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Crowning glory?

The coronation came and went far too quickly

A year ago today, HM King Charles III and HM Queen Camilla were anointed and crowned in Westminster Abbey. The service was the most recent in an unbroken tradition of such sacrings since 973 AD. Much that took place in the Abbey reflected the life of service of HM the King, his passions and interests. Overall, the service presented a vibrant likeness of modern Britain. I had the privilege of commentating on it for the French television station, TF1, which helped me to see it through a rather unique lens.

An anniversary is a moment for recollection and reflection. And that reflection might properly begin with thanksgiving for the King’s welcome return to public duties, after several weeks of treatment for cancer. Twice daily, clergy of the Church of England are bound to pray: O Lord, save the King, something I pray with absolute earnestness.

As an Anglican priest, I am interested to consider how effective the service itself was, and what lessons might be said to have been learned, (pray God) well before the next Coronation.

In terms of how transition of power works, and English coronations have some part in cementing that, certainly there was an interesting contrast between the aftermath of the elections for the leaders of the United States and Brazil, and the endings of the reigns of the last constitutional monarchs of the United Kingdom and Denmark – the latter transition coming after an abdication.

King Charles’s Coronation came and went all too fast

The English Coronation rite is unique. For the Church of England, which hosts the rite, under the guidance of whoever is Archbishop of Canterbury, the Coronation is a central act of its liturgical life as the Established Church.

The service defines an understanding of Kingship as something sacral. Today an almost ordained monarchy might seem outmoded and alien, and yet these ceremonies attracted considerable global attention and the fascination of many. To be the only Church to anoint and crown a monarch today, says something very important about what it is to be a national Church.

In the history of the rite there have been several key moments of innovation.

Given the religious tumult of the Reformation, the Tudor period saw relatively few changes. The Coronations of all the Tudor monarchs persisted in Latin after the break with Rome. If one discounts the truncated ceremonies used to crown James II, because he would not receive communion at an Anglican eucharist, the Coronation of William and Mary was perhaps one of the most radical. Henry Compton, its author was responsible for considerable and infelicitous changes, certainly in terms of overly pompous and meandering prayers.

Liturgical scholars in the later nineteenth and earlier twentieth centuries, tempered Compton’s elaborations and restored the more ancient precedents. The 1953 rite was for many a liturgy which St Dunstan, its original English progenitor, might have recognised better than any since 1689.

In 2023, the authorial work undertaken by the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby may be regarded as the most redacted rite since the Glorious Revolution. Without going into detail some of 2023’s questionable liturgical drafting, let us summarise the overall significance of the many innovations last year, some of which we were extremely successful.

My first observation would be that King Charles’s Coronation came and went all too fast.

The lack of official information and souvenir guides in sufficient time before the service, did little to inform general incomprehension beforehand. The Church of England may have missed several tricks in not having been in the vanguard of explaining and celebrating the rite’s venerability and beguiling mystery. It is hard not to find this sad and even scandalous. As the guardians of this rite, surely we had the responsibility to ensure the better transmission of its meaning.

It seemed that impressed bewilderment on the day, and an immediate turning to business as usual, was in stark contrast to 1953 when the months of build-up were full of excitement, and what followed was a basking in a golden memory for months if not years to follow. I am interested in why there was so big a difference 70 years later and I am not satisfied that the answer is because we are a more diverse society.

We need to ask whether the stakeholders and respective centres of operation did not trust or have sufficient confidence in the treasure they held. And why after the extraordinary success of the late Queen’s funeral there was such diffidence?

There was insufficient discussion of the questions around the Oaths and the Homage, which together properly needed a more thorough public evaluation followed by parliamentary debate. In good time before the next, and there may be no time like the present, these subjects need thoughtful consideration.

Quite what most people make of the significance of the Oaths today is a moot point, but it is possible to see that they are vestige of anti-Roman Catholic feeling, which should have no place in a modern society and they do not express the sentiments which Anglicans feel, and we are sure the King himself does not.

