A small step into the modern world as Prime Ministers of the sixteen countries where the British monarch is Head of State have agreed in principle that a first born girl can succeed to the throne, even if a brother arrives later. This is good news for future princesses and now they can even marry a Roman Catholic…
The House of Commons Political & Constitutional Reform Committee, of which I am a member, will now discuss the detailed changes that will be needed to various laws, mainly from the 18th century. Behind the scenes discussions have been going on since the general election, with the Coalition Government’s sweeping programme of constitutional change unlikely to leave the future status of the monarch untouched.
But I don’t think the changes go far enough. I certainly welcome them as statements in principle of gender and religious equality. But one big fat anomaly remains off limits for reform, the status of the Queen and her successors as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
As a Welshman brought up as a nonconformist (I went to Moriah English Baptist Church in Abercynon) I don’t have any sentimental attachment to the Church of England. But as an elected politician in Bristol since 1993 I have attended many official ceremonies at Bristol Cathedral and think the Church does a good job of giving solemn setting or emotional uplift to an occasion. But it can maintain this traditional place without having the Monarch of the United Kingdom as Head of the Church in just one part of the state. The Queen does not preside over the Church in Wales, the Church of Ireland or the Church of Scotland. She is no less a Queen in her three Celtic realms and the Reformation separation from Rome does not appear to be under threat.
Apart from the symbolism this matters for two reasons in modern Britain. The British are now a people of many faiths and most of us have no active adherence to any religion. For our Head of State to be the titular head of one denomination of one faith in one part of the country seems to me absurd. Secondly, the Coalition wants to reform the House of Lords. You can read my views on that topic elsewhere on this blog. But as a bare minimum we must get rid of the bishops.
So if we’re going to reform the Monarchy and the House of Lords then surely now is the time to also disestablish the Church of England.
Postscript – addition to original article on 30th October 2011:
The Monarch is of course also the head of the peerage. So logically a female heir should also be able to succeed to a title and the property that goes with it. I assume this would require more legal change, but only in the UK. As there are now only 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords (and hopefully this will be zero before 2015) this would have limited political effect. But it would still be an important symbolic change and for those who mix with the county set (not me!) then it would upset the social order of things. So in terms of the big estates near to Bristol we could have a Duchess of Beaufort (why isn’t Badminton ever open to the public??), a Marchioness of Bath presiding at Longleat and a Countess of Carnarvon at Highclere…and on that latter great estate, this would rather undermine the plot of Downton Abbey!