Last year, a Washington Post journalist interviewed Ian Bradley, a professor of cultural and spiritual history here in the United Kingdom, about the accession of King Charles III to the throne. The reporter remarked, “For a country which is so secular and where so few go to church, you sure mention God a lot.”
It’s a fair comment. As monarch, King Charles is not only the head of state for the UK but also the Defender of the Faith (a title given to King Henry VIII by the pope in 1521 before the king’s famous break with the Roman Catholic Church) and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
When he is crowned this week in Westminster Abbey, he will be anointed with holy oil by the Archbishop of Canterbury while the choir sings “Zadok the Priest,” an anthem used in every coronation since 973 that draws on the anointing of Solomon by the priest Zadok in 1 Kings.
“It is the coronation more than any other event that underlines the sacred nature of the United Kingdom monarchy,” writes Bradley in his book God Save the King: The Sacred Nature of Monarchy. “At their coronations kings and queens are not simply crowned and enthroned but consecrated, set apart and anointed, dedicated to God and invested with sacerdotal garb and symbolic regalia. Here, if anywhere, we find the divinity which hedges the throne.”
All of this will take place in a country in which, as a recent census revealed, fewer than half the population describe themselves as Christian. The Church of England’s own statistics suggest that just 1.5 percent of the population attend a weekly service, while a 2018 British Social Attitudes survey found that 43 percent of us “never or practically never” attend a religious service.
For many of the millions who watch the coronation on television, it will likely be the first church service they’ve observed in years, or possibly ever. Even those who do attend church will probably need to rely on the BBC’s commentary to comprehend exactly what is underway; for most of us, it will be the first coronation of our lifetimes.
It’s the “spectacle” that will matter to most people, suggests Linda Woodhead, the F. D. Maurice professor in moral and social theology at King’s College London. “They will enjoy the sense of tradition, the ritual.”
Westminster Abbey, the setting for every coronation since 1066, is home to the shrine to Edward the Confessor, a king made a saint by the pope in 1161. King Charles will be crowned in Saint Edward’s Chair, which dates back to 1300, and will receive regalia dating back to the 17th century.
There is plenty here to appeal to a society drawn to Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and The Lord of the Rings, in which “the popular imagination is fed and touched by stories of chivalry, knightly derring-do, and mystical magic,” Bradley suggests.
Yet, at its heart, the coronation is a deeply religious ceremony. In fact, the UK’s is the only monarchy in Europe to retain a religious coronation. While the liturgy has evolved over the centuries, the key elements remain those from more than a thousand years ago, when in 973 two bishops walked King Edgar to the center of Bath Abbey to be anointed by Saint Dunstan.
An account of the service, which took place on Pentecost, was recorded by a monk in A.D. 1000. The congregation gathered, he explained, “that the most reverent bishops might bless, anoint, and consecrate him, by Christ’s leave, from whom and by whom the blessed unction of highest blessing and holy religion has proceeded.”
In King Charles’s coronation, he too will be presented to the people, who will show their support by declaring “God save King Charles.” He will take the oaths written for the 1689 coronation. He will be anointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury with holy oil symbolizing the pouring out of God’s grace in the Holy Spirit—a moment deemed so sacred that it will take place behind a screen.
He will then be bestowed with regalia: emblems of royalty that culminate in the crown. Those gathered will then pay homage to the new monarch before Holy Communion is taken.
For some in the UK, all this is simply derisory. When BBC Radio 4 recently discussed whether the anointing should be hidden from the television cameras, one prominent journalist suggested that this was “wonderfully silly.” Last year, the National Secular Society argued that the “overwhelmingly Anglican” traditions would be “deeply incongruent with the increasingly pluralist and secular society.”
Yet polling does not indicate a popular outcry. A survey by the think tank Theos in 2015 found that fewer than 20 percent of people thought that a Christian coronation would “alienate” people of non-Christian faiths, or no faith, from the ceremony. Most thought that it should be Christian.
