Thursday, 25 September 2008

A step in the right direction

The recent revelation, as reported in The Guardian, that the government is planning "the end of the Anglican crown," present the hope of important progress on three fronts. Proposals have been drawn up to revoke the rules, established in the 1688 Bill of Rights , the Act of Settlement 1701, and Act of Union in 1707, that prevent non-Anglicans from ascending the throne. Republicans, secularists, and equality campaigners all have reason to take note.

The most obvious potential development from such constitutional reform, which MPs want "passed quickly in a fourth term," is the most vital step towards making Britain a wholly secular state. The country´s laws are already largely secular in nature, largely providing equality for people of all faiths (or none), and the recent abolition of the archaic blasphemy laws has removed a cornerstone of Christian privilege within the UK´s legislature.

The change in the laws of succession, which bar the crown from anyone "who holds communion with the church of Rome or marries a Papist," presents the opportunity to take the final, necessary step towards secularisation: the annexation of the Church of England from the state. As long as the constitutional monarch remains nominal head of the Anglican communion, a secular state is out of reach almost by definition. But this would be an impossible tradition to uphold if the monarch has no obligation to follow the faith of the Church of England. thus, the annexation of the Church from the government is necessary if the proposed legislation - preferably run in tandem with the removal of the Bishops from de facto holding seats in the House of Lords - is to be enacted.

Republicans, too, can view this proposal with some optimism. Though reform of the line of succession isn´t an automatic precursor towards creating a republic, even if "proposals [that] also include limiting the powers of the privy council" hold such promise, it does raise the suggestion by challenging the long-held taboo against any reforms of the traditional role of the crown. Even now, it remains hard to engage in serious dialogue about the monarchy, especially as monarchists are fond of using "republicanism" as an accusation, on par with cries of "heresy" and "treason" in days of yore. The outrage, vocalised by the Tories, against Tony Blair´s "presidential style of leadership" - i.e. acting, reasonably, as though being elected gave him a greater democratic mandate than a hereditary monarch - and absurd scare stories about potential presidents in a British Republic reveal how much the discourse on the crown has to mature.

As well as removing the bar on non-Anglicans from ascending to the throne, the proposals include another reform that equality campaigners can welcome; the abolition of the doctrine of male primogeniture. At the moment, the first born male always takes precedence as heir, with females only able to succeed in the absence of suitable males. Even aside from the fact that such heredity is an unwelcome relic of the rigid class system of feudalism, the doctrine cements gender discrimination into the highest level of the state, and any change in the status quo is more than welcome.

There is still further to go, of course. eradicating the doctrine of primogeniture is necessary, but with it the ridiculous tradition that the wife of the heir to the throne must be a virgin must also go. The most recent casualty of this injustice being Diana Spencer, with whom Charles Windsor was forced to enter into a loveless marriage because his love for Camilla Parker-Bowles didn´t meet virginity requirements, whose subsequent mental (and, ultimately, physical) destruction is too well-documented to need repeating. Likewise, removing the obligation of the monarch to be an Anglican must incite a move towards secularisation of the constitution. And, of course, reform remains a long way from the abolition of a hierarchy that cannot bear the burden of proof to its legitimacy. Nevertheless, the proposed reforms are a welcome step forward.