Charles, Christianity and multiculturalism
29 April 2023
Writing in The Spectator on 12 April, Niall Gooch posed this question: Do enough of us really believe in the true spiritual power of what will be said and done in Westminster Abbey on the sixth of May? Britain, like Australia, has seen a decline in those professing Christianity as their religion to below 50 per cent.
Almost as soon as he acceded the throne, King Charles III’s past declaration that he would like to be called ‘Defender of Faith’, not Defender of The Faith, led to speculation that the coronation service would be changed to reflect a multi-faith society, thus losing its Christian character and grandeur.
Indeed, while he describes himself as a committed Christian, as Gooch writes, King Charles has a deep and long-standing interest in religious questions, and has been described as a perennialist, i.e., someone who believes that all religions are ultimately based on the same core truth. However, as it turns out, while the ceremony will be slimmed down, the essential Christianity of the ceremony will remain.
Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth believed in what Paul Kingsnorth, a recent Christian convert, calls a ‘sacral monarchy’. That is not a belief in a ‘Divine Right of Kings’, but rather that God has anointed the monarch to serve and protect his people.
Like all those before her in the unbroken line stretching back a thousand years, in the coronation service the monarch is anointed with the Oil of Chrism – the word chrism meaning ‘the anointed one of God’.
Those of the Christian faith who are baptised and confirmed are anointed with the same oil, so that we can be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to live our lives of discipleship and service, as the Queen did.
The anointing during the coronation ceremony serves as a reminder of Biblical times, in particular, Saul, the first King of Israel, who, as recounted in 1 Samuel x, was anointed with oil to be prince of the Israelites. Despite the Reformation, its ritual form as originally set out in the Catholic Ceremonial of Bishops has remained untouched.
King Charles will be also be anointed with the Oil of Chrism, blessed in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and, just as was the case in 1953, we will not be allowed to see the ceremony, due to its enormous spiritual importance.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, pointed out at her funeral service at Westminster Abbey that the first thing Her Majesty did upon entering the same church for her Coronation in 1953 was kneel in silent prayer before the high altar, pledging her allegiance to God before her subjects pledged their allegiance to her. Whether King Charles does the same remains to be seen.
Yet, it seems that he takes the coronation ceremony and his duty as a sacral monarch to serve and protect his people seriously. As Elijah Granet writes, by elevating the obligation to govern according to law into a perceived divine commandment, the coronation oath impresses upon the head of state the seriousness of their duty. European monarchs, such as the King of Spain, who these days simply take an oath before that country’s parliament, fail on this score because they do not impose as intense a reminder.
Therefore, despite the fact that the monarch is the head of the Church of England, Catholics, too are bound to pray for the monarch, in line with St Paul’s exhortation in 1 Timothy ii: 1–2:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgiving be made […] for kings and all who are in high positions.
In this vein, a Traditional Latin Mass missal I have in my possession contains a prayer for Queen Elizabeth, asking God to bless and protect her reign.
There has been some preoccupation that there will be no meaning in the ceremony for non-Christians, particular from some members of the Church of England. For example, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, of the theological college Wesley House, Cambridge, argues that the religious rituals involved are unlikely to be ‘received by the overwhelming majority of the nation on whose behalf the event takes place’.
However, as Granet, who describes himself as a ‘secular nominal adherent to a minority faith’ argues, this is wrong, for several reasons.
He states that those who are not Christians are perfectly capable of appreciating the coronation on its own terms, without modification. While the meaning of the coronation is undoubtedly different for those who lack a relationship with Jesus Christ, it is meaningful nonetheless.
Granet points out that the coronation can have religious meaning for non-Christians. He notes that the Chief Rabbi of England, Ephraim Mirvis, who ordinarily as an Orthodox Jew would not enter a church, will be attending the coronation, because Judaism teaches a duty to honour the King, even if he is not Jewish. On seeing the monarch, the Chief Rabbi will recite the Jewish blessing for seeing non-Jewish kings, thanking God for allowing heavenly glory to be reflected in human flesh.
In a similar way, as Granet states, critics give non-Christians far too little credit by assuming that they are able to only constitute one, Christian reading of the ceremony. What is more, the coronation has a contextual meaning significant to non-Christians. It is the reification of a constitutional order whereby, parallel to the Church of England’s continued establishment, each reign has brought progress in freedom of religion.
To this end, note the warm reception the royals receive when they visit Britain’s ethnic minorities. Gooch refers to the pictures in the media over the last few months of the King receiving a warm welcome from the Bangladeshi community in East London, and from Sikhs at a new gurdwara in Luton.
The fears of those that non-Christians will not be able to appreciate the coronation unless it includes Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or Buddhist prayers are shallow. If it weren’t for the constitutional system the coronation embodies, Britain would not have a practising Hindu as Prime Minister.