Indeed, not with a bang, but a whimper. Actually, not even that. Silence.
Just in time for the 61st anniversary of the accession of Queen Elizabeth II yesterday, Her Majesty’s government for Canada rushed a bill through the House of Commons that changes the rules of succession. The bill had no debate — all three readings were “deemed” to have been passed, as can happen when the House gives unanimous consent. The Canadian Crown will thus undergo significant change without a single sentence of debate.
The federal government, fearful of getting stuck in the quagmire of Canada’s constitutional amending formula, which requires all 10 provinces to agree, has decreed that changing the rules about who occupies the Canadian throne is not a change to the Crown itself, and so is not a matter of constitutional amendment.
It is a convenient position, to be sure, but something of a stretch. Professor Philippe Lagassé of the University of Ottawa argues persuasively inMaclean’s magazine that amending the succession of the Canadian Crown is an amendment to our constitution, not merely a recognition of changes made to the British Crown. Otherwise, he concludes, Westminster still has the right to legislate for Canada, a practice that the repatriation of the constitution in 1982 had definitively ended.
Aside from procedures, the substance of the Act of Succession, 2013, is “to make succession not depend on gender and to end the disqualification arising from marrying a Roman Catholic.”
The first provision is unobjectionable, even if arguing for equality in the context of a hereditary monarchy a bit like asking for skim milk at a British breakfast of sausages and bread fried in grease. Providence, not male primogeniture, already has granted England an impressive array of queens. The Tudor dynasty, which wrought havoc upon the line of succession, provided two queens out of five sovereigns, Mary Tudor and the formidable Elizabeth. The only diamond jubilee sovereigns — Victoria and Elizabeth II — have both been queens. So while the principle matters, the practical effect of the change may be minimal.
The second provision, lifting the prohibition on heirs marrying Roman Catholics, is more ambiguous. The official discrimination against Roman Catholics never diminished my enthusiasm for constitutional monarchy in the slightest. The Tudors, after all, did far more violence to apostolic succession than they did to royal succession, and their separation of Canterbury from Rome was the break of historic consequence. The prohibition against marrying Catholics was only an epilogue to the main story.
I would have preferred that the prohibition against marrying Catholics remain. Not as a relic of prejudicial attitudes that have now greatly diminished, but as a reminder that at the heart of the British constitutional settlement lies a matter of greatest consequence, namely the relationship between throne and altar. Despite the evident Christian devotion of Elizabeth now gloriously reigning, the whole edifice is built on the foundation of the state ruling the church.
Altering the rules of succession alone does not change that fundamental position. So when last year the prime minister, David Cameron, announced in the House of Commons that the “church has to get with the program” it was entirely in keeping with British history after the Tudor accession. The Crown in Parliament speaks, and the church kneels.
The fact that Catholics were formally barred from this arrangement was an implicit acknowledgment of their dissent from that settlement. Great and holy disciples died because they would not kneel to the crown. St. Thomas More is the most famous. His companion in the Tower of London, Saint John Fisher, was the only bishop who would not kneel to Henry VIII. He was beheaded a few weeks before More.
Tomorrow night in Kingston, we have our annual dinner to support the Catholic mission at Queen’s University. The dinner is named after St. John Fisher. The guest this year is Cardinal Joseph Zen from Hong Kong. The Chinese cardinal knows better than most the fearsome price that the crown or politburo can levy on religious believers for not kneeling on command.
Catholics in Britain have largely welcomed the lifting of the prohibition in the generous spirit in which it was offered, as a way of officially putting aside the status of Catholics as second-class citizens. But being second-class in theory, if not in practice, can be fitting if the arrangement of the realm indeed does put secondary things first, as in elevating the crown above the church.
The Act of Succession will soon be law. It would have been “meet and proper,” as the Act puts it, if some historic reservations had been given voice in Parliament.