Illustration by Michelle Thompson

Why Charles’s coronation could be a spiritual flop

Coronations once offered an occasion for national civic and spiritual renewal, but May’s ceremony will only throw a spotlight on the deepening dissonance, diversity and division that afflict British society
March 1, 2023

Millions of us will soon be watching a coronation ceremony that purports to be largely unchanged for 1,000 years. It will radiate spiritual splendour and, to most, will seem timeless in a world of ceaseless transition. In British coronations, the meanings are multiple. The sovereign will be presented to, and acclaimed by, the people—in a kind of nod to egalitarian society. He will swear an oath to uphold the law of the land. Yet coronations manifest more.

The ceremony is normally presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury and the dean of Westminster Abbey. Traditionally, there is no explicit mention of other branches of the Christian faith, let alone other religions, although they could get a brief nod this time.

The coronation is something of a crowning glory for the Church of England, and at times is referred to as its eighth Sacrament. Sacramental materials—whether bread, oil, wine, water or words—are recognised by theologians as instruments that signify the transforming power of God entering the life of the world. What was previously an ordinary piece of bread is now regarded as hallowed, and a channel for blessing.

The occasion almost resembles an ordination or the consecration of a bishop. Like a priest or bishop, this monarch is chosen and anointed by God—and has been endowed with significant spiritual-sacred-sacramental power. Even the medieval Latin Veni Creator Spiritus (Come, Holy Spirit), used in ordinations, is prayerfully chanted before anointing the monarch. The king is generally clad in robes (Charles will reportedly wear his military uniform, which does have precedent).

The monarch therefore becomes a single conflation of opus dei and opus hominum: embodying both godly and human power. Charles I knew exactly where his divine right to rule came from: God. For him, defying the king was tantamount to defying the deity. He went to his execution believing that God was being usurped just as much as his kingship was. Oliver Cromwell, during his short-lived republic, saw things differently. He presided over the realm as lord protector, transforming it from a monarchy to a theocracy. The rule of privileged genealogy was usurped by a regime founded on religious orthodoxy. Charles II was more circumspect and knew he was reliant on permission from parliament. Charles III will rule by consent more than by right. The king may be the head of state, but is otherwise dependent upon and subject to the sovereign body in the Palace of Westminster. Democracy will not be replaced by the claim to divine inheritance.

The 20th century—perhaps setting a pattern—sought to blend innovation with tradition

Each coronation marks subtle steps in social and cultural evolution. For example, the coronation liturgy was only translated from Latin into English for the first time for the crowning of James VI of Scotland as James I of England in 1603, since the English reformation required services to be understood by the people. James VII/II, in 1685, opted for an abbreviated liturgy. As a Roman Catholic, he felt the Eucharist was superfluous and so it was omitted. His successors were Protestants, and restored it.

The Latin text made a comeback in 1714, for the coronation of George I. As he was German-speaking, Latin was the only common language for king and clergy. George III’s coronation was marked by numerous errors and baffling gaffes. George IV’s coronation in 1821 was grotesquely expensive and lavish. In contrast, William IV had to be leant on hard to have a coronation at all in 1831. It eventually went ahead, costing just tens of thousands of pounds—compared with the £230,000 spent by George IV in 1821—and without the customary banquet, thereby ending six and a half centuries of tradition. Traditionalists sneered at what they dubbed the “half-crown nation”, and threatened a boycott. But the new king stuck to his guns, and wore his military-issue uniform (admiral). These economising measures set a precedent for future monarchs.

Victoria was crowned in 1838, and her coronation largely followed the pared-down model set by her uncle. But the service was apparently under-rehearsed, arrangements for the music in the abbey heavily criticised by the press, and the ceremony, in an echo of George III’s, marred by mistakes.

Coronations usually conclude with a procession, and in recent times it has been customary for the royal family to appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. There is nothing new under the sun, and the paradigm set in the last century was for the pageantry to parade national and Commonwealth diversity. The 20th century—perhaps setting a pattern for the 21st—sought to blend innovation with tradition.

Prelates and places

Coronations have not always required the archbishop of Canterbury. William the Conqueror was crowned by the archbishop of York, and Edward II by the bishop of Winchester. Mary I was not crowned by the then (Protestant) archbishop Cranmer, who was locked up in the Tower of London; she also chose the bishop of Winchester. Elizabeth I was crowned by the bishop of Carlisle, but only because the other bishops were either dead, too old and infirm, unacceptable to the queen or simply unwilling. The archbishop of Canterbury refused to recognise William III and Mary II, so the joint coronation was conducted by the bishop of London.

Anglo-Saxon monarchs were relatively flexible about their coronation venue, with Bath Abbey, Winchester Cathedral and even Kingston-upon-Thames favoured as locations. Henry III chose St Peter’s Abbey, now Gloucester Cathedral, but also opted for a more stately coronation at Westminster, four years after his first.

An ancient court, known as the Court of Claims, is traditionally used to hear petitions from those who seek to perform a service at the event. It was used for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953, and heard claims from the lord high steward of Ireland, who wanted to carry a white wand, and from the duke of Somerset, who wanted to carry the orb, or sceptre.

The dean of Westminster advised the queen on the coronation, as his predecessors had done. The Liber Regalis—a kind of medieval manual for coronations kept by Westminster Abbey—contains guidance and advice on how to run the event. Perhaps this guidebook helped to shoehorn the 8,000 guests into the Abbey in 1953? That was quite a feat, with many attendees given a seat just 45cm in width, making social distancing pretty tricky.

The coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, 1937. Underneath is the Stone of Scone, an ancient symbol
of the Scottish monarchs. © The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo The coronation chair in Westminster Abbey, 1937. Underneath is the Stone of Scone, an ancient symbol of the Scottish monarchs. © The Print Collector / Alamy Stock Photo

The Coronation Oath Act of 1688 laid down a statutory formula for the taking of the oath. In 1953 the queen promised to “govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, the Union of South Africa, Pakistan and Ceylon”. The nations and dominions list will be shorter this time. The archbishop then asked the monarch:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

Granted, the monarch also swears a separate oath to preserve ecclesial governance in the Church of Scotland. But this oath is taken before the coronation, and the liturgy affirms the position, power and privileges of the Church of England, which parades itself as established by the power of God and parliament. If repeated in 2023, this might make for an uncomfortable moment and require explication in our multi-faith and increasingly secular United Kingdom.

Dissonance, diversity and division

Coronations have evolved into a spiritual, civil and moral matrix for mutual affirmation. In an economically depressed Britain, limping on with post-Covid wariness, this is an occasion for celebrating communities and the civic values that bind them. Yet we are left with awkward issues and nagging questions that no amount of pomp and pageantry can camouflage.

Labour MP Ben Bradshaw has noted that the Church’s recently announced fudged stance on LGBTQ+ issues—after six years of debate and “consultation”—places it at odds with its purported vocation to serve its people. The nation as a whole has become far more progressive and inclusive in character and, as Bradshaw explained, continuing to treat LGBTQ+ people as second-class citizens means the bishops are “heading for a major constitutional clash with parliament”. He added: “Parliament will want to take a very close look at this. The overwhelming view of MPs on both sides of the House is that it is not sustainable for our established church to be institutionally homophobic.”

An established church might now be an anachronism, but even a national church is obliged to recognise the intrinsic equality of all citizens. The Church of England adopts moral positions on gender, sexuality and equality that undermine this.

One of the subtlest self-deceptions in the exercise of power is believing we are always acting in the best interests of others. Laudable selflessness can quickly turn inwards, with acts of service becoming the means of maintaining patrimony and power. A bishop or Synod that shrinks from a clear decision on marriage or gender equality may well think they are modelling some of the permissive properties of adiaphora—legitimate disagreement on matters where religion does not compel a view one way or the other.

Yet most members of the Church of England, and the wider population of the country, approve of equal marriage and women clergy. Only a minority do not. So promoting neutrality in order to keep the peace is neither right nor fair (nor does it yield results: as Prospect goes to press, the Global South Fellowship of Anglican Churches has said it no longer recognises Justin Welby as leader of the global communion).

Consider the wisdom of King Solomon (1 Kings 3:16–28), who boldly adjudicated between two mothers who had staked a claim over one newborn child, following the sudden death of the other infant. Solomon did not manage this dispute by proposing a hybrid arrangement until the child reached an age where it could choose its mother.

Nobody, on experiencing injustice or discrimination because of their sexuality or gender, would expect splitting the difference between opposing views to be constructive. Maintaining neutrality simply to preserve unity can legitimise oppression. True wisdom relies on moral courage, yet churches, like many institutions, often struggle to see this.

Ancient wisdom

The coronation is set to be a crowning glory for Charles III. Yet coronations, even dressed-down versions, risk the glorification of glory itself. Arguably, the hierarchy of the Church needs a grand coronation more than the monarch. Ecclesiastical leaders doubtless hope that a national celebration might provide temporary respite from the internal and external problems the Church faces. But a few good days in May, beyond providing nostalgic distraction, are unlikely to make much difference.

Coronations, even dressed-down versions, risk the glorification of glory itself

The time may be ripe to “level up” and share ecclesiastical power and privilege. If proof of the problem were still needed, the recent national census, with its statistics on religious affiliation, made for uncomfortable reading. For the first time in a census for England and Wales, less than half of the population (46.2 per cent, or 27.5m people) described itself as Christian. This represents a 13.1 percentage point decrease from 2011. As the Church Times noted, Christianity is now a minority religion in this country.

The paradox for members of the Church of England—and remember, Anglican congregations can be found in more than 160 other countries—is that while the population of England is primarily pro-equality and pro-democracy, the established church remains rooted in theocratic hierarchies.

There is a better, and older, vision worthy of consideration. The first Christians embodied civil obedience and civic engagement alongside generous—indeed, revolutionary—acts of social service and charity. They drew on the example of Jesus and one of the earliest Christian doctrines: that of kenosis. The term comes from the Greek verb kenoun, “to empty”, in Philippians 2:7, which says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant”. According to this doctrine, Jesus laid aside his kingly status: he did not cling to equality with God, but humbled himself. This was Jesus’s deliberate divesting of honour and privilege, to embrace and embody full and authentic human solidarity.

As David Jenkins—the controversial former Bishop of Durham—quipped, “Don’t worry if the Church is seldom up to it, because God is always down to it.” Precisely so. Jesus is the grounding of God. Exaltation springs from the one who chose humility and equality over privilege and position; the servant king.

The coronation is a potential occasion for national renewal and presents a chance for the Church of England to begin setting aside its privileged positions and hierarchies, and fully embrace equality and solidarity with all of its people. This is a moment crying out for authentic kenosis. It could be a genuine opportunity.