they will be spiritually in the Cathedral with daddy.
Surprisingly, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, said the elimination of the ‘unjust discrimination’ against Roman Catholics would be widely welcomed. He added: “At the same time I fully recognise the importance of the position of the Established Church in protecting and fostering the role of faith in our society today." As Labour’s Chris Bryant observed, ++Vincent ‘clearly has no understanding of the law on succession’. Mr Bryant’s grasp of the Constitution is better than that of both the Prime Minister and the Archbishop of Westminster.
Roman Catholics are divided on this reform. There are those who, like Cardinal Keith O’Brien, hope the Cameron reform will ultimately lead to the repeal of the Act of Settlement. Responsible Roman Catholics like Ann Widdecombe recognise the true agenda here of the promotion of feminism and the disestablishment of the Church of England. A few years ago, she observed: “If we get rid of the provision that the Heir to the Throne and the Monarch can’t marry a Catholic, we will undermine the link between the Monarchy and the Church of England which will threaten the establishment of the Church taking with it our last figleaf that we are a Christian country.” The Catholic Herald, while lauding Oliver Cromwell as ‘a man of principle, deep faith, and immense vision’, takes the view that David Cameron is the ‘heir to Blair’, addicted to ‘constitutional tinkering’ for nothing other than ‘short term political gain’. Fr Alexander Lucie-Smith opines:
But I do not think the consequences of this action have been considered. Had the patriots of 1715 or 1745 been successful, we would have had a Catholic monarchy, perhaps. Cameron’s reforms will give us a monarchy that is Anglican purely by default, but which might in future generations be Catholic, Hindu or Baptist; but which will most likely be none of the above. In other words, by removing the religious qualification, Cameron is effectively opening the monarchy up to secularisation. And why? Because he wants to abolish the last legal disqualification under which Catholic suffer? There is no evidence of that. Rather it seems to be a largely meaningless piece of political posturing, a desire to look ‘modern’. But this is one piece of political vanity for which future generations may pay a high price.And that ‘high price’ will be the ultimate disestablishment of the Church of England and the establishment of a secular state. And, when it comes, the mechanism by which it is achieved will be traceable to David Cameron’s 2011 decision to amend the Act of Settlement. Consider, 50 years from now, the ensuing constitutional crisis as the Heir to the Throne is forced to choose between being a faithful Roman Catholic or being crowned King or Queen of the United Kingdom. And worse, this poor individual would be forced to make such a choice while in the profoundest depths of grief at the loss of a mother or father. How could the Government and Parliament of the day be so callous and insensitive as to demand that their Sovereign abandon God and reject the Holy Mother Church at such a moment of great need? In that situation there would be considerable pressure to disestablish the Church of England. And it would all need to be rushed through Parliament in time for the Coronation.
Tha Act of Settlement is formally entitled ‘An Act for the further Limitation of the Crown and better securing the Rights and Liberties of the Subject’. It is because the Crown has historically been limited that our rights and liberties have been preserved. The Act was forged during an era of intolerable foreign interference in the governance of England. Like Magna Carta, it is a foundational treaty between the Monarch and his/her subjects which defines our liberties and asserts our sovereign independence from all foreign princes and potentates. And its provisions are ‘for ever’: our forebears made sure it was watertight.
But David Cameron chips away at this Act as though it were no different from any other. And by so doing, he weakens the contract between the Monarchy and the people, because once the Monarch is Roman Catholic or married to one, 'in all and every such case and cases the people of these realms shall be and are thereby absolved of their allegiance'. Parliament cannot demand a fealty which the Constitution nullifies. The Prime Minister appears to be oblivious to the fact that the Oath of Allegiance is contingent upon the provisions in the Act of Settlement, and so he picks away at a delicate thread by which the whole gilded fabric of the carefully-woven tapestry will unravel, including the establishment of the Church of England.
To quote the words of Hugh Gaitskell at the 1962 Labour Party Conference, as he warned of the inevitability of surrendered sovereignty should the UK become a member of the EEC: "You may say ‘let it end’ but, my goodness, it is a decision that needs a little care and thought.”
Sadly, the Prime Minister doesn’t have much time for ‘care and thought’. He is a thoroughly postmodern politician, not given to the discipline of contemplation demanded by history, theology or philosophy. His priority concern is economic politics, or political economics. Everything else is peripheral and expendable.
The irony is that there are very few Roman Catholics who find any disquiet in the residual anti-Catholicism of the Act of Settlement. The overwhelming majority are far more concerned about the closure of their adoption agencies and attacks upon their schools and their teaching on abortion, contraception, fornication, fidelity, divorce or homosexuality. The wise ones recognise that disestablishing the Church of England would be a further step in the de-Christianisation of Britain. As Gerald Warner prophetically observed back in 2009:
No religious or constitutional change can be entrusted to Labour. Nor can it be entrusted to the "modernised" Tories: if a Cameron administration addressed the Act of Settlement we may be sure it would indulge in trendy feminist abolition of male primogeniture, compromising the title of future monarchs in the same anti-traditional style as the 1688 Whigs.The Act of Settlement may be anti-Catholic, but our whole political discourse has become profoundly anti-Christian. We must look beneath the surface, discern the true agenda, and unite to contend for the Faith.