PRINCE Charles, heir to the British throne, has indicated that as king he might not wish to be head of the Church of England.
But his reluctance to assume leadership of the ``established'' (official) church has attracted severe criticism from senior Anglican bishops, who say that the prince has a duty to continue in the role.
Charles's misgivings about perpetuating Queen Elizabeth II's function as church leader were voiced in a TV program that he appeared on to try to rehabilitate his image in the eyes of his people following the breakdown of his marriage to Diana, princess of Wales, in 1992.
Under close questioning, he said he would rather be seen as ``Defender of Faith'' than as ``Defender of The Faith,'' the words officially used to define his religious responsibilities. Charles said the official usage ``means just one particular interpretation of the faith.... People have fought each other to death over these things, which seems to me a peculiar waste of people's energy when we are all actually aiming for the same ultimate goal,'' he said, adding that faith was ``so much under threat these days.''
His remarks, however, drew a sharp rejoinder from John Habgood, the Archbishop of York, the second most senior Anglican official. Dr. Habgood said loosening the links between church and state might ``cause the British Constitution to unravel'' and ``jeopardize the monarchy itself.'' A spokeswoman for George Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the country's top-ranking bishop, said he shared fears that amending the 300-year-old coronation oath could be dangerous.
Views others' faiths as equal
Sources close to Prime Minister John Major said he too was concerned lest the historical ties between church and state be weakened. What appears to have heightened alarm over the prince's remarks was his suggestion that, as king, he would be happier adopting a multifaith leadership role.
In the TV interview he said he regarded Roman Catholic, Muslim, Zoroastrian, and all other classes of citizens as of ``equal importance to Protestants.''
Some 85 percent of Britain's 55 million population professes to be Christian. Anglicans account for about half the total, but fewer than 1 million attend church regularly. Roman Catholics account for 13 percent of the Christian community. Many of Britain's non-white population of around 2 million belong to non-Christian religions. Most of these are Muslim, but there are also significant Jewish, Hindu, and Sikh communities.
Under the Coronation Oath Act of 1688, the monarch promises to maintain ``the Protestant reformed religion established by law.'' A subsequent law, passed in 1910, requires the monarch to ``profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant.'' The monarch's title as ``Defender of the Faith'' was bestowed on Henry VIII by the Pope. Ten years later, he broke from Rome and established the Church of England with himself as its head.
Adultery less controversial
The special TV program in which Charles made his controversial comments coincided with the 25th anniversary of his installation as prince of Wales. In it, he admitted that he had been unfaithful to Diana, his estranged wife, after their marriage had broken down. But this admission stirred much less controversy than his comments about the religious role of the monarch. A series of subsequent polls showed 3 out of 4 people ready to declare that he was fit to be king, despite his admitted adultery.
His comments on the relationship between church and state, however, look like the first salvo in what promises to be a lively and lengthy debate. The Church of England is a great deal more than a religious community. Its real-estate assets are estimated at $3.1 billion and are administered by the Church Estates Commission on which senior political figures are represented. Much of the property was expropriated by Henry VIII at the time of the English Reformation. Any decision to separate the two would likely prompt the Catholic Church to claim its property back.
Habgood has warned that changing the coronation oath would require a special act of Parliament. Anglican officials say an amending bill might be hijacked by antiroyalists in the House of Commons.
In the media, Charles's doubts about his religious role appear to have struck a sympathetic note. The London Times said his argument was powerful. ``The religious aura of the Crown is no longer an essential part of its appeal and arguably hinders it from modernizing its role as an institutional symbol of nationhood,'' the paper states.
But leading Protestants have expressed alarm and anger at what the prince had to say. David Bryce, grand secretary of the Grand Orange Lodge of Scotland, said: ``There is no place for Charles imposing his woolly religious beliefs or disbeliefs on the United Kingdom.''