When Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams gives a blessing to Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles at the Guildhall, Windsor, there will, no doubt, be smiles all round. But this royal marriage is a both a potential powder keg for the Anglican Communion and a reminder of anti-Catholic legislation.

Prince Charles’s announcement that he is to marry his lover Camilla Parker Bowles in a civil ceremony on April 8 brought relief to those struggling with the prospect of a future Supreme Governor of the Church of England and monarch in an unmarried relationship with a divorcée.

Williams, who has been consistently opposed to a church wedding for the couple, said, “I am pleased that Prince Charles and Mrs. Camilla Parker Bowles have decided to take this important step.”

While this problem may be solved, a further one emerges: How does the Anglican Communion reconcile that its future spiritual head was not married in a church?  The General Synod of the Church of England, which met last week in London, refused to discuss it.

It is worth remembering that in 1936 King Edward VIII abdicated rather than renounce his relationship with American divorcee Mrs. Wallace Simpson, whom he eventually married.

Though giving clergy discretion, the Church of England still opposes remarrying those whose relationship led to the breakdown of a previous marriage. Fifty-six-year-old Charles and 58-year-old Camilla have both admitted to having had an adulterous relationship while both were married. A bitter Princess Diana blamed Camilla for her divorce from Charles before she was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997.

However, the marriage was criticized by evangelical groups such as Reform. Spokesman Rod Thomas said it would compromise the Prince of Wales’s moral authority when he comes to serve as Supreme Governor of the Church and would add to pressures for disestablishment.

The effects of the royal marriage will be felt not just in England, but also in parts of Africa and Asia, where Anglicans tend to be quite conservative. Around a quarter of the world’s 70 million Anglicans live in Nigeria. How will they react to the Church of England’s seeming endorsement of extramarital affairs?

For news of Charles’ marriage follows the openly-homosexual Canon Gene Robinson being made Bishop of New Hampshire, while another homosexual, Jeffrey John, was appointed Dean of St Alban’s after turning down the bishopric of Reading because of opposition from evangelical Anglicans.

So far, Anglicans in the Third World have remained loyal to Canterbury. But for how long? When 300 bishops met in Nigeria last year, they wasted no time in strongly condemning same-sex “marriages” and homosexual acts as unbiblical. Schism is a word being spoken more and more.

And the Charles-Camilla marriage has ignited another issue in the Church of England, and one that goes to the heart of its identity, namely its role as the established Church in England.

While the Anglican Church in both Ireland and Wales has been disestablished, in England this is not the case. The Church of England crowns the monarchs and 26 of its bishops sit in the House of Lords. But bishops are chosen by the Prime Minister, not the Archbishop of Canterbury.

King Henry VIII broke with Rome in 1533 because Pope Clement VII refused to dissolve his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, and Henry declared himself the head of the Church in England. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Acts of Supremacy and Uniformity were passed in 1559, putting the Church of England under the monarchy.

The anti-Catholic atmosphere of the post-Reformation years led to the passing of the 1701 Act of Settlement, which bars Catholics, those who marry Catholics and those born out of wedlock from the throne. It also stipulates that the sovereign must also be in communion with the Church of England, must swear an oath to preserve the church, and to uphold the Protestant line of succession.

While most of Britain’s anti-Catholic laws have been repealed by the Relief Act of 1793, the Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 and the Removal of Clergy Disqualification Act of 2001, the Act of Settlement still stands.

In recent times, Prince Michael of Kent, who was 16th in line for the British throne, lost his right of succession when he married a Catholic in 1978, as did the Earl of St Andrew, 17th in line, when he married a Catholic in 1988.

While Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster, and his predecessor Cardinal Basil Hume, have called for the abolition of the Act of Settlement, the loudest calls have come from Scotland, where sectarianism remains a live issue.  At soccer matches between rivals Celtic, whose support comes mainly from the Catholic community, and Rangers, whose fans are mostly Protestant, passion has often turned into sectarian violence.

Addressing the Scottish Parliament last week, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop of Edinburgh, demanded that the Act of Settlement be repealed, describing it as “an offensive reminder to the whole Catholic community of a mentality which has no place in modern Britain.”

He said: “It’s a matter of regret surely that had Mrs. Parker Bowles been a Catholic, Prince Charles would have lost the right to succession to the throne and, similarly, if they had been going to have children they would have been excluded from the right of succession, and that’s hurtful.”

“Although it may be argued that this is a piece of arcane legislation very unlikely to affect any of Scotland’s Catholics directly, ­that would be to miss the point, which is that its effect is indirect,” he said. “It causes offence and is hurtful. No other religious group in the UK is similarly excluded or stigmatized in law.”

Tony Blair, whose wife Cherie is Catholic, is understood to be sympathetic to reform, but Downing Street insiders have reiterated that, despite Charles and Camilla’s announcement, there are no plans to scrap the act.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will, no doubt, be relieved about this. But the consequences of Charles’ marriage in an Anglican Communion that increasingly lacks any central authority and has little genuine doctrinal unity — the General Synod of the Church of England last week took the first steps towards consecrating women bishops — may be very far-reaching indeed.

Greg Watts writes

from London.