The coronation of Charles III and his wife, Camilla, as king and queen of the United Kingdom will take place Saturday, May 6, at Westminster Abbey. It will begin at 11:00 am London time and 6:00 am Eastern time in the U.S. This will be the 40th royal coronation at Westminster Abbey since that of William the Conqueror in 1066.
That Charles has chosen the name Charles III evokes the unsettled history of the monarchy under Charles I, who was beheaded by English revolutionaries, and Charles II, who restored the monarchy in 1660, after the interregnum (1649-1660), and tried to restore a Filmerian divine right absolute monarchy. This name might also suggest that King Charles III will correct the mistakes made by Charles I and Charles II by moving away from the absolutist Christian monarchy of the Stuart dynasty to the classical liberal Christian monarchy of the House of Windsor. That will be made clear by the coronation designed by Charles, which combines traditional symbols of the coronation that go back as far as the Coronation Rite of King Edgar in 973 with the new symbolism of monarchy in a liberal social order.
Ian Bradley has an essay on the religious significance of the coronation. Bradley is the author of the newly published book God Save the King: The Sacred Nature of Monarchy.
I have written about the evolutionary rise and fall of monarchy by symbolic cultural group selection, and about the silly arguments from Alt-Right theorists like Curtis Yarvin for restoring a Filmerian absolute monarchy as the best regime. I have also argued that the New Testament teaches Lockean classical liberalism. Now we will see in this coronation the ritual symbolism of a New Testament Christian monarchy.
The most striking feature of the coronation ceremony is how it manifests the sacred nature of monarchic authority as invested with the sanctity of Biblical religion. But there's an inherent tension in this appeal to Biblical religion for political authority, because the Old Testament and the New Testament offer contradictory teachings about the divine authority of political rule. The Old Testament in its account of how God chose the rulers of the people of Israel to enforce obedience to the Mosaic law favors theocracy, in which religious authorities coercively enforce Judaism and punish those outside the Jewish faith. This has allowed many Christians to invoke the Old Testament as supporting a Christian theocracy, in which Christian kings rule by divine right to coercively enforce the Christian faith and punish heretics, infidels, and atheists. By contrast, the New Testament suggests a separation of church and state, so that those in the church cannot coercively enforce their faith, and there is no legal establishment of religion. This has allowed some Christians to invoke the New Testament as supporting religious liberty and toleration, so that churches become voluntary associations that cannot use legal coercion to enforce their faith.
In the debate over the divine right of kings in 17th century England, Christians like Robert Filmer embraced the theocratic tradition of the Old Testament to justify the absolute power of the Stuart monarchs as the "defenders of the faith"--that is, the faith of the Church of England--against those who did not share that faith. On the other side of the debate, Christians like Roger Williams and John Locke interpreted the New Testament as denying this theocratic denial of religious liberty. That's what I mean when I say that the New Testament teaches Lockean liberalism.
Now, in the Coronation Liturgy for King Charles III--as designed by Charles himself--we can see a subtle interweaving of Old Testament and New Testament traditions that reconciles the conflicts between them by favoring the Lockean liberalism of the New Testament.
Let's start at the beginning of the planned coronation. At the head of the coronation procession into Westminster Abbey will be "faith leaders and representatives from the Jewish, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Bahai and Zoroastrian communities" (2). They will be followed by the procession of ecumenical leaders of the Christian faith, which will include not just the Anglican Church, but also the Greek Orthodox Church, the Catholic Church, and other Christian churches in Great Britain. This has never happened in any previous coronation of the British monarch.
A crucial part of every coronation has been identifying the monarch as the "Defender of the Faith," which means defender of the Church of England as opposed to all other faiths, whether Christian or non-Christian. In the 16th century, "Defender of the Faith" was the title given by Pope Leo X to King Henry VIII for his defense of Catholicism. But then when Henry broke with Rome to form his own English Church, he held onto the title with the idea that he would be defending the Anglicanism of the Church of England against Catholics and Christian dissenters.
Charles has had a life-long fascination with all faiths. And in 1994, he said that as heir to the throne, he saw himself as less "defender of the faith" and more as "defender of faith"--of all the religious faiths. He said, "People have fought to the death over these things, which seems to me a peculiar waste of people's energy, when we're all actually aiming for the same ultimate goal." Although Charles' mother--Elizabeth II--was a devout Anglican Christian, she agreed with him about this. She once said, "The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country." She also said that "gently and assuredly, the Church of England hs created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely" (7). In a reception at Buckingham Palace days after his mother's funeral, Charles said that his mother was right about this, and that his Anglican faith committed him to "the common good of freedom." That's what I mean by the Lockean liberalism of his New Testament Christian monarchy. Actually, Charles has gone beyond Locke in arguing for defending the freedom of Catholics and atheists.
