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Austen IvereighApril 28, 2011

Because I live only 15 minutes' walk from Westminster Abbey, where tomorrow (in case you missed this) Prince William is to marry Catherine Middleton, and not much further from Buckingham Palace, where after the service they will appear on the balcony to kiss, it has been pretty hard to avoid the hubbub. Across from the Palace is a new green "media city" where the kiss will be relayed live to the watching globe, while at the Abbey people are already camping (with their dogs and flags) in the hope of getting a glimpse of the royal couple.

The streets in my part of town, close to Victoria Station, are already festooned with bunting -- little Union flags fluttering from lamp-posts  -- and I know of at least two street parties close by. You can buy Kate and Wills cup cakes at the local bakery, and the usual appalling tea-towels. We're getting ready to party.

I have no connection with this family. I am not invited to the wedding. Yet I feel as if I have, and am. The feast of romantic pageantry which begins tomorrow morning with the Abbey's solemn processions and its gorgeous choirs has a way of conquering the scoffers and the scorners, the rationalists and the republicans; like religion, royalty is at once nonsensical and magnificent. At the heart of tomorrow's ceremony is a winning combination of elements which film-makers strive after: on the one hand, what is totally "other" -- a dreamy, fairy-tale setting: the marriage of a prince, the making of a princess -- with what, on the other, is universal and human: boy meets girl; they fall in love; they marry.

And as some bishops have already been pointing out, what happens tomorrow is a great tribute to the institution of marriage -- the union of a man and a woman for the purpose of creating and rearing children. There are many "alternatives" to that model around us -- same-sex unions, single parents, divorced couples -- and advocates of equality would want us to be believe they are all equally valid. But they aren't. History, research and experience all point to a stable, loving marriage between a man and a woman as the best possible environment for a child -- measured by almost any outcome. 

The same is true of a nation. The nation-state may be a fragile entity these days but nations remain the entities best able to elicit an affectionate sense of belonging. I consider myself European first, but English too; and I will take pride in the Englishness of tomorrow's music -- Jerusalem, Greensleeves; settings by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Britten; hymns by Wesley, Willliams, Blake -- and in the rhymns and language of the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible: "Send thy blessing upon these thy servants," the Archbishop of Canterbury will pray, "this man and this woman, whom we bless in thy name; that, living faithfully together, they may surely perform and keep the vow and covenant betwixt them made, whereof this ring given and received is a token and pledge; and may ever remain in perfect love and peace together, and live according to thy laws; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen." (Download the service booklet, which includes the photo below by Mario Testino, here.)

Above all, tomorrow will be an Erastian moment, renewing the bonds between Church and state, reaffirming  -- in a church (Westminster Abbey) which, as a "royal peculiar", is not under the authority of the bishops of the Church of England but directly under the authority of its Supreme Governor, the Queen -- the constitutional canopy of Christianity which is so vital to both institutions.

The ghost at tomorrow's banquet, indeed, is that, for all each has sought to blend itself with the age, both the Church of England and the monarchy are deeply rooted in an historical moment when the British nation was born -- a Protestant island besieged. And they continue to be defined by that moment, and to need each other to be so defined.  

The moment is frozen in the laws. The Act of Settlement of 1701 stipulates -- by means of parliamentary statute -- the conditions under which the succession to the throne can take place. It is not a matter merely of heredity and blood and the order of birth. For one, a male offspring leapfrogs a female one, so that Kate and Wills's second-born son will succeed to the throne before his elder sister. And, of course, a Roman Catholic is specifically excluded from succession; royal family members who marry a Catholic must give up their right to the throne. The Sovereign must, in addition, be in communion with the Church of England and must swear, first, to preserve the established Church of England and the established Church of Scotland and, second, to uphold the Protestant succession.

The Act of Settlement and the Bill of Rights (1689) which preceded it were forged during an era when Britain felt deeply threatened by foreign interference -- especially from Catholic states. Many modern nations have been born at such moments. In this case, a foundational treaty was written, a contract between monarch and subjects which asserts Britain's independence from foreign powers, including, of course, that of the papacy. Protestantism and nationality come together. The 1701 Act's provisions are "for ever" binding: should Parliament ever allow a monarch to be or marry a Catholic, the contract between governor and governed is revoked: "in all and every such case and cases the people of these realms shall be and are thereby absolved of their allegiance".

