One of the provisions of this Act is that the monarch may neither marry, nor become, a Roman Catholic. In the spirit of anti-discrimination, the government is eager to remove this ban, apparently in the conviction that the personal beliefs of the monarch do not matter for the life of the nation any more than, say, the sex-lives of mayors do to their cities or of sports impresarios do to motor-racing.
In contrast to Vera Baird and her supporters, then, it might be argued that the Act should be retained, at least on the grounds that it takes belief seriously in a way that they evidently do not. At the same time, however, (and here is where the misunderstanding comes into play) it is no argument against abolition to point out, as some have, that the Queen is the ‘head’ or ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England.
The relationship of the monarch to the Anglican Church is enshrined in another ancient law: the Act of Supremacy of 1534. Before the government leaps to abolish this Act as well, however, it should be pointed out that it does not itself claim to change anything. Rather, it asserts that the King always has been king of everything, including the Church. (Its target is actually the Pope, who had ‘usurped’ this authority over the Church.)
Our present Queen, then, is not Supreme Governor of the Church of England because she has a special relationship with that denomination, but because she is the Queen. This is clear if one reads the Church of England’s own Articles of Religion. The monarch is given “that only prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal” (Article 37)
The important word here is “all” — the Anglican understanding of the rôle of the monarch, which formed the basis of subsequent laws, is that the monarch governs “all estates and degrees committed to their charge”. The Queen is therefore Supreme Governor of all our religious institutions (including, still, the Roman Catholic church) just as much as she is Supreme Governor of all our other social institutions, simply by virtue of being Queen. To coin a phrase, “Not many people know that.”
The difference regarding the Church of England is that the Queen is entitled, by law, to organize its spiritual affairs directly. But that is a matter of legal establishment, which has nothing to do with her status as the Church’s ‘head’. And whilst the Church of England could be disestablished, the Queen would still remain its Supreme Governor. Nothing could change this except a restriction of the notion of sovereignty.
Of course, the thoughtful will notice that being Supreme Governor of the Church of England actually has nothing to do with personal belief. Indeed, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, who was the theological architect of all this, admitted at his trial that in his own day Nero was the church’s ‘head’, as evidenced by his beheading the Apostles — a point in Vera Baird’s favour which brings us back to the question of succession. But at least we can discuss that in the light of what the constitutional position is, not what it isn’t.
Revd John P Richardson
23 April 2008
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