Exactly what is understood by this remains an interesting question. When Charlotte Hobson, a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, showed interviewees footage of the 1953 coronation before asking them about their views on the next one, she was struck that most of them didn’t perceive the ceremony as a religious event. She was left wondering whether it is the sense of tradition that people now view as sacred, even when they no longer recognize its religious roots.
Establishment and entitlement
Among the oaths that King Charles will take is a vow to “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.”
It’s a reminder that we are a country with an established church, with the monarch serving as its supreme governor since Henry VIII’s break with the Catholic church in the 16th century. Clergy in the Church of England take an oath of allegiance to the sovereign. The separation of church and state, so fundamental to the United States constitution, remains “an alternative vision” in the UK, as Baptist theologian Nigel Wright wrote in a recent article.
For Stephen Backhouse, this is a settlement that requires theological scrutiny. As a lecturer in social and political theology at St. Mellitus, a large theological college in England, he increasingly found working for the Anglican Church “untenable,” he says, citing Jesus’ directive against oath taking and binding yourself to earthly principalities.
With a doctoral thesis on Kierkegaard’s critique of Christian nationalism (a CT book award winner), Backhouse regards the Church of England as “fundamentally a nationalist church” and believes the religion that King Charles will pledge to uphold “bears very little resemblance to the New Testament Jesus movement.”
He sees the coronation as a “huge nostalgic exercise” for Christians who grieve for a time when “Christians were in charge,” the equivalent of American Christians who revere the flag or the Constitution. “Underneath it is the deeply engrained entitlement to rule the culture.”
Backhouse recommends applying the “Martian test” to the service. “If a Martian was watching the coronation service, you’d ask them what [they would] learn about English religion. And they’d say, ‘Well, it looks like they worship the king.’ And I’d say, ‘Yeah, you’re right.’”
Even some who take the oath of allegiance have their qualms. A former bishop in the Church of England, Pete Broadbent, describes himself on Twitter as a “Republican” (anti-monarchist). Jarel Robinson-Brown, a young priest and a citizen of both Britain and Jamaica, called the oath “a necessary compromise for me to fulfill the call God had placed on my life.”
His relationship with the monarchy is colored by the history and legacy of the British Empire.
“The symbolism of a leader who submits to God and who on behalf of God quietly governs God’s people can be hugely powerful, but the idea that God sanctions earthly power is troublesome,” said Robinson-Brown. “It feels like the perpetuation of an imperialist anti-Black power to see a monarch crowned in a country that has failed to deal adequately with its past, in a Britain which has less and less reason to be called ‘Great.’”
For him, the most powerful part of the service is the giving of the ceremonial sword, with the instruction to “do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, … [and] help and defend widows and orphans.”
For some Christians, the coronation is an opportunity for mission, a chance to awaken the latent religiosity of the British people. Hope Together, a charity dedicated to evangelism, produced a series of resources suggesting that the coronation is “an ideal time for us as the church to point to the kingship of Jesus, the ultimate King of Kings.”
Since Easter, the Church of England has been releasing daily prayers, encouraging prayer for the king and queen, the royal family, and the nation. How far these will gain traction is difficult to say. In his book Coronation, the historian Sir Roy Strong notes that the archbishops of the 20th century all saw the coronation as “a vehicle whereby to bring spirituality back to the people,” adding that “it was a quest which ended in failure.”
Perhaps one challenge is that the theology of monarchy is so rarely explored in our churches. If you attend a Church of England congregation, you will be used to praying for monarchs but probably less familiar with the theological justifications for their existence.
At a recent lecture, Jamie Hawkey, canon theologian at Westminster Abbey, observed that there was no “clear-cut doctrine of monarchy in the Bible.”
