Much of the 1953 coronation ceremony was televised

Preaching the gospel of progressivism

Make the monarchy a spiritual vacuum, and it will soon be filled with nihilism


This article is taken from the August/September 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The longevity of Elizabeth II has (mostly) allowed us to avert our attention from the question of the relationship between church and state for a very long time. Given that her 70 years on the throne have seen the relentless rise of the forces of philistine secularism and constitutional vandalism, one cannot help but feel grateful for the benign obscurity that her reign has cast over such issues. Alas, this cannot be the case for much longer.

Defenders of the Faith: The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation, Catherine Pepinster (Hachette, £25)

During her coronation in 1953, the Queen made solemn oaths to maintain the “true profession of the Gospel”, “the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law” and the Church of England. She was anointed with holy oil as the chosen ruler of God in a ceremony that owes its ultimate origins to the monarchy of Israel, and which can be traced back in England to at least the coronation of Edgar in 973 AD.

In 1953 this solemn ceremony was received with little in the way of controversy, except in terms of the debate over whether it should be televised. In the end it was, but with the most holy part of the rite — the coming of the Holy Spirit and God’s blessings in the sacred moment of anointing — kept away from the nation’s prying eyes.

If the next coronation is similar, one can only imagine the chorus of outraged, irreverent squawking that will sound from the amassed ranks of secular-liberal opinion-formers. Despite this unappetising prospect, it seems reasonable to discuss what form it should take now, given that 70 years have elapsed since the last one — a task that Catherine Pepinster’s new book purports to undertake.

I say “purports to undertake”, because in fact the vast majority of it is taken up with a rather pedestrian rehearsal of British religious and monarchical history since the Reformation, followed by long and dull accounts of what little we know about the spiritual lives of HM the Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles. 

These central six chapters of the book are overwhelmingly preoccupied with a topic which clearly concerns the author more than any other: the nature of the relationship between Roman Catholicism and the monarchy, which seems like a rather odd focus given that the British monarchy has not been in communion with the Church of Rome since the 16th century. 

Working out what she favours is like stapling a jellyfish to wet soap

She spends a large proportion of the book bewailing the historical inequities perpetrated against Ms Pepinster’s co-religionists by the British establishment, and demonstrating how recent decades have seen a real — albeit cautious — rapprochement between the monarchy and Roman Catholics. She goes on to make a series of commonplace observations about the country’s growing secularism, the rise of religious and cultural diversity, and the decline of Anglican congregations since 1953.

If one wants to know what the equivocating Ms Pepinster thinks the implications of all these trends are for the next coronation and relations between church and state, then one will have to read between the lines. Although her account of the various possibilities is a useful summary, working out what she actually favours is like trying to staple a jellyfish to wet soap.

Nonetheless, my interpretation is that she wishes to see the accession and coronation oaths altered to remove references to upholding the Protestant religion and the Church of England, and replaced with either some general promise to uphold all “religions and beliefs” equally, or perhaps some more emollient formula, which will at least satisfy the clearly tender sensibilities of Roman Catholics. 

She also seems to tentatively endorse a slimmed-down coronation that (predictably) endorses “diversity” and “modernity”, and which might be divided into two separate ceremonies, one “secular” and another religious. She stops short of advocating disestablishment of the Church of England explicitly, but the prospect doesn’t seem to alarm her.

What is most disappointing about this book is that it skates around the substantial underlying issues, which are too tied up with the realities of the established Church of England to interest her much. Insofar as she does address them, her analysis implies a blithe acceptance of secularisation and the reduction of the monarchy to a free-floating symbol of diversity and multiculturalism, divested of its own spiritual inheritance.

My analysis would be different. Although in practice, largely through indifference and improvisation, the Church of England is nowadays usually left to govern itself, it is still in theory subject to the decisions of a largely non-Anglican legislature. The idea of parliament as the lay synod of the Church of England within a unified Christian commonwealth was torpedoed back in 1829. This leaves the monarchy as the last explicitly Anglican element of our political constitution (unless one counts the Lords Spiritual).

The state is never a morally or spiritually neutral body

As Richard Hooker pointed out, in the early days of Christianity, when the Roman Empire was heathen, there was between the church and state “no mutual dependency”. Once a situation arose where all became (at least in theory) Christian, the “Church and the commonwealth” became “personally one society”: they were simply different “accidents” of the same unified body. But he could not anticipate the third stage: the situation whereby one element at least of the state — the monarchy — remains Christian, while the body of the people has largely become heathen again.

When one considers that the state is never a morally or spiritually neutral body — espousing a substantive vision of the common good is unavoidable when public decisions and pronouncements are made, as they must be — then we risk, in the face of the decline of the old Christian moral vision, surrendering completely to the new religion: progressive worship of the self and the will, a morally arbitrary materialism that professes humanism but lapses inevitably into nihilism. 

If you make one of the last potential holdouts against this vision — the monarchy — a spiritual vacuum, it will soon be filled with this nihilism. Hooker understood that the public power never merely serves purely secular ends, as if “God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs”. If Christianity vacates the constitutional building, some other, false religion will fill the void.

Anglicanism is, if properly understood as a reformed Catholicism rooted in scripture, Church tradition, the creeds and the wisdom of the Church Fathers, an ideal public counter-narrative to the religion of progressivism, a counter-narrative that, while still embedded in rituals and state structures, can be kept alive and perhaps revived. Certainly, it has an historical and cultural purchase and a constitutional foothold that no vague “non-denominational” Christianity can emulate, and that Rome certainly cannot replace. 

Retaining, therefore, the customary oaths and rituals of our coronation ritual — and with it establishment and a monarch who is still supreme governor of the Church of England — gives us a tiny public foothold for Christian spiritual and moral traditionalism. We abandon it at our peril. 

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