— -- More than 20 years after he exchanged vows with Lady Diana Spencer in a fairy-tale ceremony billed as the wedding of the century, Britain's Prince Charles may be one step closer to marrying the love of his life.
The governing body of the Church of England this week voted to sanction the remarriage of divorced persons in the Church, even if a former spouse is still living. That could clear the way for Charles to walk down the aisle with his longtime companion, Camilla Parker Bowles.
Up to the Priests
A significant number of divorcés already remarry in the Church — it's estimated that 11 percent of Anglican weddings involve at least one divorced person. The 269-83 vote of the Church's General Synod means it will now bestow its blessing on the actions of priests who conduct such ceremonies.
There are "circumstances in which a divorced person may be married in Church during the lifetime of a former spouse," the Synod resolution said.
Under the new policy, individual priests will be able to decide whether or not to preside over a remarriage. If their local priest refused to marry them, a couple could go to another parish and seek the blessing of the pastor there.
Michael Scott-Joynt, the Bishop of Winchester, said the Church was responding to the facts of modern life.
"Marriage breakdown is a wretched reality for so many in England today," the Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying.
"We have to be up and doing, not only to provide pastoral care to those who find themselves in this position and to their families but also in representing the compassion and rebuilding love of God to as many as possible of those who are serious and hopeful about embarking freshly on marriage after a divorce," he said.
Certainly, remarriage after divorce is not unknown in the royal family. Two of King Henry VIII's six marriages came on the heels of divorces. In fact, he started the Church of England so that he could trade in Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn. Unfortunately for Anne, Henry later realized that beheading unwanted wives was much more convenient than divorce court.
But in recent times it's been considered bad form for the supreme governor of the Church of England — as Charles will be when he succeeds to the throne — to condone divorce, let alone the remarriage of divorced people.
Thus King Edward VIII, Queen Elizabeth II's uncle who was later known as the Duke of Windsor, had to abdicate in 1936 in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Warfield Simpson. In the 1950s, a heartbroken Princess Margaret, Elizabeth's younger sister, was pressured into giving up her romance with a war hero, Group Capt. Peter Townsend, because he was divorced.
Over the years, the social stigma attached to divorce has weakened considerably. Three of the queen's four children — Charles himself, Prince Andrew and Princess Anne — have been divorced. And in 1992, Anne remarried, even though first husband Mark Phillips is still around. The princess exchanged vows with Timothy Laurence in the Church of Scotland.
Charles has been free to remarry in the Anglican Church since the 1997 death of his ex-wife, Princess Diana, in a Paris car crash. But Parker Bowles' first husband, Andrew, is still alive, a fact that had denied her a Church-sanctioned wedding.
Neither the prince nor his lady has publicly expressed any intention of remarrying, and the Bishop of Winchester said the Synod did not vote for the change to accommodate any marriage plans the Prince of Wales may harbor.
"We were not doing this work because of the Prince of Wales," he told The Times. "If the Prince of Wales reached the point of raising the question of marrying then that would a matter that the clergy concerned would deal with privately rather than publicly."
In Charles' case, the "clergy concerned" would be the Archbishop of Canterbury, Britain's top prelate.
The archbishop could always refuse, of course, but the current holder of the office, George Carey, is scheduled to step down in October. The man widely expected to succeed him, Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Wales, is a radical liberal who supports both women bishops and gay clergy, so it seems unlikely that he would cavil at the prospect of remarrying a divorcée.
Gradually Gaining Acceptance
All in all, the answer to whether Charles, 53, will at long last wed Parker Bowles, 54, and maybe one day make her Queen Camilla largely rests on whether or not the British people will accept her.
When Princess Diana publicly blamed Parker Bowles for breaking up her marriage, the older woman was widely reviled. Tabloids ridiculed her looks as frumpy. Housewives pelted her with bread when she tried to shop at her local supermarket.
But in the years since Diana's death, public opinion toward The Other Woman has mellowed. She and Charles seem to be winning points for enduring for so long. The apparent acceptance of the relationship by Diana's sons, Prince William and Prince Harry, also helps.
The queen is also relaxing her objections to the match, going so far as to invite her son's girlfriend to some of the Golden Jubilee celebrations marking her 50 years on the throne.
The death this spring of the queen's mother, Queen Mother Elizabeth, also removed another obstacle the couple had faced. The Queen Mother, who was 101, was said to have objected strenuously to her grandson marrying a divorcée.
If Charles does marry his longtime love, will she ever be Her Majesty Queen Camilla?
Given that the queen enjoys excellent health, Charles probably isn't anticipating inheriting the throne any time soon. When Charles eventually does become king, his wife would be queen consort — unless there was a decision to give her a lesser title. She could, for instance, be known as the Duchess of Rothesay, from one of the prince's Scottish titles.
What the Camilla Question comes down to, in the end, is whether the British people would accept her. In 1936, there was no legal reason Edward VIII could not marry a divorced woman — except that the Cabinet, Commonwealth and general populace weren't about to swallow Mrs. Simpson.
The Church of England's decision to sanction remarriage after divorce doesn't mean that anyone's heading to the royal chapel anytime soon. But it does make it one step easier for Parker Bowles to gain full public acceptance.