The elephant in the chapel will be Autumn Kelly's Catholic baptism and the Act of Settlement
Those of you who enjoy a royal wedding -- oh yes, there is a big royal wedding fan club out there who for years have had to follow their inclinations in secrecy -- may put a mark in your diary for Saturday, May 17. The location: St George's Chapel, Windsor. Even now, the town of Windsor is splashing on the fresh paint for the occasion (also, in a pioneering gesture, removing double-yellow and single-yellow lines from the roadside: the municipality has decided they are ugly. Motorists can figure out for themselves where they can park.)
And the couple: legally, the groom is a commoner, one Peter Phillips, eldest son of the Princess Royal, Princess Anne and Mr Mark Phillips. Though Peter P. is without a title, he is 11th in line to the throne, and until last December's birth of James, Viscount Severn, infant son of Prince Edward and the Countess of Wessex, he was 10th in line.
The bride is Autumn Kelly, from West Island, Pointe Clair, Montreal, a management consultant, who has managed, among others, the TV presenter Michael Parkinson.
As is the fashion these days, Peter and Autumn are marrying at the mature ages of 31 and 30 respectively. As is also the fashion, they have been living together before the nuptials, sharing a cottage on Princess Anne's estate -- in line with the fashion for younger couples still remaining dependent on their parents until well into their thirties.
The courtship between Peter Phillips, who works for the Bank of Scotland, and Autumn, the sporty Canadian who worked her way through college as a bartender, was discreet and uncontroversial. And it was predicted that the wedding would in turn be quiet and uncontroversial. It may well be that: but it is also of some constitutional significance, because Autumn turns out to be baptised a Roman Catholic, and any person baptised a Roman Catholic cannot marry into the British royal family without this having a constitutional impact upon the spouse.
Thus, in accordance with the 1701 Act of Settlement, which prohibits any Roman Catholic to have access to the throne, even by marriage, Peter Phillips must formally renounce his rights of succession. He may not care a jot about being 11th in line -- his mother was insistent that he should not be given a royal title at birth and he has never shown any interest in having one. But whether he cares or not, he will still have to go through the motions, formally and constitutionally.
It has not been disclosed whether or not Autumn is a practising Catholic. Her mother, Kathleen, known as Kitty, has said that Autumn is "proud of her religion", and since both her parents are Irish by family origin (though, in the modern fashion, divorced) it is probable that she retains some ancestral attachment to the old faith. She certainly went to Catholic schools. It has been suggested that a Catholic priest may co-officiate at St George's Chapel in Windsor, which would be a mighty fine ecumenical gesture. But even if the apparently "very nice" Ms Kelly had cast off her family faith, and declared herself a Richard Dawkins atheist, it would make no difference constitutionally: the damage has been done by her having been baptised a Papist in the first place.
Can the circumstances be changed? Not for the sake of young Mr Phillips and his bride, but for the sake of making the British Constitution less sectarian? It can be changed: but it is politically and constitutionally complex. The Westminster Parliament would have to bring in a Bill amending the 1701 Act of Settlement. In turn, all the other Commonwealth countries would have to bring through their parliaments amending legislation. It is not clear if the Scottish Assembly might have to do likewise. Had Ireland not quit the Commonwealth in 1949, the Dail would also be involved: and might carry some weight, too, in the matter, as Eire often gave leadership to Australia, South Africa and Canada in the years when it was a Commonwealth member.
However, I don't see Britain and the 53 Commonwealth countries making time for a controversial amending act between now and May. There is also a deep, historical reluctance within the royal family itself -- not exactly for sectarian reasons, but for dynastic ones: amending the 1701 Act of Settlement, which so precisely defined the Crown as a Protestant institution, could open the door to claims by the dispossessed Catholic Stuarts. Talk about trouble!
I daresay ways will be found to make May 17 a happy day for all. Those of us who enjoy the spectacle of royal weddings always want such occasions to be happy. But the elephant in the chapel will be Autumn Kelly's Catholic baptism and the Act of Settlement. By its dictat, any member of the royal family who marries a Roman Catholic "would thereby forfeit the Crown and be excluded from and for ever be incapable to inherit, possess or enjoy the Imperial Crown of Great Britain and the dominions thereunto belonging."
A very modern family wedding, in so many ways, for a perfectly modern couple -- offspring of divorced parents, cohabiting together before wedlock -- shadowed by a very archaic prohibition.