For many years I have been a member of the British Republican Movement (BRM). This is a movement that supports the abolition of the monarchy in the United Kingdom and, until that institution is finally and democratically ended, calls for reform in its day-by-day functions and relationships with other British institutions. The BRM has links with republican movements within Europe and the wider world.
In recent years I have also been a member of the National Secular Society (NSS). Founded in 1866 by the lawyer and politician, Charles Bradlaugh, the NSS has ten principles upon which it was founded and according to which it continues to operate. The binding force of these principles is George Jacob Holyoake’s definition of secularism as “a positive alternative to atheism”. The NSS is not opposed to religion but holds to the view that society should “promote freedom of and from religion.” Moreover, “genuine religious freedom is best secured by keeping religion out of the public sphere and running public policy on reasonable, rational grounds, where everyone’s rights are balanced.”
It is likely, therefore, that an examination of these two organisations, the British Republican Movement, and the National Secular Society, would lead to the recognition of the links between them. Thinking of this, I recently listened to an NSS podcast that involved a conversation between Dr Emma Park, the Podcaster for the NSS, and Graham Smith, the CEO of the BRM. Together, these two knowledgeable commentators provide a clear pair of eyes, a genuine double vision, on related and increasingly controversial subjects.
The focus of this discussion was on such questions as: If you are a secularist. should you also be a republican? How have the two movements been historically intertwined? How close are the ties between monarchy and the Church of England (CofE) today? Can a hereditary monarchy ever be compatible with a truly secular democracy? The discussion touched on several other and related issues. In what follows, I will draw on the substance of that conversation as I discuss the possible links between republicanism and secularism in the British context.
The Chief Executive Officer of the BRM, Graham Smith, is of the view that, as an institution, “the contemporary British monarchy reflects a 19th century culture of middle England”. It has undergone few reforms to bring it into the modern world and, at times, it has shown itself to be a dysfunctional family. It is quasi-religious institution that links religion, a “royal” family, and the governance of the UK. As such, it gives a privileged place in the religious life of the nation to the CofE. A BRM survey (2019) found that only 12% of the UK population identifies with the CofE, yet the latter is regarded as the “Established Church” of the nation.
When a new monarch is enthroned, the ceremony is replete with references to Christianity and the new monarch’s devotion to God through that religion and its embodiment in the CofE. The presiding monarch is the “Supreme Governor” of the CofE. It is presently forbidden for the UK monarch to be a Roman Catholic, nor a devotee of any non-Christian religion – despite the multi-cultural, multi-faith nature of contemporary Britain. So littered is a coronation ceremony with oaths and promises associated with religious and stately duties, that there is little room in the ritual for a detailed statement of the monarch’s role with the people – or, as it is still stated with respect to the British people, the monarch’s “subjects”.
The limitations of the specific oaths and promises associated with a monarch’s enthronement, as well as with the practical nature and structure of her or his role, makes it difficult, if not impossible, for a sitting monarch to speak out on such secular and social awareness issues as democracy, poverty, inequality, racism, political corruption, international economic aid, as well as more faith-based issues, for example, the existence of religious discrimination and questionable quasi-religious cultural practices. The foregoing subjects do, of course, possess a religious dimension, but, for republicans and secularists alike, these areas pose major dilemmas for the closed system of institutional monarchy as practised in contemporary Britain.
The present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has been an exemplary adherent to the religious nature and function of the UK monarchy. It seems obvious that Elizabeth Windsor believes in, if not the actual “divine right of kings and queens to rule”, then the divine nature and function of her role and her personal desire for its religious fulfilment. It could be argued that it is for this reason that the present queen will never abdicate her position in British life.
The person who is expected to succeed Elizabeth Windsor, her eldest son, Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales, has stated that he desires not only to become the Head of the CofE, but also the “champion of all faiths”! Apart from the apparent arrogance of stating his perceived personal suitability for this role, as well as the impertinence of his thinking that the variety of religious faiths as practised in the UK desire such a champion, there are serious doubts as to whether some, if not many – and not only more fundamentalist religious faiths – would want him to be their champion!
It could be asked, therefore, will monarchy ever catch-up with modernity, and is Charles Windsor the most appropriate person to be the next head of the British state and its traditional and established form of religious faith? It might also be conjectured that, if both the CofE – as the “established church” of the British state – and the inherited British monarchy are archaic institutions linked by the persona of a single figure, then removing one would prefigure the removal of the other.
From the above, it will be realised that monarchy is very much associated with a peculiar form of religion in British society. Monarchy’s place is epitomised and legitimised through its institutional connection with a minority faith, the Protestant Church of England. This is both an affront to freedom of religious faith and to the democratic principles under which the governance of the UK is supposed to function. This is a major point of intersection between the NSS and the BRM.
It might be asked, then, as to why a concerned and widespread critique and action has not, heretofore, been brought to bear on this situation. This may be due to several contributing factors. It will be my purpose to discuss these matters in the next article, part two of this essay.