The Homage of the People, in the service last year, bore little relation to what preceded it in earlier generations, which was the homage of the Church, the Princes of the Blood and the different ranks of the Peerage. It was one of the least successful aspects of the rite, emerging out of nowhere, and breaking the fourth wall, by asking television viewers to make homage in their living rooms, or on their electronic devices wherever they were watching, in real time or on catch up. We were told ahead of time by Church of England sources that the Gilbert and Sullivan elements of the ritual had been dispensed, when in fact something possibly more ridiculous replaced it.

Despite some misgivings, it is important to celebrate the service’s several successes.

The Coronation ritual reflected well the reality of modern Britain, and the King’s real sympathy for faith in a very varied society. Unlike the service for the Honours of Scotland, in Edinburgh on 5 July 2023, where Humanists were represented amongst the faith communities, only faith-leaders proper were invited to be present in the Abbey, and to greet the King. To concede that secularist humanism might be a creed, would be a dangerous misrepresentation.

I am sure that the annual Commonwealth Service has played its part in expanding a sense of what can be done in a church to celebrate the coming together of people of faith. In that regard, I was fascinated by how well this Coronation stretched ideas of belonging, and reimagined national identity, and framed the United Kingdom’s sets of international relationships. It was a relief and a success that none of this reimagining threatened the integrity of the rite itself. The service’s elasticity suggested its value and potential to endure for generations to come.

Ecumenism and interfaith relationships within the national setting, were faced directly, imaginatively and appropriately with considerable care, warmth and hospitality. The (unamplified – because of the Sabbath) greeting of the Faith Leaders at the door was a prime example. Two other moments are worth signalling. The blessing of the Coronation Oil in Jerusalem in the March before the service, was a beautiful gesture and worthy of many plaudits. Likewise, the use of the Cross of Wales, with relics of the True Cross, given by the Pope to the King, to lead the King’s entrance procession was a truly remarkable.

It was regrettable that Parliament was not present to see their Sovereign anointed and crowned

The invitation to non-Christian peers to take part in the procession and presentation of the Regalia meant symbolic actions spoke louder than words. No faith leader was asked to do something which might have risked causing offence or alarm, but faith representatives and others were able to process and stand with items of great significance, close the liturgical action, without being required to subscribe to anything beyond their tradition. Lord Kamall, the Tory Muslim peer who presented the Armills, told me that a Muslim taxi driver saw him doing this, by that action, the cabbie himself felt more included in British society. Accounts such as these are significant and touching, and worthy of celebration.

The pared down Coronation Theatre, which the Abbey itself was built expressly to accommodate, by Henry III, might have shown care for health and safety, and the privy and public purses in an age of austerity – but was this money which we could not afford not to spend?

It was regrettable that Parliament was not present to see their Sovereign anointed and crowned; these actions connect the legislature to a sense of being subject to God, in a way of which they might need reminding. The disappearance of the Houses of Parliament en bloc, diminished the rite’s national role, and it made room for representatives of civil society instead. As charitable causes tend to have celebrity ambassadors, the presence of celebrities may have added interest for some, and space for commentary for others in some publications, but risked being reductionist and sensationalist, even if this had not been the actual intent.

As a priest of the Church of England, I am concerned that the complete absence of the bench of Bishops (as opposed to the few invited Bishops), was an act of auto-disestablishment.

For all those who love and honour the Church of England, in all its confusion and mess, as we reflect on its role in society, we might ask whether the so-called Reform and Renewal Agenda for the Church of England was seen in 3D. We might then ask, if so, whether that was a good thing.

There are many in the Church of England who feel increasingly alienated by this agenda, which is yet to yield the dramatic and hoped for resurgence of church attendance.

More successful perhaps, from the point of view of the global Anglican Communion, was the invitation to the Archbishop of Jerusalem to take part in the service, following his part in the blessing of the anointing oil in the Holy Land, along with the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem. Whether this was a stated intention on the part of the hierarchy of the Church of England, namely to have a Bishop of the Global South taking so active a part in proceedings, to obscure the dissent in the wider Communion, is hard to say.

