Why shouldn’t there be a Catholic ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England?

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Has David Cameron really thought through his proposals for the reform of the various laws governing the Royal succession? It is curious how few of the secular newspapers seem have spotted the flaw in his proposal that the monarch or heir to the throne should be allowed to marry a Catholic, but that the monarch or heir to the throne may not himself or herself actually BE a Catholic: the obvious glitch in this scheme is that under canon law, the children would be have to be brought up as Catholics, so that presumably they would all automatically be removed from the line of succession, and some other heir to the throne would then have to be found in a collateral branch of the family: hardly an improvement on the present unjust and illogical situation.

The reason why the 1701 Act of Settlement is to be amended in this way rather than repealed, it seems, is that the C of E quietly explained the consequences, and objected to what was proposed. According to the Telegraph,

… the plan to abolish the Act of Settlement was quietly shelved after the Church [of England] raised significant objections centring on the British sovereign’s dual role as Supreme Governor.

Church leaders expressed concern that if a future heir to the throne married a Roman Catholic, their children would be required by canon law to be brought up in that faith.

This would result in the constitutionally problematic situation whereby the Supreme Governor of the Church of England was a Roman Catholic, and so ultimately answerable to a separate sovereign leader, the Pope, and the Vatican.

Well, there are two ways round this: firstly, that the Church of England should actually be disestablished. Why not? After all, if male primogeniture is “out of date” (dread words), the establishment by law of the Church of England certainly is. Many Catholics are opposed to the disestablishment of the C of E on the grounds that at least it constitutes a toehold for some kind of Christianity in our constitutional arrangements (prayers in the H of C etc); probably I am, too, but not for any good reason, mainly that I think that nearly all constitutional change turns out to be disastrous: not that there’s much of a constitution left, after Blair’s sustained assaults on it.

But the question of why the Church of England should not have a Roman Catholic “Supreme governor” (not a spiritual office but a temporal one) is not answered by saying that he or she would have to accept allegiance to “a separate sovereign leader”, the Pope. That reason is a nonsense. The pope’s status as a head of state is a courtesy which most nations are prepared to accord him. The fact is, however, that the United Nations does not, and the Vatican City State is not a full member of it. So there is no difficulty there: a Catholic British monarch would accept only the pope’s spiritual authority over himself: the Catholic King of Spain accepts it, but does not accept the temporal authority of the Vatican over the country of which he alone is head of state.

So there’s no difficulty there. But what about the illogicality of the Church of England accepting the temporal authority of a non-Anglican head of state. Well, why not? There’s nothing in law to prevent Prince Charles becoming a Muslim or a Buddhist and then becoming supreme governor of the church of England: so why not a Catholic?—at least he’d still be a Christian. And the fact is, there’s a rather interesting precedent: the same situation, but in reverse—a Catholic Church, established by law, under the British monarch as its supreme temporal governor and protector. British governors of Malta, on the king’s behalf, took over many of the functions of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta after the British, at the invitation of the Maltese (this was not a British conquest) assumed the secular rule of the tiny island state in 1800. In 1802, the Maltese issued a “Declaration of Rights”, article 6 of which reads as follows:

That His Majesty the King is the protector of our holy religion, and is bound to uphold and protect it as heretofore; and without any diminution of what has been practiced since these Islands have acknowledged His Majesty as their sovereign to this day; and that His Majesty’s representatives have a right to claim such church honours as have always been shown to the regents of these Islands.

The “regents” referred to here were the Knights of Malta; and the British governor now accordingly assumed the rights and responsibilities of the Grand Master, including the physical ownership of that splendid building which became St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, where a throne on the right of the sanctuary was established for the governor, with the British Royal Arms above it, opposite the bishop’s throne on the left. For a time, during the 19th century, the governor even exercised (with the Pope’s consent) the Grand Master’s rights of presentation to the Bishopric of Malta, and as one result all future bishops (then archbishops) of Malta were for the first time always Maltese citizens. Up until the very end of British rule, every year, on the Feast of Candlemas, every Parish Priest attended a ceremony in Valletta, where each one presented to the governor a lighted candle signifying his acceptance of the governor’s temporal power and of his protection of the Maltese Church. This protection was nearly always scrupulously exercised, and the Church’s privileges were upheld by successive governors: the Anglicans, for instance, were not allowed any grants by the British government to build their own church and it was only in 1844 that the first Protestant church, after the personal intervention of Queen Adelaide, widow of King William IV, was opened in Malta: Adelaide herself personally funded the construction of St. Paul’s Anglican Pro-Cathedral in Valletta, still one of the very few non-Catholic Churches in Malta.

If not exactly the same in all respects as the role of “supreme governor” of the Church of England, the British governor’s role as protector of the Maltese Catholic Church was surely similar enough to establish a precedent demonstrating very clearly that the temporal head of a Church does not have to be a religious adherent of it. My parents lived in Malta for the last 20 years of their lives, so I got to know it well. The British relationship with the devotedly Catholic Maltese was nearly always a happy one; and undoubtedly one of the reasons was our respectful protection of the Maltese Church. There is no reason to suppose that a British Catholic monarch would not do as well in this respect as British governors of Malta—as supreme governor of a Church of which he would not be a member. Would the C of E really prefer a Muslim?