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Posted on Fri 5 May 2023

The Religious Significance of the Coronation - The Telegraph 4th May 2023

As preparations for the coronation of King CharlesIII have gained momentum, there have been the usual siren voices asking why it is necessary and questioning its Christian character and the role of the Church in the event. Thus Jonathan Chaplin, a theologian from Cambridge, writing in Law and ReligionUK and in the Church Press, argues that it is inappropriate for the Church to be involved in such a display of state power, that such involvement is no longer relevant in a secularised society and that the Church should now seek its own disestablishment.

I cannot comment on all of this agenda, which varies from one interest group to another, save to say that the Coronation Service is probably the oldest public ritual in the country, going back to at least the 10th century. Although there have been changes, such as its translation into English, conforming the Eucharist to the Book of Common Prayer and the insertion of the Coronation Oath by Parliament in 1689 to maintain ‘the Protestant Reformed Religion established by Law’, its overall integrity as a Christian act of eucharistic worship during which the monarch is crowned and enthroned has been maintained. It represents, as perhaps nothing else, the character, beliefs and values of the nation and their origins and reveals the cumulative nature of our constitutional arrangements, as well as the place of the monarch in them. It is based on the British sense of valuing wisdom as it is mediated over the centuries and relating it to our present needs. In this sense, as Burke saw quite clearly, Britain is quite different from say France, its overthrowing of its cumulative public culture at the Revolution and the installing of an assertive laïcité, allegedly based on pure reason alone. A ceremony like the Coronation is difficult to imagine taking place across the Channel.

At it, the monarch promises to uphold the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel. He is given a Bible, with the words, “we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the Royal Law. These are the Lively Oracles of God”. These are not mere words. They signal the fact, as a very liberal senior judge once told me, that, since at least the time of Alfred the Great, our laws have been derived from and made consistent with the teaching of the Bible, especially the Ten Commandments and our Lord’s summary of them. They also indicate that this is no absolute monarchy but one understood in terms of the Bible’s vision of service, sacrifice and selflessness. It is not an accident that the reading from the Gospel has to do with rendering to Caesar what is properly Caesar’s and to God what is rightfully his. There should be no confusion between Church and State: each has its own sphere of service to the nation and the world. The Church, if asked, should be glad to offer its counsel and presence to the State but this should be without compromise. As John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester in Henry VIII’s time, is reported to have advised the Church, we accept the Royal Supremacy, insofar as the Law of Christ allows or as Thomas More said, “I am the King’s good servant but God’s first”.

The service has a clear sacramental character, not only because it is eucharistic but also because of the symbolism that runs through it. The anointing of the monarch on the hands, head and breast(with oil from the Mount of Olives)evokes the anointing of kings, priests and prophets in the Bible. It symbolises the divine calling and the setting apart of someone to specific service. This is not just a functional office taken up for a period and then laid aside. As ElizabethII understood so well, this is a vocation for life.

The service is replete with Christian symbolism which, on the one hand, acknowledges the sovereignty of Christ over the whole realm and, on the other, the monarch’s role of reigning under such an overarching worldview. Thus the Sword of State is given with a mandate for godly rule drawn from St Paul’s Letter to the Romans. The Orb is delivered with words that remind the monarch and congregation of the universal Lordship of Christ. The ring is presented as ‘the seal of the Catholic Faith’ with the monarch exhorted to be ‘the Defender of Christ’s Religion’(Defensor Fidei is, after all, a title given to the King by the Pope!). The Sceptre also has a cross over it to show under whose divine rule the King is to govern.

It is clear that the whole service is distinctively Christian and affirms the Judeo-Christian tradition as the basis of our national life and from which proceed the beliefs and values of dignity, equality and liberty which should characterise our life together. It is appropriate, therefore, for all churches to play the fullest part in it. These beliefs and values also imply valuing the freedom of those who think and believe differently. It is thus absolutely right that leaders of other faith traditions should be given an honoured place at the service and be able to bring a greeting and expression of loyalty to the Sovereign.

What would people rather have; a service replete with wisdom and symbolism from a shared history or a secular ceremony of mere form and empty of everything but the most functional? We shall see on Saturday, as we did at ElizabethII’s funeral, that the Christian story is alive and well and necessary for our life together.

Michael Nazir-Ali

3May, 2023.

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