The Queen remains in robust health but, inevitably, as she gets older there is speculation about the form and content of the next Coronation service, when it is needed.
We should not forget that the service is, perhaps, the oldest ritual in the country. Its history goes back to before the Norman Conquest and it has influenced significantly the development of similar rites in other parts of Europe.
During these centuries it has changed very little; it has become a little more elaborate, been translated into English, had the Eucharistic material conformed to the Book of Common Prayer and, in 1689, the Oath to maintain the ‘reformed religion established by law’ was inserted by Parliament. Any other changes have been minor and incidental.
Act of worship
The overwhelming impression is that of a fundamentally Christian act of worship during which the new monarch is crowned and enthroned. This is preceded, however, by the giving of a Bible with the words: ‘We present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is Wisdom; this is the royal law. These are the lively Oracles of God.’
The new monarch has already promised in the Oath to ‘maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the gospel’. These are not just words. We know that in the course of time, the Bible has profoundly influenced the thoughts and actions of kings and queens. The emergence, under Alfred, of a Common Law tradition consistent with the Judaeo-Christian teachings of the Bible, St. Dunstan’s fashioning of a Coronation oath and Henry’s Charter of Liberties (so influential for Magna Carta) are all examples of the role the Bible has played in the development of the monarchy and of other political institutions in this country.1
The promise to uphold the Laws of God and to govern people according to law are basic to the idea of a constitutional monarchy, which is itself derived from biblical ideas found, for instance, in Deuteronomy 17.14-20 (cf 1 Samuel 12.14f). The Bible recognises a distinction between both Temple and Palace and Priest and King, as well as their inter-relatedness. This is the background to Jesus’ comment to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s. It cannot be an accident that this is the part of the Gospel set for the Coronation Service (Matthew 22.15-22).
The whole service has a sacramental feel to it. It is, of course, set in the context of celebrating the Eucharist, but one of its many remarkable features is the anointing of the monarch. The King or Queen is anointed with holy oil on the palms, the breast and the head. This is said to be in continuity with the anointing of kings, priests, and prophets in Israel. In the Bible, anointing is what God does through his servants and it is for the fulfilment of certain tasks, according to God’s will. It is impossible to say what effect such a solemn act has on the consciousness of the one anointed but it cannot be insignificant.
Every act in the service, every symbol of monarchy, is immediately and explicitly tied to the Christian faith. The ring of kingly dignity is described as the seal of ‘Catholic Faith’ so that the monarch will continue to defend Christ’s religion (note, not every religion or some vague concept of ‘faith’, though freedom of belief can well be seen as part, even a necessary part, of Christian faith).
The orb is set under the cross as a reminder that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer.
The sword is presented and the prayer accompanying this describes the monarch as a minister of God for the punishment of evildoers and for the protection and encouragement of the virtuous. This is taken directly from St. Paul’s description of the godly ruler in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2.13-17 (the Epistle set for the Coronation).
It is worth noting that at both the anointing and at the Communion the monarch divests himself or herself of all the panoply of power in a gesture of humility before God. This reminds us that the virtue of humility is a peculiarly Christian virtue which we learn from Christ himself who, though he was in the form of God, emptied himself and took the form of a servant for our sake (Philippians 2.6-8).
The monarch is an example of the public virtues of service, sacrifice and selflessness which springs from such humility. Whilst constitutional monarchy precludes an overly political role for a king or queen, the Coronation service clearly gives the monarch a role of moral and spiritual leadership. At the Communion, the monarch brings the offering of bread and wine, makes the confession and is absolved before receiving in both kinds. This is the climax of a service that has been sacramental throughout and also reveals the character of Christian monarchy.
The new monarch
When the new king or queen pledges to uphold the Christian faith, this is a most solemn acknowledgement of the basis for the nation’s institutions, laws and values. It is right that the atmosphere for making such a declaration should be as ecumenical as possible. I cannot see, however, how such a service could be multi-faith. Its very sacramental nature would seem to exclude such a possibility, but it is also significant that distinctive Christian beliefs are stated and advanced in every part of the service. For instance, one of the leading features of the service is to declare the monarch’s dependence on divine providence. Naturally, those who belong to non-theistic religions, such as certain kinds of Buddhism, will not be able to join in such a declaration. Other religious traditions may not see a distinction between what is God’s and what is Caesar’s as is set out in the Coronation Gospel.
There are some, of course, who advocate a wholescale revision of the event so that it becomes wholly multi-faith or even secular. This would have very serious implications for the constitutional arrangements of the nation and would run the risk of incoherence, in the service itself and, more generally, in national life. The basis, justification and legitimacy of the monarchy is set firmly within the Judaeo-Christian tradition and to tamper with this could lead to an unravelling of the monarchy’s raison d’être. I do not believe, however, that such a radical step will be taken in the foreseeable future. We should proceed then on the assumption that the traditional rite will be used and that this will involve the nation, as well as the monarch, in reaffirming the Christian basis of national life from which our leading values derive. One of these values is freedom for those who have other ways of viewing the world and human destiny. Hospitality and an invitation to them to contribute to the developing life of the nation also spring from the non-coerciveness of the Christian faith (even if the churches have not always been true to the gospel in this matter).
Christian basis for society
The Coronation should, therefore, at once be a clear declaration of the Christian basis of society and a welcoming of those of other faiths and, indeed, of none. What might this mean in practice? People of other faiths should certainly be invited and their leaders given an honoured place, if they are willing to attend. After the service, in Westminster Hall, or some suitable location near the Abbey, they, and others, should be able to bring greetings and pledges of allegiance. Nothing in the service itself should occur, however, which is indicative of any departure from the doctrine and practice of the Church.
The Coronation is not merely a civic or national event in which the Church is simply asked to be a ‘chaplain to the nation’. It is a deeply Christian ceremony in its own right and has the central mystery of the Christian faith at its heart. By communicating, the monarch demonstrates that he or she is a communicant of the Church of which he or she is to be Supreme Governor. By deferring to those who have responsibility for the ordering of the Church’s life in being crowned and enthroned by them, the monarch is reminded that ‘we give not our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word or of the Sacraments’ (Article 37). In other words, the distinction but also the inter-relatedness between the work of God and that of Caesar is clearly set out as an object lesson to the nation at large.
Let us hope that we will not need another Coronation very soon but, when we do, let us use with reverence this rite which has been shaped by such piety and which has led to such fruit in our national life. Such a sign of rootedness will not offend people of other faiths. It will honour Christ and will evoke genuine respect among our friends of other faiths and even among many who do not profess a faith of any kind.
This article is an extract (Chapter 6, The Constitutional and Sacramental Significance of the Coronation) from Faith, Freedom and the Future, by Michael Nazir-Ali, ISBN 978 0 957 572 553, published by Wilberforce Publications, 70 Wimpole Street, London, W1G 8AX and is used here with permission. wilberforcepublications.co.uk
1. Catherine Glass and David Abbott, Share the Inheritance, Shawford, Hants, Inheritance Press, 2010