Meghan and Harry: Breaking with tradition
With Meghan Markle baptised and confirmed into the Church of England and her subsequent marriage to Prince Harry on 19 May, Insights asked Charles Rae, News International’s royal correspondent for over two decades, to take a deep dive into the religious conventions that have shaped the royal family.
Royalty and religion: they are two institutions that have existed as strange bedfellows for the last 500 years. It has only been in the last decade or so that the rules of ‘who was in and who was out’ have been relaxed, and this has usually been at the convenience of those finding themselves directly embroiled in the pomp and process.
This relaxation of the religious conventions of the monarchy has also slowly been moving with the times, never more evident in the relationship and marriage of Meghan Markle to Prince Harry. Ms Markle faith background is a multi-layered one: She is a Protestant who attended a Roman Catholic high school, her mother, Doria Ragland, is Protestant and her father, Thomas Markle, is Episcopalian – the US branch of the Anglican Church — and the 36-year-old was married in a Jewish ceremony to Trevor Engelson from 2011 to 2013.
While some conventions may have been overlooked, there is no doubt that some will stay the same. This is evident in the fact that prior to their wedding, the Suits star was baptised and confirmed into the Church of England. There is no denying however, that Ms Markle’s background and understanding of faith will be an excellent foundation on which to move forward into her new life in the royal family and all this entails.
Traditionally every member of the royal family is christened into the Church of England. The reigning monarch holds the title of Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Interestingly, Ms Markel’s status as a divorcee was no impediment to a Church of England service. Since 2002, the church has agreed that divorced people can remarry, with the discretion of the priest. Despite this ruling, in the three years before his marriage to Camilla Parker Bowles — Prince Charles, Meghan’s prospective father in law — still fell foul of convention.
Despite the fact that he is a future monarch and Head of the Church of England, for his 2005 wedding to Parker Bowles Prince Charles was denied a Church of England service and had to settle for a civil service and a church blessing.
A brief history of the Royals
Going further back, Princess Anne as a divorcee, was also denied a Church of England service when she married Commander Tim Laurence in 1992. Instead, the couple wed at Crathie Church near the Balmoral Estate in a Church of Scotland service.
The hardline of the Church of England – albeit slightly softened of late – started in 1534 when Henry VIII established it, over a row with the Pope regarding his divorce from his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Henry wanted the Pope to grant him an annulment, on the grounds that the marriage was illegal and incestuous because Catherine was the widow of his dead brother Arthur. After several failed attempts to persuade Rome, Henry split and made himself the head of a new church.
Since then, any Roman Catholic was banned from becoming a Monarch, and members of the royal family who marry a Catholic lose their place in the line of succession.
This all changed three years ago however when new rules on royal succession came into force, removing male bias and discrimination against Roman Catholics, except for one – they still cannot become a monarch. The change was made at the same time as allowing young women to take their rightful place in the line of succession and not be bumped out by a younger brother, as happened previously. Under those former rules of male primogeniture, royal sons took precedence over their female siblings, including first-born royal daughters.
So, for instance, Prince Michael of Kent, the Queen’s first cousin, is now back in the line of succession at number 47.
He was removed when he married his Catholic wife, Princess Michael of Kent, 37 years ago.
Moving forward, Prince George’s children could be affected if his wife is Roman Catholic. Their children could be brought up in that faith and would be barred from becoming monarch and supreme governor of the Church of England because of their faith.
An unconventional wedding
Meghan and Harry were married in St George’s Chapel on 19 May in Windsor Castle where the Prince was christened. The ceremony was unlike any other in the royal family’s history.
It was conducted by The Dean of Windsor, the Rt Rev David Conner. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, officiated as the couple made their marriage vows.
This was followed by a sermon from The Most Reverend Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church in the US, who was invited by the bride and groom. His impassioned message was about the power of love preaching from Song of Solomon 2: 10-13 and 8:6-7.
He began by quoting Martin Luther King. “We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.”
Rev. Curry continued with his impassioned sermon to demonstrate how love can become a catalyst for change.
“Now the power of love is demonstrated by the fact that we are all here. Two young people fell in love, and we all showed up. But it’s not just for and about a young couple who we rejoice with. It’s more than that,” Rev. Curry enthused. “”I am talking about some power. Real power. Power to change the world! If you don’t believe me, well, there were some old slaves in America’s Antebellum South who explained the dynamic power of love, and why it has the power to transform. They explained it this way. They sang a spiritual, even in the midst of their captivity. It’s the one that says there is a balm in Gilead — a healing balm.”
Watch Rev. Curry’s full sermon here.
Ms Markle’s heritage was acknowledged throughout the service with the Kingdom Gospel Choir singing “Stand By Me” and a performance from Sheku Kanneh-Mason — an award-winning 19 year old cellist — while the couple formally signed the register.
After the ceremony, the first people to congratulate the couple included some of the 2,640 charity workers, community champions and local schoolchildren who were invited to watch the wedding from inside the walls of Windsor Castle.
It was clear from the marriage service and its many breaks from tradition that the Duke and Duchess of Sussex plan to insist faith has a large part to play in their duties and — as the royal family have done over the last decade — will look to refresh and re-energise our perception of the royals, in what is the family’s boldest move yet.
Official photo/s from Clarence House, Kensington Palace and The Royal Family by photographer Alexi Lubomirski