Britons Debate Monarchs' Role in Church and State

THE intertwining roles in British life played by the monarchy and the Church of England are coming under critical scrutiny following a series of recent royal scandals, including the breakdown of the marriage of Prince Charles, heir to the throne, and Princess Diana.

Leading clergymen are questioning the constitutional position of the Church of England and of the monarch as its "supreme governor." Members of Parliament of all political parties are asking whether Prince Charles will, or should, become king.

Buckingham Palace sources have signaled that, in an unprecedented move, Queen Elizabeth II has called for a report on the public image of the royal family and of what she is said to regard as a breakdown of trust between the sovereign and the people.

The queen's call for a study of her family's image follows a Dec. 13 Mori poll showing that only 37 percent of Britons think their country would be worse off if the monarchy was abolished. It is the first time the popularity figure has fallen below 50 percent.

Since the time of Henry VIII, who broke away from the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England has been part of the apparatus of state. The monarch is its spiritual head, and the prime minister chooses its bishops. At the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1952 the only non-Anglican among the officiating clergy was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland.

Senior clerics dispute whether Prince Charles - whose alleged extramarital affair with Camilla Parker Bowles, a member of the royal circle, has received huge publicity - could ever be accepted by British Anglicans as "defender of the faith" when he succeeds his mother to the throne.

John Habgood, archbishop of York and the country's second-ranking Anglican bishop, says he thinks that the coronation oath of the next monarchy should be changed. Instead of promising to uphold the Church of England, he said, the next sovereign should "take account of changes in the nation's religious makeup," including large numbers of Jews, Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists.

"If the coronation service is going to unite the nation as it should," Dr. Habgood said in an interview, "it must reflect the fact that we now live in an ecumenical, multi-faith society."

IN a Jan. 24 poll in the London Sunday Telegraph, 1 in 4 opposition Labour Party members of Parliament said they want Britain to become a republic. One-third of the parliamentarians said the monarchy should be reformed along the lines of those in Sweden and the Netherlands, where royalty is largely stripped of ceremony and retinues are small.

Sources close to Labor Party leader John Smith say he worries that the ruling Conservatives will use the survey results to label Labour the "republican party."

Peter Hennessy, a professor of contemporary history at London University, describes the current debate as a sign of "considerable ferment" among Britons. He rules out a republic as "unimaginable and unlikely," if only because it was "hard to see Parliament being prepared to pass the necessary legislation."

Centrists such as the Liberal Democrat Party also support reform of the monarchy. "I don't think we'll ever get a bicycling monarchy," he says, "but we could strip some of the pomp away and bring it closer to the reality of life in Britain."

Few parliamentarians of the ruling Conservative Party are prepared to offer direct criticism of the monarchy, but Phillip Oppenheim, a senior member of the House of Commons, has called for a parliamentary debate on the future of the royal family.

Dame Jill Knight, a prominent Conservative backbencher, says she is "inclined to understand the position" of those who say the royal family should "skip a generation" and put Charles's son, William, on the throne when Elizabeth ceases to be queen.

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