A Protestant monarchy?
The British monarchy has had much to celebrate over the last year — a royal wedding in 2011, swiftly followed by a diamond jubilee in 2012.
There has been a surge of popular support for the royal family, riding high again after the crises of the 1990s.
The gift of bonus bank holidays always helps to lighten the national mood; allied with street parties, flag-waving and British pageantry at its best.
The prospect that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge may soon start a family of their own has led to sudden proposals for changes to our national constitution.
On 28 October 2011 at a meeting in Perth, these changes were agreed by the prime ministers of the 16 Commonwealth realms who acknowledge the British sovereign as their head of state — including Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United Kingdom.
The rules of succession are to be revised to allow elder daughters to inherit the crown before younger sons. And the ban on the monarch marrying a Roman Catholic is to be rescinded. Both are widely viewed as outdated forms of discrimination.
Both these changes have a rationale. As David Cameron put it: ‘If the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge were to have a little girl, that girl would one day be our queen’. Other European monarchies, such as Sweden, the Netherlands, Norway and Belgium, changed their rules of succession decades ago to bring gender equality.
The ban on the monarch marrying a Catholic goes back to the 1680s, but it is unusually specific and does not prevent the monarch from marrying a Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i or Druid.
The difficulty is that under the Church of Rome’s canon law, the children of Catholics must be raised as Catholics (though papal dispensation is possible, so the issue is not necessarily insurmountable).
Nevertheless, when the Government begins to tinker with parts of the British constitution, to erase illogicalities or inequalities, other deeper questions raise their heads. Because our ancient laws are interwoven, when some are revised others also come under the spotlight.
For example, republicans have been quick to ask why our head of state must be from one particular family, the House of Windsor. For them, the question is not whether our monarch should be a boy or a girl, but whether we should have a monarch at all.
Likewise, secularists are now campaigning for all the monarch’s religious qualifications to be abolished. If the king can marry a Catholic, then why should the king not be a Catholic himself?
In his notorious television interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994, Prince Charles announced he would prefer to be known as ‘defender of faith’ rather than ‘Defender of the Faith’. He has also privately let it be known that he believes Catholics should be allowed to inherit the throne.
Yet as these issues are re-examined, it should be remembered that the Protestant Christian faith of the British monarch has been an established part of our constitution for over 300 years.
In the decades after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Britain’s Protestant identity was thrown into turmoil by the rules of Charles II and James II who alienated their subjects by promoting Catholicism.
The nation breathed a sigh of relief when James went into exile after the ‘Glorious Revolution’.
The Bill of Rights of 1689 stipulated that from henceforth every British monarch must be a Protestant Christian, and observed that ‘it hath been found by experience that it is inconsistent with the safety and welfare of this Protestant kingdom to be governed by a popish prince or by any king or queen marrying a papist’.
The 1701 Act of Settlement reiterated these religious qualifications and re-routed the line of succession away from the Catholic House of Stuart to the Protestant House of Hanover. The first Hanoverian king, George I, was thoroughly German but was nonetheless welcomed by most of his new subjects because of their common Christian faith.
The Act of Settlement is still on the statute book. Without it, the British crown would have passed to Bonnie Prince Charlie and his descendants.
Our current queen would not be Elizabeth II, but an Italian countess, Maria Ludovica Calvi di Bergolo. The heir to the throne would not be Prince Charles, but Uberto Omar Gasche (born 1951), a dog-breeder and artist in Rome. The next coronation in Westminster Abbey would be of King Uberto I.
The Bill of Rights required each new monarch to publicly profess his Protestant faith, either at his coronation or first parliament. The original oath was a public denial of transubstantiation, the adoration of the Virgin Mary, the invocation of saints, and the sacrifice of the mass, rejecting these Roman doctrines as ‘superstitious and idolatrous’.
Every Member of Parliament had to make the same oath until the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829. By the twentieth century this royal oath was seen as unnecessarily offensive to the king’s Catholic subjects, so it was revised by the Accession Declaration Act of 1910 in a more positive tone.
The oath now reads: ‘I do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify and declare that I am a faithful Protestant’.
HM Queen Elizabeth II made and signed this declaration from her throne in the House of Lords before both houses of Parliament in November 1952, seven months before her coronation.
The Act of Settlement also lays down that the monarch ‘shall join in communion with the Church of England, as by law established’. In other words, she must not only profess her Protestant faith, but also actively participate in Protestant worship.
For this reason, our Queen received holy communion from the Archbishop of Canterbury at her coronation in June 1953. Although this is not an obligatory part of the coronation service, it is public testimony to the fact that Christian profession and Christian worship go hand in hand.
The presentation of an English Bible to the new monarch has been an established custom since 1689. At her coronation, Queen Elizabeth II was given a copy of the Authorized Version with the words, ‘Our gracious queen: to keep your majesty ever mindful of the law and the gospel of God as the rule for the whole life and government of Christian princes, we present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is wisdom; this is the royal law; these are the lively oracles of God’.
Although the gift of the Bible is not laid down by statute, it is one of the most beautiful parts of the service, which is an explicitly Christian event from start to finish.
The coronation oath is, however, a legal obligation upon any British monarch, established by parliament in the Coronation Oath Act of 1689. There have been some minor revisions of the text over the years, but the thrust has remained the same for over three centuries.
At the coronation of Elizabeth II, the Archbishop asked the Queen a series of questions, including: ‘Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England?’
The young Queen replied: ‘All this I promise to do’.
In theory, this oath binds not only the Queen, but also her parliament, who enact laws on her behalf to uphold Protestant Christianity, as expressed in the historic Reformation formularies of the Church of England.
The coronation oath and the Protestant declaration, tied together in a complex legislative package including the Bill of Rights and the Act of Settlement, are part of our historic Christian constitution.
As we celebrate HM Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, and we begin to anticipate the future shape of the monarchy, this constitution is under fresh scrutiny.
Britain’s religious context has changed a great deal since 1952, and clamorous voices are now arguing that a Christian monarch is incompatible with a secular or pluralist state.
But a secular constitution, cut adrift from the moral compass of Holy Scripture, would be bad news for the United Kingdom. The coronation oath remains an important fixture in our national story. To jettison this part of our constitution in the name of progress would be a step in the wrong direction.
The oath reminds monarch, parliament and people of the blessings which ensue when we conform our laws to the Word of God, and is a public summons calling the people of Britain back to ‘the true profession of the gospel’.
The author is tutor in history and doctrine, and Latimer research fellow, at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.