Early in the coronation as planned by Charles, he will be presented with the Bible as the guide for his rule (6). Then, the Archbishop of Canterbury will administer the Coronation Oath by declaring: "Your Majesty, the Church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to maintain, is committed to the true profession of the Gospel, and, in so doing, will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely. The Coronation Oath has stood for centuries and is enshrined in law" (7).
Notice that he invokes the Gospel of the New Testament and interprets it as ensuring that "people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely," which departs from the Mosaic theocracy of the Old Testament.
After taking the Oath, Charles will recite a private prayer, which concludes: "Grant that I may be a blessing to all they children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen" (9). To keep religious peace, Charles will secure freedom for "every faith and conviction."
Not long after this, the Prime Minister--Rishi Sunak--will read from the New Testament book of Colossians (11). This is remarkable because Sunak is Hindu, and yet he can be comfortable reading a New Testament passage.
Later in the coronation, there will be a thanksgiving for the Holy Coronation Oil and then the anointing of Charles with that oil. Here we can see the Archbishop of Canterbury invoking a subtle combination of Old Testament and New Testament ideas in the anointing of the king with oil: "Blessed art thou, Sovereign God, upholding with thy grace all who are called to thy service. Thy prophets of old anointed priests and kings to serve in thy name, and in the fullness of time thine only Son was anointed by the Holy Spirit to be the Christ, the Savior and Servant of all. By the power of the same Spirit, bless and sanctify this oil" (15).
The Archbishop's prayer recalls how the kings of Israel (like Saul and Solomon) were anointed with consecrated olive oil in the Old Testament (1 Kings 1:32, 38-40; 1 Samuel 2:10, 10:1). But then he immediately reminds us that Jesus in the New Testament was anointed by the Holy Spirit (Acts 10:38). In Greek, the word Christ means "anointed," and the Hebrew word for this is "Messiah."
As John Locke pointed out in his Letter Concerning Toleration, while the kings of Israel were anointed to rule over an "absolute theocracy," Jesus was anointed to rule over his followers by the persuasiveness of his preaching, and he never attempted to establish a Christian theocracy. Moreover, the New Testament makes clear that the first Christian churches were voluntary associations that exercised no theocratic rule. Locke explained:
"The Commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute Theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that Commonwealth and the Church. . . . But there is absolutely no such thing, under the Gospel, as a Christian Commonwealth. There are, indeed, many Cities and Kingdoms thaqt have embraced the Faith of Christ; but they have retained their ancient Form of Government; with which the Law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by Faith and good Works, they may attain Eternal Life. But he instituted no Commonwealth. He prescribed unto his Followers no new and peculiar Form of Government; Nor put he the Sword into any Magistrate's Hand, with Commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former Religion, and receive his" (Hackett edition, 44-45; Liberty Fund edition, 42).
The coronation of Charles will indicate how his kingship will follow the model of Christ's persuasive kingship rather than the theocratic kingship of ancient Israel. At the beginning of the coronation, Charles will be greeted by a Chapel Royal chorister: "Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God, we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings." Charles will respond: "In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve" (3).
Here Charles will echo the words of Jesus when he warned his followers not to strive for authoritative rule over others: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave--just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:25-28).
It seems that Charles will be intimating here that he is a king who has no coercive authority over his people, particularly in matters of religious belief. At most, he can only exercise the sort of persuasive authority that comes through Christian preaching, and for that he needs the persuasive symbolism of being anointed with Coronation Holy Oil.
Rendering that oil holy required a special preparation (15). It was from olives from groves on the Mount of Olives at the Russian Orthodox Monastery of Mary Magdalene, which is the burial place of Charles' paternal grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece, who was a Greek Orthodox believer. The Mount of Olives, outside Jerusalem, is a holy place for Jews, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Protestants. The olives were pressed just outside Bethlehem. The oil was then perfumed with essential oils--sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber, and orange blossom. The oil was then consecrated by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, the Most Reverend Dr. Hosam Naoum. Thus, this oil has an ecumenical holiness that comes from symbolic links to all the major Biblical religious traditions.
The actual anointing of Charles will be the only part of the coronation that will be hidden from both the audience in Westminster Abbey and the television cameras. An Anointing Screen, specially designed and woven for this purpose will be arranged around the Coronation Chair. Behind the screen, the Archbishop of Canterbury will anoint the King's hands, breast, and head (16). Hiding this from view gives an air of mystery to this most sacred moment of the coronation.
