Two questions regarding the British Monarchy and divorce

#1: I understand that the monarch is the titular head of the Anglican Church. I was wondering, however, if, at the monarch’s request, the Church could be reformed to “spin off” the office of “Head of the Chruch” (or Defender of the Faith, or whatever the official title is) to the Archbishop of Canterbury or some other Chruch official. The idea is that the monarch would still be the Head of State, but no longer the head of the church.

The reason for this question is in finding a way for the monarch to marry a divorcee. If the monarch is no longer the head of the church, then there should be no problem, no?

#2: I may be assuming some facts here, and if so, please forgive me. IIRC, the Anglican Church got it’s start when a king (Henry VIII?) wanted to get rid of his wife, but the Pope refused to allow it. So, he formed the Anglican Church and divorced his wife. If so, then since the church got it’s very start from the act of seeking a divorce, why is it so wrong that the monarch marry a divorcee? Why was this a problem for Edward and why could it be a potential problem for Charles?

Again, if my assumptions or memory are wrong regarding the foundation of the Anglican Church, please forgive me and provide the correct information.

Zev Steinhardt

According to this site, the Anglican Church has apparently been in existence since the sixth century, and that the present form owes itself to the final split away from the Roman Church in the 16th century, first under Henery VIII and then formally under Elizabeth I. As the article states, there were other issues than divorce which brought about the split from Rome.

“Defender of the faith” was a title Henry VIII was granted by the Pope, ironically enough, for his part in defending the faith of Rome, and therefore the Catholic faith. It is just that the British monarchs held onto the title.

It isn’t so much that the Church of England bans monarchs from divorcing – rather, they can’t remarry once divorced, and can’t marry those who have been divorced. Some info here.

Actually, Zev, there was apiece in the paper just the other day about this topic. Prince Charles himself seems to be uneasy about the title “Defender of THE Faith,” as it suggests there’s only one faith. Since England today is a multi-religious land (and, increasingly, a NON-religious land), he was floating the idea of changing the title to “defender of faith.”

I gather that the Archibishop of Canterbury wasn’t keen on the idea.

Ironically, the title “Defender of the Faith” was first conferred on Henry the 8th by the Pope, in honor of Henry’s opposition to Martin Luther. British monarchs have retained the papal honor, even as they’ve rejected the papacy.

Your first point actually involves at least three separate issues.

Firstly, the monarch is ‘Supreme Governor’ of the Church of England. To cut a very long story as short as possible, this reflects the fact that the CoE is the state church and that there was a time when the state had considerable control over its affairs. There was a time when the doctrines of the CoE were imposed by statutes passed by Parliament. Today there is no longer any pressing reason why the CoE needs to continue as the state church nor is there any reason why the CoE must have a Supreme Governor, even if it remains as the state church. Indeed, some within the CoE would like to see one or both connections broken. That said, few regard either issue as that urgent. Mainstream Anglican opinion still rather likes the idea of the CoE as the national church and their fondness for the Queen means that they’re not in any hurry to question her role. They’re not going to rock the boat on this one, but, to mix the metaphors, they’re not necessarily going to die in the last ditch over it either.

Secondly, the monarch is required by law to be ‘in communion’ with the CoE. In other words, they must be willing to receive Anglican communion and that indeed is part of the coronation service. (There is a parallel rule that the monarch conforms to the Church of Scotland while in Scotland.) Although historically this requirement arose in part because of the monarch’s role as Supreme Governor (the actual details are much more complicated), neither is logically dependant on the other. One could be abolished and the other retained. Confusing the issue is the rule that the monarch cannot be a Catholic. There has been some public discussion about changing that and, for the most part, there is little support for its retention. It’s just that, under present circumstances, it makes no real difference. When it does do so, it will doubtless be changed. That would be the obvious point at which to change the more general requirement about the monarch conforming to the CoE. Some in the CoE might regret such a move but they can probably live with it.

Thirdly, there is the title of Defender of the Faith which is purely symbolic, but, like many symbols, might yet cause problems. Prince Charles has said that he might prefer to be Defender of Faiths, a change which would make no difference whatsoever to his constitutional position. Rowan Williams, the new Archbishop of Canterbury, has hinted that he won’t be very happy about this. As it would require an Act of Parliament to make the change, we might find that, in the end, no one actually bothers doing anything about this. Incidentally, Henry VIII’s retention of the title is not that ironic as he still disagreed with Luther.

Precisely because there are so many aspects to the issue, there is no reason why one particular arrangement is likely to prevail. This is not a simple either/or issue and the betting must always be on some sort of compromise. Moreover, any future government will be reluctant to confront the matter as any major change would require very complicated, time-consuming legislation. There are also no votes in reforming the CoE.

The crucial point about Henry VIII’s ‘divorce’ is that it was an annulment. The CoE, like the Church of Rome, has never had any theological problems about annulling marriage that were never valid in the first place.

Given the complicated rules that the CoE now has about divorce (which, whatever one feels about them, are undoubtedly much more liberal than they were in 1936), it is not certain that the Anglican authorities would block Charles’s marriage. They could play it either way, although Archbishop Williams has hinted that he might be less cooperative than his predecessor, Archbishop Carey, would probably have been. There is also no absolute requirement that Charles must remarry in an Anglican church. His sister was remarried by the Church of Scotland without anyone suggesting that this invalidated her place in the succession. The issue is rather that it would be obviously very embarassing for the CoE to find its Supreme Governor or future Supreme Governor marrying elsewhere. One suspects that if Charles marries during his mother’s lifetime, it will be her attitude that will make all the difference. There are many within the CoE who probably would prefer to look to the Queen for moral guidance, on this and on many other issues.


Thank you for the detailed response, APB. So, if I understand you correctly, the role of the monarch as head of the CoE could be “spun off” if enough people were inclined to do something about it, correct?


So, instead of “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived,” should the rhyme go “annulled, beheaded, died, annulled, beheaded, survived?”


But aside from that potential embarrasement, there would be nothing really stopping Charles from marrying Camilla and keeping his place as the heir apparent?

Zev Steinhardt

Are some of the Archbishops and Bishops of the Anglican Church still members of the House of Lords?

If so how does this mesh into the discussions above, other than simply complicating it?

Zev, as an Anglican, might I state to you that the characterization that “the Church of England was started by Henry VIII in order to get a divorce” is more or less akin to saying “Judaism was started by a bunch of rabbis in 90 C.E. to avoid having to deal with the truth of God sending His Son and their having killed Him.” (I’m intentionally making that as offensive as possible, to draw the parallel; obviously, I don’t believe it to be true.) I’ve discussed the origins of the Anglican church and the circumstances of its separating from Rome several times in the past few months; please read one of them (remembering that it is explained from an Anglican perspective) to get the truth about how we understand our origins. Thanks!

Fair enough, Polycarp. I wasn’t aware that you had discussed this recently. I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of the origins of the Anglican Church was very limited and I certainly didn’t intend to offend anyone with the question and I apologize if I did offend you. I will do the research you suggested. Thank you for pointing me in the right direction.

Zev Steinhardt