LONDON, England – Millions of divorced Anglicans in Britain have done what Prince Charles (search) and Camilla Parker Bowles (search) plan to do next week — remarry in a civil ceremony followed by a blessing from their pastor. But none of them has been heir to the throne and the titular leadership of the Church of England (search).
It is in the brick-and-stone town hall near Windsor Castle that routine practice and regal responsibility will cross paths April 8.
The couple's decision to take the well-traveled path around Anglican objections to divorce and remarriage underscores colliding opinions in Britain that could eventually rattle the Church of England, which plays an anchor role for the world's 77 million-strong association of churches known as the Anglican Communion.
The Anglican bonds already are being tested by quandaries such as gay pastors, the ordination of women and whether to give blessings to same-sex marriages. The Anglicans' nearly 500-year-old mother church could face added tremors if Charles someday wears the crown with Camilla at his side.
Liberal Anglicans appear either indifferent to the marriage or hope it opens the way for greater Anglican tolerance of divorce and remarriage. Conservatives see it as a further erosion of the church's moral pillars.
"Most people think what Charles and Camilla are doing is better than the current arrangement — in other words, living together 'in sin,' as some call it," said Paul Handley, editor of the Church Times newspaper, which follows Anglican affairs. "They are glad to see them get hitched."
But conservatives feel Charles is trampling on Anglican traditions by marrying his longtime lover. The reason: Her ex-husband, Andrew Parker Bowles, is still alive. According to church tenets, only Charles would be free to remarry because his former wife, Princess Diana, is dead.
A high-ranking Anglican theologian, Bishop David Stancliffe, even suggested Charles should apologize to Andrew Parker Bowles for contributing to the break-up of his marriage, The Sunday Times newspaper reported.
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Church of England does not grant annulments that would clear the way for a religiously approved remarriage. It also consistently stresses that marriage is a "lifelong covenant" and generally closes the door on a second chance sanctioned by the church.
In 2002, the church's governing body, the General Synod, loosened rules on remarriage in the church and gave parish priests discretion to decide whether the couple meets certain "exceptional circumstances." Among them: The new marriage should not "consecrate the old infidelity" — which, many say, would be the case with Charles and Camilla.
Since the 1980s, most Anglicans who wish to remarry after divorce have opted for an easy compromise: a civil service followed by a church blessing. For Charles and Camilla, the pastor will be the Archbishop of Canterbury, the most senior clergyman of the Anglican Communion.
The archbishop, the Most Rev. Rowan Williams, said in a statement that the wedding plans "are consistent with Church of England guidelines."
It's a powerful sign of how far attitudes have evolved — ironically in a church started in the 16th century by King Henry VIII's break with the Vatican over his desire to leave his wife for his mistress.
In 1936, King Edward VIII abdicated to marry a twice-divorced American, Wallis Simpson. In 1955, Princess Margaret abandoned plans to marry a divorced man under pressure from the Churchill government and church leaders.
In 1992, Princess Anne simply bypassed the Church of England and remarried in a Presbyterian service in Scotland.
The death of Diana in 1997 — a year after her divorce from Charles — gave the church and British public time to ponder the prospect of Charles' remarriage.
"Now all those feelings have died down, and anyone expressing burning anger at the prospective marriage of a widower and a divorcee — both of whose marriages ended 10 years ago and both of whom are in their mid-50s — looks slightly mad," the commentator Charles Moore wrote in The Daily Telegraph. Some people, however, remain highly critical.
A popular British royals Web site run by a Dutch woman has been overflowing with messages since the wedding announcement. More than 600 arrived in March, said Geraldine Voost, who developed a fascination for the British monarchy while working in England in the 1990s.
One message from Britain signed by Alice Campbell urged Charles to take a cue from his uncle Edward: "If he wants to have Camilla ... let him leave like his great uncle and let more respectable people run the monarchy and the church."