A Very Public Affair
This week a minor furore erupted in the UK at the announcement that Prince Charles and his long-time partner Camilla Parker Bowles will be married in April.
The ambivalent and even negative reaction to the news relates to a number of issues. Not the least of these is some lingering public resentment for Camilla's involvement in the break up of the marriage of Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales.
The announcement has also raised constitutional questions, especially in relation to Charles' future role as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and 'defender of the (Christian) faith'.
However, the saddest issue raised by all this might be the lack of moral leadership shown by Britain's future king.
The affair between Charles and Camilla has been going on for years, since both were quite young and as yet unmarried. When Charles went off to sea as a naval office, Camilla accepted the proposal of a young army officer and, to Charles' disappointment, was married soon after.
The fact of her marriage apparently didn't stop the heir to the throne and his friend becoming man and mistress. This continued even while Camilla was helping to arrange the match of Charles with the young Lady Diana Spencer and then into the marriage of 'Charles and Di'.
The ongoing liaison, aided and abetted by long-time, aristocratic friends was a major factor in the downhill turn taken by the royal marriage soon after the wedding. Diana famously remarked that there were 'three people in this marriage'.
Charles reportedly told his wife, in private, that he refused to be the first Prince of Wales in memory not to have a mistress.
What are we to make of the whole issue of Charles and Camilla, as it presently stands? Is the reaction from some sections of the Church of England much ado about nothing?
Aren't we supposed to live and let live? Isn't Charles simply living by the same standard as his ancestors – and many modern Brits, not to mention Europeans generally? Who are we to judge?
There are several things we should take into consideration. First of all, royals are human beings. Despite their rank in society, they have certain basic needs which we all share, including the need for privacy.
None of us can live out our lives in the full glare of public scrutiny. We must retain some aspects of our behaviour and thinking as our own domain, in the interests of sanity and emotional stability.
Royal individuals and their close families must be afforded some measure of privacy. Some aspects of their lives must be closed off from public scrutiny, even though they rely on a media coverage to keep them in the public's eye and affections.
Second, being born to royalty in a so-called Christian country does not automatically qualify one as Christian, at least not in the sense that Jesus Christ defined discipleship.
He taught that discipleship is marked by a willingness to take up our cross and follow him. For Jesus, discipleship was about abandoning our previous, self-centred lives and giving ourselves to God's will and God's promises.
So, though we may be saddened by some of their behaviour, we shouldn't necessarily be shocked if royals fail to set an example of Christian piety. Real faith involves making a very personal decision; it cannot be inherited with rank, position or title.
Also, we must remember the importance of grace. Christ taught and demonstrated a willingness to remove the sting of people's failures, granting forgiveness and letting them move on. Princes and their consorts may be as much in need of forgiveness – human and divine – as the rest of the population.
However, there are some other factors to consider.
For one, forgiveness comes in response to sincere repentance.
Repentance, in the Christian understanding, is a willingness to renounce a past failure and, with God's help, to avoid it in future.
The biblical king David committed adultery with Bathseba and organised for her husband to meet an untimely death in battle. Why, asked one newspaper columnist this week, do Christians decry Prince Charles' behaviour as immoral while still happily quoting the Psalms of an adulterer?
The only reason David was restored into God's pantheon of faith was that he repented – openly and with real passion. It wasn't enough to save him from some of the consequences of his actions, but his heartfelt remorse was real and he wasn't ashamed, as a leader, to express it in public.
None of us are qualified to, as Jesus put it, 'cast the first stone' because none of us are 'without sin'. So we all need to learn the importance and inherent power of repentance and our leaders are not exempt.
The fact that Prince Charles and Mrs. Parker Bowles now wish to marry may well be good news. It is far better that they marry than continue with an affair. Reasonable people – religious and otherwise – will wish them well and hope that they find happiness together.
But we should not simply sweep the moral concerns under the carpet, pretending that all is well now that they're betrothed.
For one thing, there is no indication that they will stop living as man and wife until after they're married. And as far as we know there has been no expression of regret from either person for having lived with this arrangement for so long.
Earlier, they conducted an affair while both were married to other people. Either party could at any time have made the decision to end the relationship.
Secondly, whether they like it or not, royals exist at the apex of a class heirarchy and are consequently called upon to play an exemplary role in society.
They are leaders in the community. Yes, their leadership position is the result of heredity rather than personal or professional qualifications. But it does carry with it a weight of responsibility. They must accept this responsibility as a corollary of their priviledged status.
Some people among the most ardent royal watchers and friends of the family – or wannabe friends – insist that royals have always acted differently and they can't be expected to live by the same rules as their subjects.
Royalty, they say, comes at a price: a life of constant duty, opening museums, waving at crowds and generally doing good works for the benefit of all and sundry. Royals need to maintain their little moral pecadilloes to let off steam.
The fact is, though, that being royal does not excuse bad moral decisions or remove the sting of their inevitable consequences, for individuals, families and the wider community.
Sadly, when prominent people make bad choices, the consequences tend to have a wider affect than those of the less well known.
When it comes to the affair of Charles and Camilla, one wonders what sort of example is being set here for Britain's emerging generation.
These days, royal power and influence are granted by the goodwill of the people. The people have a right to expect that individuals who are elevated in this way will play a constructive role in society.
This is something which Queen Elizabeth seems always to have understood – as did her mother before her.
Royals are symbols of the states they lead. They should, wherever possible, mirror the best aspirations of their people – not just materially, but ethically and morally as well – and demonstrate the values upon which their society is built.
Thankfully, in Britain as in much of Europe, respect for the basic family unit is a core social value. Yet the behaviour of Charles during his own marriage showed scant regard for the family as a solid unit and one worth fighting to preserve.
We can only hope that in marriage, Charles and Camilla will demonstrate a better moral example than they have in their pre-marriage relationship.
We can hope that Charles will show the same commitment and leadership he has demonstrated in his work with the Prince's trust. And we can pray that he and Camilla will build a happy and secure marriage which stands the test of time.
I doubt that we will hear it, but it would set a great example to emerging generations and help to heal old wounds if the Prince were to express some regret over his extramarital behaviour.
© Mal Fletcher 2005