IT IS hard to think of a matter of lower priority — at the beginning of Passiontide and amid an economic storm — than changing the Act of Settlement and the Royal Marriages Act. The prominence of this in the news last weekend seems to have been the work of the BBC, which had an opinion poll that it wanted to publicise. For the record: 89 per cent of the 1000 people questioned believed that male and female heirs should have equal rights to succeed to the throne; 81 per cent believed that an heir to the throne should be allowed to marry a Roman Catholic and still become monarch; and 76 per cent said that the monarchy should continue after the present Queen’s reign.
This testing of the waters was prompted by Dr Evan Harris’s Bill, talked out by the Government, and described by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, as not the “appropriate vehicle” for the changes it proposes; but the Prime Minister will broach the subject with Commonwealth leaders in November. The Conservatives agree on the need for consultation with other Commonwealth states. The Harris Bill itself would, if passed, not come into force until every Commonwealth country had been consulted. The Bill does not seek to alter the requirement that the monarch personally shall not be a Roman Catholic, although it provides that “no account shall be taken of gender” in determining the succession.
Dr Harris’s description of the ban on RC consorts as “offensive” was shrill: “antediluvian” was nearer the mark. The ban was perfectly reasonable after James II’s attempt to override the rule of law with arbitrary personal rule, and against the background of Jacobite intrigue. Although the occasion of his downfall sounds enlightened — his Declaration of Indulgence (religious toleration) — it should deceive no one about the danger that he presented. Whatever sympathy the religious views of the Non-Jurors may command, politically they were in the wrong.
It remains difficult for members of the Church of England to imagine a Roman Catholic as its Supreme Governor, for the simple reason that, while the Anglican estimation of Rome has been transformed since 1701, the same is not true to an equal degree of Rome’s estimation of Anglicans. This was not improved by the Vatican decrees of 1870 and the Bull of 1896, and, while modern ecumenical relations are encouraging, they stumble against this legacy as much as against more recent, Anglican innovations.
In 1910, remarkably, there was a change in parliamentary constraints on the Sovereign’s religious conscience. After complaint from, among others, Anglo-Catholics, the Accession Declaration was altered so that it no longer spoke in obnoxious terms of the invocation of saints, transubstantiation, and the sacrifice of the mass. King George V merely had to declare himself “a faithful Protestant”. A comparable gesture from Rome in relation to, for example, Anglican orders might help to open the way to more radical change than even Dr Harris has proposed.