Prince Phillip, the Duke of Edinburgh, age 96, is no longer carrying out public engagements after 64 years of public service. The reign of his 91-year old wife, Queen Elizabeth II, will likely end soon, preferably by her stepping down, to be replaced by her eldest son and heir, taking on the title of King Charles III, although he’s allowed to choose another name if he wished.
The Queen is a remarkable woman who will be missed by most British citizens who are also attached to the idea of a monarchy and want it to continue. However, most of them would prefer that any new monarch have no official role in religious affairs. The reality is that more than 53 per cent of the British public now describe themselves as having “no religion”, up from 48 per cent in 2015, and 31 per cent in 1983.
They support retaining their monarch as the designated head of state, but not as the supreme governor of the Church of England, a religious institution that is becoming less acceptable to a more diverse population; while incredibly, twenty-six Church of England bishops sit in the House of Lords, and get to vote on earthly matters.
Another survey indicated that the share of Britons who associate themselves with the Anglican Church of England has plunged from 40 per cent in 1983 to 15 per cent last year. And young people are particularly underrepresented. Just 3% of those aged 18-24 described themselves as Anglican, compared to 40 per cent of those aged 75 and over. This is the same demographic divide between young and old that brought about the Brexit-vote misadventure.
To complicate matters further, the coronation ceremony, hosted by the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury in Westminster Cathedral, has the monarch swearing to be the "Defender of the Faith”, but pledging allegiance to the Protestant faith alone, implying that those not of that religion are less than full citizens. Given the growing ethnic and religious mix in the country this is an increasingly troubling anomaly.
The long history behind this situation began around five hundred year ago during the reign of King Henry VIII. Catherine of Aragon, the first of his six wives, was unable to deliver him a male heir after seven pregnancies that produced just a single female child. Such high infant mortality rates were not unusual at that time, with non-existent pre-natal care and inadequate hygiene practices.
Nevertheless, Henry attempted to have his marriage to Catherine annulled by the Pope, but he was denied. This led Henry to famously break from Rome in 1534 to start his own church, the Protestant Church of England, and to appoint himself as its supreme head, while seizing the Catholic church's considerable property and financial assets in England.
He subsequently married Anne Boleyn, but she also failed in the main task of producing a male heir and was later beheaded for trumped-up dalliances and treasonous acts against Henry, leaving him free to marry again.
As a final irony, Ann Boleyn had in fact given birth to an eventual heir for Henry, but not a male one. It was Britain’s first Queen Elizabeth, another memorable leader.
Although Britain has since developed into a broad multicultural and multi-faith society, with increasing numbers of Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Buddhists, not to mention the longstanding Jewish community, the way the country has been governed has remained pretty much the same since the historic break-up with Rome.
Nick Clegg, a recent U.K. Deputy Prime Minister was very clear in saying: "I think it would be better for the Church, and better for people of faith, and better for Anglicans if the Church and the state were, over time, to stand on their own two separate feet."
However, the current view is that not much will be different under a new ruler. The changes required are seen to be too politically sensitive and dramatic in scope, and would take decades to implement.
So, God will still save the King, and at least one more coronation will take place in that Protestant cathedral with pledges made to protect a dwindling minority of British citizens. Perhaps by the time Prince William takes the throne the country will be ready to make the sought-after changes.
Alan Walter is a retired professional engineer living in Oxford. He was born in Wales and
worked in Halifax. He spends much of his time in Oxford, where he operates a small farm. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.