The Northern Churchman
Many commentators and viewers will find themselves bemused this week watching a Service of Holy Communion being broadcast to millions worldwide. The Coronation combines the spiritual and national elements of monarchy. As a national event, it acclaims Charles as King, Head of State of this United Kingdom and the fourteen Commonwealth realms. As a church service, it also cements his relationship with the Church of England as its Supreme Governor. This connection with the Christian Church, and one national Church in particular, is seen as an anachronism, or at best a minority interest, relevant to one nation only within the United Kingdom.
And yet people of other religions positively favour having a Head of State who identifies with a church. It affirms the place of faith within British society; there is a security afforded to Christians in other denominations and to people of other religions. Freedom of worship, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly ought not be denied when the Monarch himself enjoys such freedoms.
Despite speculation about Christian content being significantly reduced to make it a multi-faith occasion, there remains much in the service that clearly and unambiguously proclaims Christ, to those of other faiths and none.
It is unashamedly (stubbornly?) a Christian service, The Coronation takes place within one particular act of worship: Holy Communion. The Lord’s death is being proclaimed until he comes. The saving significance of Christ’s death and resurrection are also symbolised in the Orb presented to the King. The Orb, the world set under the Cross, is a perpetual reminder that “the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.” The Cross set in the midst of the globe, in time, for all time. Christ, the Saviour of the world is displayed as Lord of all the earth.
The unique and final revelation of the Bible as God’s Word is emphasised, even to those who read and cherish other ‘Holy Books’. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland will present the Monarch with the Bible as “the most valuable thing that this world affords.” Surrounded by the dazzling and priceless wonder of the Crown Jewels, here is the most valuable thing in the Abbey, and indeed the world. Despite the King’s interest in other religions’ writings, he is reminded of what surpasses them all: “Here is Wisdom; This is the royal Law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”
It is undoubtedly a Protestant Service. It has become a fashionable opinion to announce that the Church of England is Catholic and Reformed but not Protestant. Near the beginning of every monarch’s reign we are reminded that this Is not so.
The Church of England requires its Supreme Governor to “solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant”. Indeed the Church of England is known in law as the Protestant Episcopal Church, and the King is required to “maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”. Since 1920, the only remaining established Church in the UK is the Church of England.
(The Church of Scotland is a national Church but not an established Church. The King has already made his oath in respect of the Scottish Church in his accession vows last year, to “maintain and preserve the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government”.)
We should be praying that the clear Christian message at the core of the service will not be obscured by the other elements specially devised for this Coronation. What an opportunity to present Christ to the world.
It Is a national and civic ceremony, and in this regard it is a generous service, assigning non-religious roles to those who do not share the Christian faith. These religious and secular aspects of monarchy reflect the King’s dual role as Head of State and Supreme Governor of the Church. Yet even here a strong theology of the state is espoused, drawing from the New Testament. The Sword of Offering is given that the King “may not bear the Sword in vain; but may use it as the minister of God to resist evil and defend the good,”
We are denied the pleasure of hearing Justin Welby utter the 1953 petition that the Sword be wielded “for the terror and punishment of evildoers, and for the protection and encouragement of those that do well” – this has been quietly dropped. Connoisseurs may savour a subsequent prayer, however; it is rare indeed to find such robust theology on the lips of the Archbishop of Canterbury: “With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss and confirm what is in good order”.
Much prayer is required to fulfil such a calling. The prayers of the people find a focus in the Anointing with Oil. This action proclaims Jesus as Christ, the true and unique Anointed One. As prophets, priests and kings were anointed in the Old Testament, so Jesus is the perfect and eternal Prophet, Priest and King. The British Coronation is the only such service which still uses the oil of anointing, drawing on ancient tradition from the Kingdom of Israel. As the oil is poured, we pray that, inspired by the example and rule of Jesus the Messiah, King Charles III will be equipped with grace and wisdom for the challenges and changes ahead: “that by the assistance of his heavenly grace you may govern and preserve the People committed to your charge in wealth, peace, and godliness; and after a long and glorious course of ruling a temporal kingdom wisely, justly, and religiously, you may at last be made partaker of an eternal kingdom, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.”
God save the King!