The new head of the (Anglican) Church of Ireland has said that the 1701 Act of Settlement, which prevents a Catholic from marrying a monarch, should be abolished. He has also affirmed that the disestablishment of the Church of England would be a positive rather than a negative step.
The outgoing Bishop of Connor, the Rt Rev Alan Harper, aged 62, made the comments, which he said were his personal view, in a lengthy interview with The Irish Times newspaper following his recent election as Primate of All Ireland.
The ancient constitutional ban means that a reigning British monarch could marry a Muslim, a Hindu or a Buddhist, but not a fellow-Christian who happened to be a Catholic. It applies to commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada, where the UK monarch is the titular head of state.
Both politicians of all persuasions and religious leaders of different traditions have attacked the continuing ban as an offensive anachronism.
Observers say that if a non-Anglican were to become King or Queen, it would very likely lead to the disestablishment of the Church of England, an outcome which, Bishop Harper declared, the institution would "not only get over, but would be the better for".
At present the C of E, which recently refused a Christian wedding to Prince Charles, its potential future governor, because he was remarrying after divorce, finds itself in another mess over the Act ‚Äì put in a position where it must, as its critics see it, ‚Äúdefend the indefensible‚Äù in order to protect its privilege ‚Äì which its leaders say is a mandate for ‚Äúservice‚Äù.
The Church of England is now the only state church in the whole 77 million-strong worldwide Anglican Communion. In Britain both the Scottish Episcopal and the Church in Wales are free of ties to the crown. The Church of Ireland lost its constitutionally privileged position in 1869, and Bishop Harper wondered openly in his interview whether "the price to be paid for 'establishment' is worth paying".
He takes his position as head of the Church of Ireland on 2 February 2007, succeeding Robin Eames, who goes on to a global peacemaking role. Bishop Harper will then be ordained Archbishop of Armagh in March 2007.
Simon Barrow, co-director of the UK religious think tank Ekklesia, which has in the past said that disestablishment is desirable for the health of both the church and a plural society, welcomed Bishop Harper‚Äôs remarks.
‚ÄúIt would be good if the thoughtful, forward-looking position of the new Irish Primate could re-open a proper debate among the churches in England, not just the Church of England itself,‚Äù said Barrow.
He continued: ‚ÄúBinding the church to the state through the crown restricts the freedom of both, and mortgages the Christian message to a reliance on governing authority rather than Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who was actually put to death by a religion-state alliance.‚Äù
Bishop Harper said in his interview: "The central point of the Act of Settlement is that the established church in England is the Church of England, of which the sovereign is supreme governor. Therefore, the Act does not prevent members of the royal family from becoming or marrying Roman Catholics, but does remove them from the line of succession."
The Church of England, whose primary mission strategy in the face of decline seems to be to defend its established status and expand church schools, immediately rejected the comments from its Anglican colleague.
It said it ‚Äúgreatly value[s] the role of the monarch in relation to the church‚Äù and defended the anti-Catholic Act of Settlement as ‚Äúpart of the complex and historic relationship between church and state.‚Äù
Bishop Harper has been praised as a leading Church of Ireland figure in the struggle against religious and other forms of sectarianism.
He has long been opposed to discrimination on religious grounds and is likely to welcome a constructive debate about his comments.