The historical role of the Church of England, as the rite’s host, sets the tone for the Church to give space for religion in our society. The Queen made this point in 2012, and this remains important in helping honour different faiths, to avoid religion from becoming a tainted and unnameable subject, as it tends to be in France particularly. For the Church itself to disappear and de-platform its own diocesan Bishops at the Coronation, was the most extraordinary act of self-sabotage. I trust a lesson will be learned from this.

This rite is a treasure, with treasures within treasures. What the Church needs to say, celebrate and explain with enthusiasm, is that the outward lustre of the crown points to transformational holiness. The crown is the outward and visible sign of the anointing, which precedes the Coronation. The pouring of perfumed oil which is a sacramental act if not a sacrament of its own, touches, sanctifies and ordains the King and his Consort, thereby reaching out to the souls of his people. It is ancient, and the more you excavate the rite, the deeper down the quest goes into the recesses of human history. We are dealing in priestly and cultic themes the primitive character of which is rather extraordinary.

Before concluding, a word needs to be said about music and drama.

I would begin with celebrating particularly the English choral tradition, which is too easily overlooked, and because of guitars and worship bands too often ceases to have the mainstream role it once had in most parish churches. However, the choral foundations continue to be centres of excellence. They attract new commissions for their choirs, and they form young people for lifetimes in professional music-making of all kinds.

God’s Kingdom is about loss, suffering, annihilation, and crowns which are won through tribulation

Coronations showcase the musical prowess of the greatest composers and practitioners of their generation. The team that commissioned and oversaw the 2023 Coronation music deserves real congratulation. The nations of the United Kingdom were beautifully honoured, and the care and trouble taken in the parts allocated, continued with the choices made for the Honours of Scotland service in St Giles’s following the Coronation.

For a service which deals in treasure, here indeed is one of the most precious and most fragile. In evaluating the execution of the rite, there is consensus that the ability of English choirs, and particularly those who sing in cathedrals and collegiate churches, to be match ready or Coronation ready, every day is astonishing.

The Music overall from 2023 will be remembered as having reflected the King’s personal passions and breadth of sympathies. And his patronage of the performing arts throughout his time as Prince of Wales was rightly showcased in the music chosen.

As the music was so successful this time, surely next time a design and theatrical lens needs to be allowed and encouraged. Aspects of the visual impression needed more thought. Dressing a Coronation should not to be reduced to the level of garden party. A liturgy of this kind dislocates all the participants. Evening Dress in the morning, tiaras, velvet and ermine just after breakfast, are surely the best ways to make the point that God’s time interrupts temporal time. Much more thought needs to be given to this and the vision of a consummate metteur en scène will be necessary for the future.

The currency of this rite is God’s Kingdom. This is where the kingdoms of this world bow the knee to the True King – that’s at the heart of the Eucharistic element in this rite. God’s Kingdom is about loss, suffering, annihilation, and crowns which are won through tribulation.

The ancient Cosmati Pavement which sits before the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor and the High Altar, is a mediaeval map of the Cosmos. At the Anointing and Coronation this is where, at its centre the King sits, a signal that God reigns over all things as supreme. This setting makes for bold spectacle and its complex symbolism is just one part of the density of allusion within the rite.

The anointing is a key moment of holiness and the reception of communion is another – between those, the ascension of the monarch to the throne in the heart of the Abbey is a Realised Eschatology – just a moment, where we catch a glimpse of that which is  beyond anything we might otherwise know – a moment which speaks not just of divine sanction for human rule, but a proclamation of the destiny of all the baptised.

An insistence by the Church on these fundamental Theological truths, founded on a belief in them, must remain.

William Gulliford and Anders Bergquist host a seven part podcast called Fit for a King, which comes out today, a series of interviews with specialists interested in the Coronation Rite.

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