Ohonce upon a time there was news that the heir to the throne may decline his “supreme governorship” of the Anglican Church is said to have caused an earthquake. The bishops would have cried while the theologians worried all night. Was the Reformation of 1534 of no use?
As it stands, rumors culled from the Daily Mail’s latest royal potboiler suggest that Prince William doesn’t worship much and found his father’s coronation service difficult. It’s hardly worth shrugging your shoulders. Maybe the prince is just a normal human being.
For anyone who takes the British monarchy with an ounce of seriousness, the coronation ritual was a shock. It presented the British head of state as serving God rather than the British people. The priests secretly sprinkled him with holy oil like a crusading king. There was no indication that King Charles embodied a democracy, rather an episcopal hierarchy.
Less than half the population of England and Wales now calls himself a Christian. Some 30 years ago, Charles first expressed concern about having to represent a multicultural and multifaith society by showing such dedication to a particular sect. He wanted to be a “defender of the faith” rather than “the” faith. This admirable ambition was little reflected in his coronation ceremony (although Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim representatives greeted him after the service).
Hereditary monarchy is a rather dubious concept because it is devoid of religious mumbo-jumbo. If the Prince of Wales wants his coronation to be at least passably modern – legitimized by public consent and acclamation – he should prepare and plan for it now. At the very least, he could place it in a secular venue such as Parliament at Westminster. It should be his prerogative.
Of course, none of this matters much. If the British people really appreciate this kind of medieval mysticism, who could complain? They seem to love it, as do the tourists. The answer has traditionally been that the monarchy needed to be built on firmer foundations, in case an unsuitable monarch arrived or a constitutional crisis ensued. From George III to Edward VIII to Princess Diana, the British crown has shown that it can survive such upheavals. But the idea that the monarch reigns only by the grace of God risks one day appearing absurd and unworthy. That the reign must also include supreme governorship over what is now a minority faith, the Church of England, is surely even more so.
What that means for a king is one thing. What this means for the Church is quite different. Its “establishment” – defended by the monarch under oath – gives it an extraordinary status. It is the only British institution to enjoy exclusive membership of Parliament through its 26 bishops. The Church has its own parliament, the General Synod, to which Westminster defers. His wealth, derived largely from properties granted to him by Norman and Tudor monarchs, is prodigious.
As the Anglican religion loses support, its role in national ceremonies must also diminish. The number of Church members as a proportion of the British population is in single digits and falling. It would be wise for the monarch and the Church to recognize this and accept disestablishment. Gladstone raised the possibility of a “separation” of church and state in 1885 and this issue returned periodically to public debate throughout the 20th century. The fact that the dissolution was never adopted is a measure of the (declining) importance of the Church.
The result is a struggling Church, saddled with a hierarchy of 108 bishops, a bureaucracy of 42 dioceses and thousands of medieval buildings, half of which are effectively redundant, but which it is responsible for maintaining. Only the great medieval cathedrals enjoyed any flourishing, aided by their importance as oases of cultural activity in much of provincial England.
What has become desperate is the fate of the parish churches. Once, they and their surrounding lands were centers of neighborhood activity and well-being. A former archbishop, George Carey, once compared them to the NHS, a kind of spiritual A&E service located in every village and town. No longer. Thousands of people now lie in the dark, empty and locked up, year after year, despite often occupying an important position at the center of their community.
The Church of England cannot begin to manage this tremendous heritage. Other European countries have handed over their historic buildings to local authorities – with fiscal powers – to care for and redevelop. We simply need to find new uses for English churches to breathe some life back into their communities, otherwise they will eventually go the way of medieval castles and become piles of stone. Perhaps by handing over the seals of his office as supreme governor, King William could transfer his churches to state supervision.