To the surprise of many (including myself), the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday was not substantially different from Queen Elizabeth II's coronation in 1953. Yes, there were a few alterations. For the first time, ministers from other Protestant denominations and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster each offered a blessing for the newly-crowned king, who also received a greeting from non-Christian religious leaders at the end of the ceremony. The service featured new music, including an anthem written by the composer of Cats. But the basic elements of the ritual—anointing, investiture with regalia and crown, enthronement, the Eucharist—were seen again this past weekend, indicating that at the heart of the British Constitution remains an exchange of vows before God, binding ruler to ruled with rights and obligations.
There is no fixed rite of coronation. It is a palimpsest of British history, bearing the marks of every major event since the first kings were crowned more than a millennium ago. Parliament’s growing power over the Crown can be charted from various additions throughout the years. A ceremonial presentation of the Bible and a vow to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion” were inserted at the coronation of William and Mary, to demonstrate parliament’s will to maintain a Protestant monarchy after the Glorious Revolution. This year, the language of the Authorized Version and the Book of Common Prayer were mingled with the banal prose typical of contemporary liturgies, what one commentator has dubbed “churchofenglandese.”
The beginning of Charles's ceremony featured an unprecedented addition that made very clear the theme tying everything together. A young member of the Chapel Royal said to the king: “Your Majesty, as children of the kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of kings.” He replied: “In his name and after his example I come not to be served but to serve.” The same theme was recalled when (in another innovation) the king offered his own prayer: “God of compassion and mercy whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth.” In case anyone wasn't paying attention, Archbishop Justin Welby’s sermon hammered the point home: The anointing and crowning of the sovereign are an enacted prayer that he may be given grace to dedicate himself to the service of his people—and a prayer that he may inspire and support others to find liberty in service of God and neighbor.
The coronation has a special significance for those who must swear an oath of allegiance to the king because they act in his name, whether as parliamentarians, members of the judiciary, armed forces, or police. They are mere ministers of the Crown and servants of the people, treated with no fanfare, no inauguration ceremonies. The Crown absorbs our ineradicable desire to exalt and idolize our leaders, depriving those with real power from receiving such acclaim and reverence. In different ways their duty is to uphold the king’s oath to “cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed.” By implication, if they do or desire anything that does not strictly serve this purpose, such as power and influence for its own sake, then they go beyond their commission. Put in those terms, the coronation is not so removed after all from the average British citizen’s decisions about which party to vote for, whether to go on strike, or whether a law is just or unjust.
And yet, there is still an idea stubbornly inseparable from the coronation: Those who rule receive their authority from God. Recall that the ceremony is an exchange of vows: The king first swears to serve his people faithfully before he is anointed, crowned, and receives the pledge of loyalty from his people. Rather than a social contract to protect the self-interest of individuals, the relationship of ruler to ruled in the British Constitution is created by the mutual pledging of loyalty. Whether those promises will be kept by ordinary citizens or by those in public office is not wholly under our control. It is not just a matter of holding fair elections, skillfully managing state affairs, or having virtuous citizens. Just as in a marriage, we naturally sense our own inadequacy when faced with the gravity of the promises made; we need strength beyond what we possess. There are far too many examples, not just in the distant past but in recent memory, of states that collapsed after auspicious beginnings, or states that seemed invincible and yet are in ruins. As the Anglican theologian Oliver O’Donovan put it in The Desire of the Nations: “That any regime should actually come to hold authority, and should continue to hold it, is a work of divine providence in history, not a mere accomplishment of the human task of political service.”
At a wedding, as also in the coronation ceremony, the exchange of vows leads to Holy Communion—the pledge of future glory and the sacrament of the divine bridegroom’s love for his bride—to receive the grace needed to be faithful to our promises. At the heart of the coronation, in other words, is a claim defiantly out of keeping with our time: that the continuing existence of the United Kingdom is a gift given by something above us and beyond our ability to control.
M. Ciftci is from Cheltenham, England, and lives in South Bend, Indiana.
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Image by Katie Chan licensed via Creative Commons. Image cropped.