Monarchical Religion

The Church of England, the product of the sixteenth-century Reformation, remains the state church in England, notwithstanding successive attempts to disestablish it during the past two centuries.

These campaigns were initially led by militant Dissenters promulgating the gospel of ‘voluntaryism’, but latterly have involved secularists (doubting the official church’s compatibility with modern multi-faith, no-faith and multi-cultural society) and some Anglicans (objecting to establishment on theological and practical grounds).

Establishment is inextricably linked with the monarchy in several key respects, not least in that the reigning monarch is Supreme Governor of the Church of England and the Act of Settlement 1701 bars Roman Catholics, or persons married to a Catholic, acceding to the throne.

Both these facets of establishment were included in a recent poll undertaken by YouGov for Prospect magazine on the future of the monarchy, in the run-up to Queen Elizabeth II’s 85th birthday next month. The survey was conducted online on 1 and 2 February 2011 among a representative sample of 2,409 Britons aged 18 and over.

An article by Peter Kellner about the poll appears on p. 33 of the latest issue (No. 181, April 2011) of Prospect, as part of a wider feature (pp. 28-37) on ‘What’s the Point of the Monarchy?’ The data tabulations are available at:

Asked whether the monarch should continue as the head of the Church of England, 56% replied in the affirmative, with 30% wanting the arrangement to cease and 13% uncertain what to think (rising to 24% among the 18-24s).

Advocates of the status quo were particularly numerous among Conservative voters (70%), reminding us of the traditional description of the Church of England as the ‘Tory Party at prayer’.

Supporters of abolition of the Supreme Governorship were found by YouGov to be strongest in Scotland (52%), even though the Church of England is obviously not established there. The next highest proportion (43%) was for Liberal Democrat voters, whose official party policy is to implement disestablishment.

The discovery that a slim majority wants to retain the monarch’s headship of the Church is in line with other recent polls on the subject, and represents an increase on the position for a good part of the 1990s when the adultery and divorce of Prince Charles led many to wonder whether he was a suitable Supreme Governor in waiting and even to query the principle of royal headship of the Church.

Yet this support for monarchical leadership of the Church did not translate into endorsement of the Act of Settlement. Indeed, 71% of YouGov’s respondents favoured repeal of the prohibition on the monarch marrying a Roman Catholic. 16% wanted the ban to stay, while 13% expressed no opinion.

Liberal Democrats (84%) and Scots (77%) led the reform lobby, with Conservatives (22%) being most resistant to changing the law.

It should be noted that the question did not enquire explicitly about whether the monarch should be allowed to be a Roman Catholic him/herself, only whether he/she should be free to marry a Roman Catholic. However, other polls during the past decade appear to demonstrate a growing public desire for ending that prohibition, also.

BRIN readers wishing to learn more about British public opinion on establishment during the past half-century may be interested in a forthcoming article in Implicit Religion by Clive Field: ‘“A Quaint and Dangerous Anachronism”? Who Supports the (Dis)Establishment of the Church of England?’ This is provisionally scheduled for publication this September in Vol. 14, No. 3 of the journal.

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