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Royal marriage, divorce and the Church of England

Maire Connor
Royal marriage, divorce and the Church of England

With preparations for what is likely to be the most eagerly anticipated wedding of the year in full swing, the Archbishop of Canterbury has announced that the fact that Meghan Markle is a divorcée is "not a problem" for the Church of England.

The actress and humanitarian was married to American film producer Trevor Engleson from 2011 to 2013, when they divorced citing "irreconcilable differences". In November 2017, Kensington Palace announced Ms Markle%27s engagement to Prince Harry following a year-long courtship. It was later revealed that the illustrious pair had chosen St George%27s Chapel at Windsor castle as their wedding venue.

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Asked whether the fact that this will be Ms Markle%27s second marriage was an issue for the Church of England, Archbishop Justin Welby, who will officiate at the wedding, answered that the issue had been "dealt with":


"The Church of England has clear rules with dealing with that and we%27ve dealt with that. We went through that as anyone would who will officiate at a wedding where someone has been separated and a partner is still living."

The Church of England has allowed divorced people to remarry in church, subject to a priest%27s discretion, since 2002. At the General Synod meeting of that year, 269 members voted in favour of allowing Christian remarriage compared to 83 against. Those who wish to remarry in a church must seek permission from the relevant clergy member. The Church advises the clergy to inquire as to a couple%27s intentions for their marriage, in addition to considering whether allowing the marriage could prove harmful.

Suggested questions include:

  • Does the couple understand that divorce is a breach of God%27s will for marriage?
  • Do they have a determination for the new marriage to be a life-long faithful partnership?
  • Do they seem willing to explore and grow in the Christian faith?
  • Has enough time passed since the divorce for everyone to have recovered, and are there complicating factors from previous marriages (court proceedings or child support payments, for example)?
  • Has either of the parties been divorced more than once?
  • Was their relationship a direct cause of the breakdown of a previous marriage?


Given the Archbishop%27s announcement, one can assume that Prince Harry and Ms Markle have assuaged any such concerns.

Of course, this won%27t be the first time a royal family member has tied the knot with a divorcéee. In 2005 Prince Harry%27s father, the Prince of Wales, married his long-term companion Camilla Parker Bowles (as she was then). The now-Duchess of Cornwall had previously been married to Brigadier Andrew Parker Bowles, while the heir apparent himself famously divorced his first wife, Diana, Princess of Wales, in 1996.

In the run up to their nuptials, the question of whether the pair should be allowed to marry in a religious ceremony gave rise to considerable controversy within the Church of England. Media reports from that time cite the prospect of marrying a couple whose relationship triggered the breakdown of a previous marriage as a particularly cause of clergical consternation; both parties have admitted that they began their relationship while married to their former spouses.

However the prospect of a civil ceremony was not so simple either. As heir to the throne and future supreme governor of the Church of England, it was questioned whether it was even legal for the Prince of Wales to marry in a civil ceremony. The Marriage Act 1836 legalised civil marriages but, at Section 45, stated that its terms "shall not extend to the marriage of any of the Royal Family". However, in a written parliamentary statement the Lord Chancellor stated that "the provisions on civil marriage in the 1836 Act were repealed by the Marriage Act 1949. All remaining parts of the 1836 Act, including section 45, were repealed by the Registration Service Act 1953. No part of the 1836 Act, therefore, remains on the statute book."

Ultimately, the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall wed in a civil ceremony at Windsor Castle, which was followed by a blessing at St George%27s Chapel presided over by the then-Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams.

While this arguably paved the way for future generations of British royals to have civil marriage ceremonies—and its worth noting that as fifth in line to the throne Prince Harry is perhaps less closely bound to the Church—Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have clearly opted for the traditional route. Whether this be due to public expectations or personal religious conviction is, of course, a matter for the royal couple.

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