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Will Prince George Become Defender of the Faith?

Mal Fletcher
Posted 28 July 2013
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On Sunday morning, I did the media rounds in what I call the on-air version of Speed Dating, appearing in 15 radio interviews for the BBC in the space of two hours.

The question du jour was, what role will religion - and specifically Christianity - play in the role of the monarchy when the newly born Prince George finally ascends the throne.

It does seem somewhat unkind to be talking about the lad's long term future when he's less that a week old, but there are important constitutional and cultural issues at stake.

The title Defender of the Faith was first bestowed upon King Henry VIII, by no less that the pope of the time. He then, for personal and political reasons, decided to abandon the Roman church and start his own, taking the title with him.

Since then, the British monarch has been the automatic head of the Church of England, albeit in more modern times in a largely ceremonial capacity.

A ComRes study for the BBC revealed that almost 75% of people in England think that future monarchs should keep the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England and ‘Defender of the Faith’.

Opinion was evenly divided on Prince Charles' suggestion that he might change the religious role of the monarchy, becoming 'Defender of Faith' in the light of multiculturalism.

Given The Times' report this week that Prince George might not become king until around 2068, it's difficult to predict anything about his reign this far out.

In my view, however, there is every possibility that he may retain the title of Defender of the Faith when he ascends the throne. It is certainly more likely than some experts seem to suggest.

I say this for several reasons.

Secularisation in Decline?

Some global demographic studies suggest that the process of secularisation we've seen in Europe over recent decades may actually be in decline worldwide.

Christianity and religion generally are already on the rise throughout much of the world. This may well become the norm for the next two or three decades at least, especially as South America and parts of Asia and Africa rise in economic clout.

The World Fact Handbook is published by the CIA, which of course has no particular religious axe to grind. It estimates that the proportion of people attached to the world's four major religions - Christianity, Islam, Buddhism and Hinduism - rose from 67 percent in 1900 to 73 percent in 2005.

Some demographic experts expect this to rise as high as 80 percent by 2050.

Of course, we often associate the growth in religion with the rise of radical fundamentalism, particularly of the Islamist variety. Yet Christianity is also on an upward trajectory.

In 1900 there were around 10 million Christians in Africa. Today, after waves of missional work, there are 400 million.

Meanwhile, Latin America, long known to be at least nominally Christian, is seeing an explosion of fervent, evangelical Christianity. Those close to Pope Francis are, it seems, keen to redress the balance of  growth among the new 'up start' faith groups in comparison to the older Catholic Church.

Closer to home, if the Church of England continues on the social renewal path now being set by Archbishop Welby, it may overcome many of its recent problems to become a leading social voice once again.

Already, it is making quite decisive moves in that direction by, for example, taking on the might of quick-fix money-lenders.

The same renewal of social purpose and engagement is arguably underway inside the Catholic Church. The new Pope has impressed many inside and outside of his church with his commitment to reclaiming the church's role as advocate for the poor.

The vast majority of Brits, of course, still fall outside the umbrella of either of these faith groups - or any other. However, whilst many of us are less institutionally religious than our forebears, we arguably remain thankful for the values that our religious heritage has given us.

Even Richard Dawkins has claimed to be a 'cultural Christian', who is thankful for at least some of the cultural trimmings of Christianity. I think a lot of other people share that view.

This is perhaps reflected in the fact that so many parents in Britain work hard to place their children into church schools.

Promotion of Ethics and Mores

The issue of protecting and promoting cultural mores - perhaps especially among the young - is an important one in the debate about the Defender of the Faith idea.

As I noted recently on this site, a study among head teachers of English state schools showed that one third felt that schools are failing to develop moral standards in their students.

Meanwhile 40 percent believe that schools are not developing the 'whole child'. They cite the decline in religious assemblies and sporting activities as specific contributors to this problem.

Looking further ahead, religion may well be called upon to play a more prominent role in helping to shape the core values of our culture - perhaps especially as we move into an age of seemingly exponential change, which brings both excitement and uncertainty.

Alvin Toffler, the world's first professional futurist, argued in the 1970s that the world was approaching a 'roaring current of change' which would leave people feeling 'disoriented'. We are, I think, living with the fulfilment of that prescient statement.

New technologies are opening up marvellous new opportunities - in medicine, communications and ecology, for example. Yet many people seem to struggle to find solid and reliable reference points amidst what some feel is almost an overwhelming storm of change.

Some years ago, a French philosopher argued that we risk building 'faster machines to take us nowhere'.

This is one of the reasons that ethics has become such a popular subject of study, not only among undergraduates, but with experienced professionals in business, politics and civic leadership. Technological advancement often raises as many questions as it answers - if not more.