When the people of Israel requested a king, Samuel was “displeased.” God declared, “They have rejected me as their king” and asked him to convey a warning about the tyranny that may follow (1 Sam. 8:6–9). And what about Jesus’ topsy-turvy hierarchy in which the first shall be last and the last first? How do we square that with a ceremony featuring priceless jewels, in which the great and the good of the land pay homage to a man born into the country’s social elite?
Ian Bradley argues that the Old Testament presents kingship as the “divinely appointed answer” to chaos, based on a “three-way covenant between God, king, and people.” When the congregation at Westminster Abbey shouts “Long live the king!” they will be echoing what the Israelites uttered when Saul was presented to them (1 Sam. 10:24).
Throughout history, both monarchs and the church leaders who served them have sought to draw on Old Testament models of royalty. When Edward VI was crowned at age nine, the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, is believed to have compared him to Josiah in the Old Testament: a young ruler bringing vital religious reform.
When it comes to the New Testament, Bradley acknowledges that Jesus’ kingship might seem to render human kings “redundant, or indeed idolatrous.” For some Christians, particularly those with more left-wing political views, the royal family is emblematic of inequality in the UK.
Bradley suggests that, rather than rejecting the institution of monarchy, Jesus established a new model for it, “patterned on his own royal attributes of righteousness, justice, mercy, wisdom, peace, humility, and sacrificial service.”
Perhaps the strongest impression the late queen made was as a public servant—steadfastly, even sacrificially, performing her duty through a seemingly relentless schedule of visits. It’s an idea that the current king and the Church of England are keen to emphasize. When members of the press were introduced to the liturgy for this week’s service, they were told that the “overarching theme” would be that of “loving service,” in emulation of that offered by Jesus.
In a break with tradition, a young chorister will welcome King Charles to the abbey “in the name of the King of kings,” to which the king will reply, “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.”
The code name for the planning of the current coronation was the “Golden Orb.” It’s a reference to the spherical object bestowed upon the monarch with the instruction: “Receive this Orb, set under the Cross, and remember always the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.”
Evangelicals and ‘every conviction’
Before King Charles’s vow to “maintain and preserve” the church, Archbishop of Canterbury will explain the church’s modern understanding of this committment: that the Church of England will “foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.” The king will pray aloud, asking God to grant “that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction.”
A visible sign of rapprochement will be the newly made Cross of Wales, incorporating fragments said to be from the cross on which Jesus was crucified, used in the procession.
The fragments were a gift from Pope Francis—a gesture that would have been unimaginable to some of King Charles’s antecedents. Among the church leaders who will pronounce a blessing on the king will be the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster.
But what of evangelicals, including those outside the Church of England? In the 19th century, one nonconformist contrasted the Old Testament coronation of Rehoboam, conducted with “no bishops … in a quiet, religious manner, and with as little expense as possible” with the “silly, childish, contemptible ceremonies that are practiced in modern times.”
In a reflection for Baptist Times last year, theologian Nigel Wright quoted Thomas Helwys—one of the founders of the first Baptist congregation on English soil and a champion of the separation of church and state—who argued that, “The King is a mortal man, and not God, therefore he hath no power over the mortal souls of his subjects to make laws and ordinances for them [in religion] and to set spiritual Lords over them.” Helwys died in prison in 1616, a victim of religious persecution under King James I.
George Gross, a research fellow at King’s College London and an expert on the history of coronations, suggests that while some may have been “uncomfortable with elements of the service,” evangelicals have historically been able to make their peace with it.
“The Protestant world bought into the service less perhaps because of the service itself but more because this was trumping the Roman Catholics,” he explains. He also points to evangelical influences over the centuries, from the presentation of the Bible to the monarch, to a focus on having it in English rather than Latin—a central tenet of the Reformation here in England—and the prominence once given to the sermon.
Today, there’s a sense among Baptists “that our Englishness, our Britishness, is tied up with the monarchy,” said Andrew Goodliff, lecturer in Baptist history at Regent’s Park College, University of Oxford. “I don’t think there is generally a massive feeling that we want to undo that.”
