The talk of the wedding planned by the Prince of Wales and Camilla Parker Bowles seems mostly genial. For a while, royal communicants thought it would not come off; but they were wrong, it seems. After April 8, when the wedding…takes place (it would be provincial to say, after the wedding is “consummated”), the Prince of Wales will get on with his duties, married to Her Royal Highness, the Duchess of Cornwall.
But when he ascends the throne, he will be Defender of the Faith (“Fidei Defensor”) like his mother, the present queen. And indeed like every other monarch dating back to 1521, when the title was conferred by Pope Leo X on Henry VIII, in appreciation of the king’s rejection of Martin Luther’s schism. Little did the pope know what the Defender of the Faith would go on to do, but the honorific stayed on through the Protestantization of Great Britain. The full title of the British sovereign once spoke of Emperor of India. The time came, after the war, when decolonization set in. King George VI had to abandon India, but not the Faith.
There are temporal responsibilities, held formally by the crown. Prince Charles, like his mother, will be head of the Church of England. His prospective ascendancy has been troubling, because of the marital situation.
In brief, Charles was captivated, in 1970, by Camilla. On meeting him, she said, “My great- grandmother was your great-great-grandfather’s mistress.” But three years later she married Major Andrew Parker Bowles. They had children, but to make it clear that the close friendship survived, the son of that union was christened with Prince Charles serving as godfather. Parker Bowles even accepted the title (if you can bear it), of Silver Stick in Waiting to the Prince. Anybody who will do that for the prince will do anything, and indeed Major Parker Bowles was quickly cuckolded, without apparent objection, though he and Camilla eventually got divorced.
Meanwhile, Charles had married Diana, who was soon complaining about her husband’s double life. But she of course died in 1997, so that the decks were partly cleared. But Major Parker Bowles didn’t die, so that Camilla is a divorced woman with a living husband, and the rules here had been for a very long time rather firm. Kings could sleep around, but not marry divorcees, as the Edward VIII discovered, forfeiting his crown.
Now there lingers the problem of the auspices of the forthcoming marriage. Well, it will be a civil ceremony. Queen Elizabeth is not about to exercise her power to simply repeal the prohibition against marriage to a divorced person. But the surrounding benignity of the whole scene incorporates the Archbishop of Canterbury. He has to deny his premises to the couple, but he will have a special Christian service of “prayer and dedication” at St. George’s Chapel in Windsor. The two princelings have joined the chorus of wellwishers, issuing a joint statement. “We are both very happy for our father and Camilla and we wish them all the luck in the future.” That’s the kind of sendoff one might have expected if Charles and Camilla had had an entry in the British Derby.
But “luck” replaces other forms of equipoise, when princes take mistresses, mistresses shed families, queens dither in the matter of royal respectability, titles are contrived–Princess of Wales no, Duchess of Cornwall, okay–and life goes on.
Is it jerky to ask what article of faith is the crown in the business of defending? If the solemnity of marriage isn’t an article of faith, what is? Granted that British sovereigns have indulged in wayward romance. It is striking that Henry VIII declined this alternative to marital union. His way of doing it was simply to discard a wife (retire her, or execute her) and take on another wife. So that at least one could maintain that he defended the faith by having only one queen at a time.
The evanescence of practicing Christianity in Europe is in contrast to the huge enrollments in the faith in the Third World. If present trends continue, author Philip Jenkins calculates in his recent book, The Next Christendom, by 2025 there will be 633 million Christians in Africa, 640 million in South America, and 460 million in Asia. Whether faith in the Third World will flower in orthodoxy isn’t predictable, though we had a flavor of doctrinal contention in 1998 when, at the Lambeth Conference of the world’s Anglican bishops, the powerful bishop of Nigeria and other Third World bishops flatly refused to condone homosexual ordinations. That defiance was met by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, who explained that African Christianity had “moved out of animism into a very superstitious kind of Christianity,” warning against “irrational Pentecostal hysteria.” Yes, but how to explain the hysterical doctrines of Moses and Abraham and Christ?