Our challenge today is to continue to progress, without pursuing progressivism - the pursuit of change for its own sake. Religion offers not just a system of creedal beliefs, but a framework through which change can be weighed, judged and understood.

Our Help in Ages Past

Whilst there most certainly are atheists in foxholes, times of terrible stress or upheaval inspire in many an interest in seeking out the certainties offered by religion. This is particularly true of religious beliefs that have served their nation or community well in times past.

Two historical events serve to remind us of this.

Following the tragic death of Princess Diana, a nation mourned and wondered at the apparent absurdity of her passing. In the proceeding days and weeks, many churches reported a spike in the number of first-time visitors who were looking for answers.

In one church, a woman was asked why she had chosen the Sunday after Diana's death to attend services for the first time. Her reply was, simply, 'I just couldn't bear to be alone today'.

Next year we will mark the beginning of World War 1, the supposed war to end all wars. Throughout the national memorial services, we will hear hymns that became heartfelt anthems during that horrific conflict.

These songs primarily looked to the divine power that was assumed to be behind and beyond the British throne. Yet they also affirmed a sense of commitment to the nation's values and to the monarchy that promoted them (at least in public).

Songs like Oh God our Help in Ages Past reveal the importance of faith as a reminder of both past heritage and a provider of hope going forward. (The second line of that particular hymn says, 'Our Hope for Things to Come'.)

Globalisation and Multiculturalism

Surely two of the biggest factors that will shape our approach to the Defender of the Faith idea, are globalisation and multiculturalism.

Attitudes to globalisation and multiculturalism both have a direct impact on the religious complexion of a country, through migration. Over the next two to three decades, changing immigration patterns may well impact on religious pluralism in ways we can't fully imagine right now.

Will Prince Charles and possibly his son and grandson, style themselves as 'Defender of Faith', in line with pluralistic attitudes? They may well do so.

Yet debates about multiculturalism have shifted significantly in just the last few years. Who knows where these debates will be by the time Prince Charles ascends the throne - let alone when Prince George eventually does?

Prince Charles, who has declared his intention of being known by this more general title, is also a keen student of history. He may re-evaluate his stance once the reality of his reign is actually before him - especially given how quickly our debate on multiculturalism has shifted ground.

In the space of just the last few years, we've seen a sea change in public and political attitudes to multiculturalism, as expressed through migration policies. These, of course, have a huge impact on the religious complexion of the nation.

We've gone from a situation where, as far as government was concerned, it was considered politically incorrect to advocate curbs on migration (and benefits to immigrants), to a point where it is now considered almost political suicide not to set limits.

Monarchy As Embodiment of Values

During the course of my lightning round of BBC interviews, I was asked whether, within the lifetime of young Prince George, the monarchy itself will be threatened.

I see no reason to come to that conclusion. For the same reason that 'Defender of the Faith' may remain in place as a royal title.

Every culture carries something of its historical 'cult'. I use that word in its proper anthropological sense, to mean the core religious worldview or system of belief that played a central role in the formation of a culture.

The British monarch is meant to represent an embodiment of British culture. And not only British culture, but perhaps the shared aspects of all the other cultures throughout the dominions under her - albeit ceremonial - covering.

Thus, in a sense, royalty is inextricably linked to religion and particularly Christianity, as it is this particular faith that has so hugely influenced the nation's character and values.

This is not to suggest that people of other faiths - and the many people who align themselves with no faith - have less claim on the symbolism or significance of royalty.

Far from it. The Queen herself has argued that Britain's Christian particularism 'protects the multitude of other faiths that flourish here'.

Cultural pluralism enriches us all; yet there still needs to be an appreciation of and commitment to a nation's core cultural distinctives. Without this, the family fragments and the type of secure, outward focus that brings growth becomes impossible.

Perhaps with this in mind, the Queen has reminded us, in a number of recent speeches, that we are not culturally children of nothing. Our shared values and social ethics have been shaped, in large part, by a distinctive worldview - in our case, a Judeo-Christian worldview.

The monarchy is, in her view, linked to a religious worldview, at least to the degree that its the ideals of Christianity still influence social ethics and identity. I see no reason to believe that this influence will disappear in the next few decades.

Will the Queen's beliefs impact upon young Prince George? It is, of course, much too early to tell. We don't really know how long or how close will be the relationship between the Queen and her great grandson.  

However, if the obvious respect that the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge have for the Queen is passed on to their son, the young prince might very well be impacted by her faith.

He certainly couldn't help but be impressed with her amazing commitment and her sense of duty as a monarch, both of which are a reflection of her core beliefs.


What’s your view?

Will Prince George Become Defender of the Faith?



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