Baptists would still hold to the principle of separation of church and state championed by Helwys, he said. But he’s not aware of a “groundswell voice or noise around disestablishment. I think that perhaps reflects where we are as a nation now, that any sense of public witness … I think Baptists will be supportive of.”
Change and continuity
While it would be an exaggeration to say that the nation is in a state of pitched excitement around the coronation (a recent YouGov poll found that 64 percent of people didn’t care about it much, if at all), there remains broad support for the monarchy. Around two-thirds believe that it should continue, a figure that is even higher among practicing Christians.
In Charles III, the UK will have a king vocal about his own Christian faith and interest in all matters spiritual. In his first Christmas speech, he described visiting the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, telling the nation, “It meant more to me than I can possibly express to stand on that spot where, as the Bible tells us, ‘The light that has come into the world’ was born.”
His commitment to Christianity and its ties to the Holy Land is evident in another innovation to the coronation service: The holy oil used in the anointing was created using olives harvested from the Mount of Olives and consecrated at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.
Other changes to the service point to a keen desire to acknowledge how different society is from the one that greeted his mother 70 years ago. The Times newspaper has hailed this coronation as “a beacon of inclusion and diversity.” Faith leaders from different religions will join in the procession into the abbey.
The first Bible reading will be given by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, while many of the precious items bestowed on King Charles will be presented by members of the House of Lords from other faith traditions. Also presenting will be the Bishop of Dover, Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Church’s first Black woman bishop, who grew up in Jamaica.
Change is in the air, but so is continuity. More than a thousand years since King Edgar was crowned, we will watch a monarch swear to uphold the law with justice and mercy.
It’s a tradition we shouldn’t hold lightly, historian George Gross suggests. “To have them do that when we’ve got war on European soil, where rulers are breaking the rule of law, I think speaks volumes about British tradition,” he says. “I think for a monarch to swear to that is still something relevant in the 21st century, even when you’ve got what is a very medieval service.”
He suggests that marriage is a useful model for those seeking to understand the ritual. “There are vows; there is a ring. … And it is witnessed by the people and by God. You’ve got this sense of contract or covenant. … Before anything else happens, the audience is asked, ‘Do you recognize this person to be king or queen?’ Now at no point in history has anyone said, ‘No! Bring me another one!’ But it’s still important it happens, that they are asked.”
For the first time in history, the invitation to welcome the king will be extended worldwide. Where once it was the Peers—the social elite—who were invited to pay homage, the 2023 coronation will introduce the “Homage of the People.” The Archbishop of Canterbury will invite everyone in the abbey, and all those watching and listening around the world, to declare that they will “pay true allegiance” to King Charles.
It’s a recognition of a point made by Alfred Blunt, a bishop in the 1930s, who observed that “far more important than the King’s personal feelings are to his Coronation, is the feeling with which we—the people of England—view it. Our part of the ceremony is to fill it with reality, by the sincerity of our belief in the power of God to over-rule for good our national history, and by the sincerity with which we commend the King and nation to his Providence.”
Gross observes, “If people don’t buy into the thing, if they don’t tune in to watch and if at the end of if they don’t feel anything, then it just won’t have worked.”
There are those who are confident that Britain will feel something. Ian Bradley, for example, believes that today “the emotional and experiential are valued as much as the rational, and the importance of symbol, ritual, mystery, and magic is being rediscovered and reaﬃrmed.”
There are others for whom it will raise centuries-old questions about power and the church’s relationship to it. And there will be plenty who tune in, with a cup of tea, to see the Crown Jewels sparkle.
In the meantime, many Christians will continue to pray for our new king, in the knowledge that when a church sings “Veni Creator Spiritus” (Come, Creator Spirit), as every coronation choir has since the 14th century, nobody really knows what’s going to happen.
Madeleine Davies is senior writer at the Church Times in London and author of Lights for the Path: A Guide Through Grief, Pain, and Loss.