As the King is being anointed, the Choir of Westminister Abbey will sing Georg Frederick Handel's "Zadok the Priest" anthem. The text of this anthem has always been part of the English Coronation Rite. But it was made famous when Handel set it to music for the coronation of George II in 1727. Here's the text, which is based on the anointing of King Solomon in 1 Kings 1:32-35:
"Zadok the priest
"and Nathan the prophet
"anointed Solomon king.
"And all the people rejoiced and said:
"God save the King!
"Long live the King!
"May the King live forever!
Handel's "Zadok the Priest"
I have written about how Handel used his Biblical music (like the Messiah) to refute Deism and defend religious orthodoxy. Does this anthem serve the same purpose by using the power of his music to support the Biblical teaching about the divine authority of rulers?
The anointing of King Charles is followed by the presentation of the regalia--the Spurs, the Sword, the Bracelets, the Robe Royal, the Stole Royal, the Orb, the Ring, the Glove, the Sceptre, and the Rod--each of which has some distinctive symbolic meaning.
Finally, the King will be crowned with the Crown of St. Edward, and all in the Abbey will shout "God save the King!" There will be a musical fanfare, a Gun Salute, and the Abbey bells will ring for two minutes (25).
Then, for the first time in the history of coronations, the Blessing of the King will come not just from the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, but also from a Catholic archbishop, a Greek Orthodox archbishop, and from representatives of other Christian churches in Great Britain. Such an ecumenical affirmation would have been impossible in previous coronations, even as late as the 1953 coronation of Elizabeth (26).
After the King has been enthroned, there will be oaths of allegiance. The first will be from the "Homage of the Church of England" expressed by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The second will be the "Homage of Royal Blood" coming from William, the Prince of Wales: "I, William, Prince of Wales, pledge my loyalty to you and faith and truth I will bear unto you, as your liege man of life and limb. So help me God." This will be the most painful moment for Prince Harry--a reminder that he is far down the line of succession, and that William is most likely to be the next King.
Remarkably, this will be followed by "The Homage of the People," which is another novel move that has never been done in a coronation:
"Archbishop of Canterbury:
"I call upon all persons of goodwill of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and of the other Realms and the Territories to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted King, defender of all."
"All who so desire, in the Abbey, and elsewhere, say together:
"I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors acording to law. So help me God.
"A fanfare is played (28)."
In all previous coronations, the Homage has been pledged by the hereditary peerage in order of degree. But now the Homage of Peers has been replaced by the Homage of the People. Notice that this is voluntary--"all who so desire." So, here the King explicitly recognizes that whatever persuasive authority he has over the people must come from their voluntary consent. And to win that consent, he must convince them that he really is God's Anointed One.
Next, the King's wife--Camilla--will be crowned as the Queen Consort, and she will be anointed by the Archbishop, but without a screen, suggesting that the anointing of a consort is not as sacred as the anointing of the King (29).
Following this, there will be other ceremonies, songs, and prayers.
After the singing of the national anthem ("God Save the King"), the King will march in procession out of the Abbey. At the end of the procession, he will be greeted by representatives of five non-Christian faith communities: Jewish, Hindu, Sikh, Muslim, and Buddhist. They will deliver their greeting in unison: "Your Majesty, as neighbors in faith, we acknowledge the value of public service. We unite with people of all faiths and beliefs in thanksgiving, and in service with you for the common good" (41).
As with so much else in this coronation, this has never been done in any previous coronation. This ending matches the beginning with the procession of faith leaders and representatives of faith communities (2).
Finally, the King goes to the Gold State Coach, which will take him back to Buckingham Palace.
The Gold State Coach
Will it work?
When the people are asked for their homage, will millions of people across Great Britain and the Commonwealth swear their allegiance "in heart and voice" to the King? Will they willingly accept a monarchy that claims only a persuasive authority and not a coercive theocratic authority, and therefore a monarchy that poses no threat to the personal, political, or religious liberty of the people? Or will they laugh or smirk as they think about how foolish Charles is to think all this religious mumbo-jumbo will persuade them that Charles is their divinely anointed King?
Great Britain is one of the most secularized societies in the world. Some surveys report that most people identify themselves as having no religious belief. Only a small minority of the people participate at least once a week in some kind of religious worship service. So, we have to wonder whether the King truly believes that his appeal to the sacred character of the British monarchy will work.