Hence the nervousness and discomfort with which government and Church have responded to renewed calls for Parliament to abolish male primogeniture and the discrimination against Catholics. Both the prime minister (Anglican) and his deputy (atheist, married to a Catholic) have made clear they would be in favour of such reforms; yet, in the words of Nick Clegg's spokesman, "it is a complex and difficult matter that requires careful and thoughtful consideration". The prime minister recently suggested that, while he was personally in favour,  it would require separate legislation from each of the Commonwealth countries which would be cumbersome.

"This has been discussed before and everyone in the frontline of politics agrees that this does need to change and there are conversations ongoing," David Cameron told Sky News. "But it clearly does take some time, because the Queen is not just queen of the United Kingdom but of many other countries around the world and so changes have to be changes that all countries take on board and put in place and there are discussions with those countries ongoing ..."

And so on. You get the point. We think it's right to change it ... but we'd rather not. Or rather: we don't think we can.

Now watch the Church of England squirm. A spokesman told the Telegraph last weekend that although the Act of Succession appeared "anomalous" in the modern world, while the Church of England remained the established religion [my emphasis] the monarch and Supreme Governor could not owe a higher loyalty elsewhere. In other words, the old suspicion of Catholics -- are they loyal to Rome or home? -- still reigns.

The oddity of this statement is that surely any Christian -- and this is surely true of a Christian monarch as well as a bishop -- has his or her "higher loyalty elsewhere"? Having a foot at once in the eternal city and in the earthly one is precisely what Christian civilization rests upon. Indeed, it would be worrying if the state were the place of anyone's "higher loyalty" -- that way lurks totalitarianism.

The spokesman then shifts the problem onto the Catholic Church:

"The prohibition on those in the line of succession marrying Roman Catholics derives from an earlier age and inevitably looks anomalous, not least when there is no prohibition on marriage to those of other faiths or none. But if the prohibition were removed the difficulty would still remain that establishment requires the monarch to join in communion with the Church of England as its Supreme Governor and that is not something that a Roman Catholic would be able to do consistently with the current rules of that church.”

That, of course, is true. A Catholic king could hardly appoint bishops to the established Church. But look at what is assumed in the statement: that the King or Queen remains the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Established church, Protestant state: take away one thread, and the whole unravels. And that is why we cannot have a conversation, in modern Britain, about a church which is separate from the state, and a monarchy whose members are able to exercise freedom of religion.

Does this matter? On principle, yes: state-sponsored sectarianism is ugly, and as Catholics it's hard not to feel a little disenfranchised when, on days such as tomorrow, we realise the profound anti-Catholic bias on which our state is erected. But it's not just about how Catholics feel. It is surely unhealthy to have our politicians and church leaders confess they are powerless to address iniquities because of fear of what might lie beyond. And it creates a kind of schizophrenia in our politicians.

But in practice no, it doesn't matter a bit. Catholics are excluded from the Crown; but then, so is virtually everyone else. The Catholic bishops of England and Wales, knowing this, are "relaxed" about the Act of Settlement and prefer to pick other fights.

And so, in a very British fashion, we will all focus tomorrow on the good things that ancient instititions still bring us; and like the pupils at that very British educational institution Hogwarts, we'll tuck into our feast and pretend we can't see the ghosts.

And even if some of us are rude enough to mention them, it won't stop us toasting our Queen and the happiness of a young couple in love, and drinking to God and country  -- and singing Jerusalem till we're hoarse.

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david power
13 years ago
Great stuff Austen.
I have spent the last two summers in London for work and know your neck of the woods like the back of my hand.Pimlico?Eccleston Square?
Great area with some decent Pubs.
The Big Day?I ,like most Irish people, wish them all the best.They are a shot in the arm for people all over and they represent a turned page.
The Queen is due to come to Ireland and she will be greated with great respect.
You are right to be proud of your nation and tomorrow should spark off seeds of greater longing in all that tune in.

@Fr John ,

I reckon that even an Irishman could have written it too.We might lack balance but we are no slouches in the writing department :).   

mary margaret kujawa
13 years ago
whoa this is a great article explaining church of england staus combined with the needed good marriage balance today and a little hidden humor to sparkle. thank you so much for clearly writing this so even i a little child of god standing among you giants in journalism can be grateful for and understand. i learned a lot and enjoyed the easy flow style in my laymans words. bless you all, mary margaret kujawa"grottoflower"
Jim McCrea
13 years ago
I lived in England - London specifically - between 1966 and 1970.  I've been back many times and it's hard to recognize the old place!  I could accept almost anything except for the NFL store on Oxford Street!  Shame, shame, shame.
13 years ago
A beautiful and balanced article which only a Brit could have written. Thank you for it, Austen!

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