Monday, April 18, 2005

The Pope, the Prince and the Premier

When the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles was rescheduled for the day after the pope's funeral, I didn't think much of it, except to recall that I heard earlier that Monday that the wedding would proceed as planned. I wondered at the time what caused the royal family to reconsider and reschedule.

Some of the British press are suggesting that the reason for the change was because Tony Blair decided he was going to the funeral. Some of the press are not pleased about this, as can be seen in this article from the Guardian by Martin Kettle entitled It's as if the Reformation had Never Happened;

The funeral of a pope, let us be clear, has never until now been the sort of event deemed to require the attendance of the British prime minister - or even of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The late Lord Callaghan, who was premier when the previous two Popes died in quick succession in 1978, attended neither of their funerals. Nor did anyone at the time think it remarkable that he chose not to go. The more so when not even Dr Donald Coggan, Cantuar of that time, saw it as an essential duty to attend the funeral of John Paul I either.

This time, as yesterday's extraordinary flurry of hasty rearrangements showed, the assumptions could not be more different. No British prime minister, as far as I know, has ever attended a papal funeral, but Tony Blair will have been absolutely determined to be in St Peter's on Friday. Even more striking was the similar instinct in Lambeth Palace, where Dr Rowan Williams was yesterday reported to believe that, offered a choice between officiating at the royal wedding in Windsor or attending the papal requiem in Rome, Rome would win every time... is hard not to catch one's breath at the rupture with national history that all this represents. Ours is still, after all, legally established as a Protestant nation. Until very recently the mere idea that a prime minister or the head of the Anglican church might have any kind of dialogue with Rome - never mind rearrange the next Protestant king's wedding to suit the cardinals in Rome - would have been regarded as close to treason. Catholicism, in its time, was as anathema to the British state as communism was in a later era. Five centuries ago we broke with Rome so that a king could remarry. Today our re-embrace of Rome means that a future king's remarriage has to be postponed...
In the Telegraph, Peter Osborne claims that Blair betrays the Crown as well as the country;

...Nothing, however, so completely displays Tony Blair's contempt for his constitutional role as the circumstances surrounding yesterday's wedding between the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles. The events which took place last Monday as news came through that the Pope's funeral was to be held on Friday and would clash with the wedding, were so extraordinary that they can only be understood as signaling some kind of punctuation mark in British history...

...Partly this is a question of manners. The formal invitation to the royal wedding had arrived several months before, and been carefully RSVP'd. And yet the Prime Minister and his wife were ready to ditch the invitation without prior notice or proper consultation.

Still more curious was Tony Blair's immediate determination to go to Rome. No prime minister has ever attended a papal funeral before, and with good reason. Britain is not a Roman Catholic country - though admittedly anyone who has read the British newspapers over the past few days might be forgiven for supposing that it was. The papacy stands for autocratic and hierarchical principles and attachments to ancient dogmas that are alien to the British state...
I think it would safe to assume that Mr. Osborne does not care for the Prime Minister. I'm afraid I have to disagree with him on one point. In light of the celebrity status surrounding Pope John Paul II, and the fact that so many other heads of state would be present, it would have an unnecessary expression of poor manners if Prince Charles and Tony Blair had not been present in Rome.

Osborne assumes that Blair's insistence on attending the funeral was politically motivated. There are other theories, however, such as the one put forward by Damian Thompson; Revealed: Tony Blair's Catholic Secret.

The discussion in the British press leads to a consideration of loosening the constitutional establishment of the Church of England. Martin Kettle concluded his comments with this suggestion;

...As this week shows, our constitutional relationships are currently in a rare muddle. We are reduced to picking and mixing among the elements of the inherited constitutional settlement, rather than honouring and celebrating it as a whole with indiscriminate confidence, as we should. We improvise inconsistently. This week our established leaders will do honour to Catholicism on Friday, then perpetuate Catholicism's subordination on Saturday.

As a result we have an Act of Settlement which simultaneously contains provisions which are inspiring - such as the independence of the judiciary - and others which are absurd - like the bans on Catholic monarchs or consorts. If there is one over-arching lesson for Britain from the swirling political, religious and constitutional issues of the moment it is surely that we need a new Act of Settlement, one which defines the proper spheres and relationships of the crown, the government, the parliament, the judiciary, the component peoples and their faiths in 21st- rather than 18th-century terms...
A recent editorial in the Telegraph expresses similar sentiments;

...The really extraordinary thing about the present constitutional establishment of the Church of England is not its absurdity, but that nobody really believes in it any longer. The tight links between parliament and the church's general synod seem to both sides a mysterious encumbrance. Parliament is not Christian. There is no reason for it to be able to veto the synod's legislation, as it presently can, and no reason why the Church of England should regulate its own affairs by legislation, as it presently must. If the church were no longer established, then those ties would quietly become otiose. Neither the Queen nor Tony Blair would have a role in appointments. Nor is it clear why bishops should sit in the House of Lords. Breaking those constitutional links, which is what it usually meant by disestablishment, is a simple, sensible reform...
What I found most interesting about all of this is that while here in the States some of us are getting nervous about the current blending of faith and government to the point of seeing theocrats in every corner, the British are discussing loosening those same ties. It might be worthwhile to listen in on this discussion. We may hear some rational arguments for keeping Church and State separate that may be better received than the polarized rhetoric so popular today.


No comments:

Post a Comment