Wedding planning can be stressful for any couple whose families come from different religious and cultural backgrounds. Big decisions ― like who will conduct the wedding and where it will take place ― are made even more complicated when one of the partners has a grandmother who is the royal head of a state church.
On Tuesday, Kensington Palace announced that Queen Elizabeth II gave Prince Harry and Meghan Markle permission to have a church wedding at St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle. Markle, who was raised Protestant and attended a Catholic school as a child, will be baptized and confirmed into the Church of England before the wedding, the Telegraph reports.
Part of what makes the upcoming royal wedding so remarkable is that Markle is a divorcée whose former partner is still alive ― a fact that just a few years ago would have caused a headache for the British monarchy and scandalized the church.
But thankfully for these lovebirds, times have changed. The steps Markle has to take to secure her place in Harry’s family are less involved than what others seeking to enter the royal family had to go through in the past.
Remarriage In The Church Of England
Remarriage after a divorce has been a tricky subject for royal couples. The complications come from the fact that the British monarch is also the supreme governor of the Church of England.
Although there’s little chance that Harry will inherit that position, he’s still just fifth in line to the throne, which places him under the scope of the Succession to the Crown Act of 2013. That means he requires the Queen’s consent to marry. His relationship was likely closely evaluated by the church and by the monarchy.
The church’s position on divorce was much stricter in the past. But since 2002, the Church of England has said that a divorced person may marry again in church while a former spouse is still alive “in exceptional circumstances.”
Norman Doe, an expert on Anglican canon law at Cardiff University, told HuffPost that any member of a Church of England parish has a legal right to have their marriage held at their parish church. However, that right doesn’t apply in cases where one or both partners are divorced, and whose former spouse is still alive.
In the end, Doe said each clergy member decides whether or not to conduct the marriage “as a matter of personal conscience” ― meaning, he or she is able to object to the remarriage.
Markle’s Road To Being Welcomed Into The Church
The Church of England encourages clergy members to ask a couple questions to find out how committed they are to their upcoming marriage.
Philip Williamson, a historian of religion and the British monarchy at Durham University, told HuffPost he wouldn’t be surprised if Markle has already met privately with Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby or another church leader to discuss her previous marriage and receive counseling. (The archbishop leads the Church of England and traditionally presides over royal weddings.)
“I have no idea about Ms. Markle’s marital history, but I would guess that before a wedding consecrated by the Church she would be asked some questions, probably by the archbishop of Canterbury, about the circumstances of the divorce,” Williamson told HuffPost in an email. “I’d be surprised if this has not already been done, with a successful outcome. The implications of messages from the Palace and the archbishop seem to be that there will be a religious wedding, and neither would want to be put on the spot and find themselves embarrassed.”
The Church of England has a leaflet with advice for couples seeking marriage after a divorce. In it, the church advises the partners to be prepared to reflect on a few questions with their local parish priest.
The pamphlet includes some questions to consider.
- What does marriage mean to you?
- What have you learned from your previous marriage?
- Has there been healing of past hurts?
- What do others think of your marriage plans?
- When did your new relationship begin?
- Are you wanting to grow in the Christian faith?
Adult baptism and confirmation in the Church of England is a similarly involved process. Candidates are typically asked to attend a few sessions to explore their faith with a vicar. During the baptism service, the candidate will be given the opportunity to repent of their past sins and declare that they accept Christ as their savior. A priest will either pour water on the new member’s head, or fully immerse him or her in a pool of water.
A Break From The Past
The Church of England hasn’t always been as gracious about royalty marrying divorced individuals. Markle faces a much easier road to acceptance in the royal family than some of her predecessors.
In 1936, King Edward VIII caused a scandal by falling in love with the twice- divorced American socialite Wallis Simpson. At that point, the Church of England banned members from remarrying a divorced person whose previous spouse was still alive.
Williamson, the Durham University professor, told HuffPost that like other divorcées at the time, Simpson first had to prove that she was not the “guilty” party who caused her first marriage to break down before she could be received at any functions in the royal court.
“She even had to produce copies of her divorce papers for the Lord Chamberlain’s office,” Williamson said.
Edward VIII eventually had to abdicate his throne to marry Simpson.
In 1953, Queen Elizabeth II, under pressure from the Church of England and the government of Winston Churchill, refused to give her sister Princess Margaret permission to marry the divorced Captain Peter Townsend unless Margaret was removed from the line of succession. (Margaret later decided not to continue the relationship.)
More recently, in 2005, bishops in the Church of England were torn about how to handle the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles. By this time, the church’s rules about remarriage had shifted toward acceptance in some circumstances. The problem here was that both parties had admitted to having an affair while they were still married to other people, according to the BBC, which goes back to the church’s reluctance to allow those responsible for the breakdown of a marriage to wed once again.
“Even for an established church close to the monarchy, there was a serious problem of seeming to make allowances for royalty which were not available for other worshippers in the church, even aside from moral and religious principle,” Williamson said.
The couple’s solution was to have a civil ceremony off church grounds followed by a service of “prayer and dedication” in St. George’s Chapel presided over by Rowan Williams, the archbishop of Canterbury at the time. The church service included a reading of the act of penitence, where Charles and Camilla joined the congregation in acknowledging their “manifold sins and wickedness.”
While his predecessors struggled to come to terms with divorced individuals marrying into the royal family, the current archbishop of Canterbury welcomed news of Harry’s engagement.
Welby issued a statement on Monday saying he is happy the couple has “chosen to make their vows before God.”
“I am absolutely delighted to hear the news that Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are now engaged,” Welby said. “I wish them many years of love, happiness and fulfillment and ask that God blesses them throughout their married life together.”