Wedding (Alarm) Bells

  • Question from CM, United Kingdom

    Could you give me an input of your views on the theological implications of the recent marriage of Prince Charles and Camilla since the Church of England endorsed it?

    The theological implications of the latest British royal wedding relate mainly to Anglicans and the marriage causes difficulties for two reasons. Firstly, Prince Charles is the next in line to ascend the British throne and thus become the nominal head of the Anglican Church. Secondly, it has always been the position of the Anglican Church that divorced persons could not remarry in an Anglican church. Prince Charles and Camilla were both divorced and had admitted to being in an adulterous relationship.

    In many ways Prince Charles’ personal life remains his personal life, but questions have been asked about his suitability to lead the Anglican Church given his behaviour. In the blessing ceremony, both Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles participated in the traditional prayer of penitence from the Book of Common Prayer, which enjoins people to seek God’s forgiveness and renewal in the face of ‘manifold sins and wickedness’.

    The impact of the blessing will no doubt be felt through increased demands on Anglican leaders to soften the rules on divorce and remarriage. Theologically, divorce will probably always be a thorny subject. According to the synoptic gospels, Jesus explicitly stated that a man who married a divorced woman committed adultery with her (see Matthew chapter 5, verse 32 and chapter 19, verses 3-9, Mark chapter 10, verses 11-12 and Luke chapter 16, verse 18). The issue for a Christian wanting to proclaim Biblical teaching is how to mesh those statements with 21st century situations. The problem with divorce, as with many such highly personal subjects, is that life never seems to be clear-cut. Theological debates have to be conducted in a sensitive way, because people affected by divorce can have old wounds reopened by ‘objective’ discussions.

    Another impact of Prince Charles’ wedding will be the renewed vigour found among those who want to see the Church of England disestablished and no longer looking towards the British monarch as the head of the Anglican Church. In 2003 Against Establishment, a self-declared ‘Anglican polemic’ by Theo Hobson, predicted that if Prince Charles got married it would create a “constitutional conundrum” [Against Establishment, Darton, Longman and Todd, p.38]. Hobson is highly critical of the established church for failing to declare Prince Charles ineligible as head of the Church; failing to take a moral stance as it did in the cases of Edward VIII in 1936 and Princess Margaret in 1955. “This speaks volumes about the loss of the Church’s cultural authority… Now the assumption was that the Church would have to adapt itself to the lively love-life of royalty. Which it has duly done: its position on remarriage has conveniently softened over the last few years.” [op. cit. pp38-9]

    The disestablishment movement will no doubt gather apace given the reaction of many evangelicals to recent events. While divorce will stay on the debating agenda, the fact that the Church had to, in a sense, go against its own principles to accommodate the man who will one day head it has raised alarm bells. Prince Charles has also famously said that he wants to be ‘a defender of faith’, rather than ‘the defender of the faith’. It might seem a small exercise in verbal pedantry, but actually it has huge theological implications. If Prince Charles really means that he regards Anglicanism, and therefore Christianity, as just one faith option amongst many, then a large proportion of the Anglican Church would disagree with him. The ‘evangelical wing’ of Anglicanism represents the growing local congregations within the Church of England and evangelicalism is often characterised by an emphasis on the exclusive nature of Christianity. Personal morals aside, any theological tinkering by the ‘head of the Church’ will undoubtedly cause dissent.

    The challenge towards removing the British monarch as head of the Anglican Church may already be brewing. Interestingly, one of the people who lodged an objection against the wedding was Anglican priest Fr Paul Williamson from Feltham. He has since claimed that the Queen has broken her Coronation oath to uphold the doctrine of the Church of England by consenting to the wedding of two divorcees outside the Church.

    At this moment there is no way of knowing what the end result of the royal wedding will be. Any changes in the Anglican Church’s attitude to divorce will take many years to come into effect. The issue of disestablishment may be resolved sooner, even if that means it has to be formally rejected as a way forward by the General Synod.

    Thanks for your question, CM – it’s always good to have current affairs under theological scrutiny.

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