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Artillery Row

Outward signs of invisible grace

The King’s coronation was deeply religious

If writing about the coronation is somewhat difficult, that might be because words can only tell part of the story. We live in a wordy, information-driven age, but so much of the coronation was about action and touch: vesting in mediaeval sacral robes, the heavy orb in an old man’s hand, a smear of oil on forehead and breast. 

The summit of the rite was that simplest of actions: the priestly consecration of a morsel of bread and a chalice of wine, the Sacrament pressed into the waiting hands of a few clergy, the Sovereign and his consort. Touch, taste, and smell conveying grace as much as the spoken word.

The coronation was an unmistakably religious, Christian rite. The King’s Hindu chief minister read the Epistle. The Bishop of London proclaimed the Gospel, from beside a Gospel book which likely came to this island with Augustine of Canterbury, before there even was an England.

Perhaps the strangest moment in the service was seeing courtiers and clergy begin to undress the King. For just an instant, it felt like some sacrilegious intimacy. 

Before his anointing, as the three sides of a small embroidered screen were brought into the Abbey’s sanctuary, the bows and tassels of the monarch’s robes of state were undone. And then — to Zadok the Priest — he vanished. The guardsmen held the screen’s posts, heads bowed. Behind, shielded from mortal scrutiny, the Head of State was consecrated to God’s service.

The King’s anointing was human in scale. Despite a congregation of thousands in the Abbey, thousands in the streets outside, and millions watching by various media, this little act performed at the heart of Church and State involved a handful of actors, a hidden stage of a few square feet, and a few drops of oil. 

The screen was removed as suddenly as it had appeared — Handel’s anthem still frolicking around the Abbey’s quire. Revealed — what a revelation — was the King on his knees before the altar, with the Archbishops and Bishops praying over him. At this point he was clad in a plain untucked linen shirt.

The theological foundations of the old constitution were here plain to see. An all-too-human king knelt before God and before the bishops, those select high priests of the Christian Church. Authority is grace — given, but not necessarily merited. Cycles of birth and death may determine the identity of the monarch, and the Sovereign is certainly also subject to the Act of Settlement and other earthly legislation. This country is, happily, not absolutist about such things. But the anointing is a reminder that Grace is inextricably tied to election: the monarch is in some sense chosen in each generation, chosen to be set apart from the crowd, as were Saul, David and Solomon.

That may sound alarmingly hagiographic, so I note two important qualifiers, bound up in that model. This view of sovereignty as touched by grace is hardly unconditional, but comes with myriad strings attached. Christian kingship is not license, nor a matter of ceremony and procedure, but sits under constant threat of judgement. The Hebrew Scriptures — the Old Testament of the Christian Bible — do not remember Saul, David and Solomon with untarnished honour. All are remembered as guilty of serious crimes and sins: God reserves the right to punish His anointed kings.

Nor is this divorced from human checks on monarchic power. The Bible regularly sounds a sceptical note of untrammelled sovereignty (see Deuteronomy 17:14-20). 1 and 2 Samuel blend court politics with theologies of divine intervention in Israel’s polity. 2 Samuel 5:3 records that before David was anointed king (for a second time) at Hebron, he first made a covenant with all the elders of Israel. The view of monarchy preserved in the coronation and derived from Scripture is not absolutist or unconditional: divine grace and earthly accountability are held together in a productive tension.

The King in Parliament in Britain is not so utterly removed, then, from the tribes of Israel at Hebron. Britain has had a mixed constitution since the Middle Ages. King, professional politicians, the Church, and the people.

This was recognised in one of the smaller but more significant changes to the 2023 coronation order. After the anointing, among the regalia presented to the King was a ring. In previous coronations this had been a sign “of the Catholic faith.” This has, perhaps, been dropped to avoid awkward explanations to unchurched audiences about the precise theological and ecclesiological claims of the established Church. 

It was replaced by words that it was “a sign of the covenant sworn this day, between God and King, King and people.” In an act of mediaeval pragmatism, the British state effectively chooses to be constituted both vertically and horizontally: with reference to both the transcendent and the popular. Britain reaches back beyond the options imposed by the Enlightenment and the nineteenth century, notions of revolutionary sovereignty or national particularity, for a constitutional order which manages to be democratic and theocratic more or less simultaneously; the two coexist, with little apparent difficulty, because they operate on different planes. The King’s function is, in many ways, to mediate those two different planes of reality.

The second qualifier is the evident humanity of the King at the moment of his anointing. Humanity not in the sense of decency or virtue, but in terms of being a concrete, mortal human being. At the heart of our constitution — at least in its symbolic order — is not a powerful abstraction (the State; the People; the Nation) but an elderly man, with his family around him.

Sovereignty is subject to the vicissitudes of family life

Sovereignty is subject to the vicissitudes of family life. Kingship is transferred in a heartbeat. The monarch knew yesterday that he is likely to lie in state at Westminster, when the time comes. We might have added to the service yesterday, “Remember man, thou art dust.” It is rather a shame that the service did not find time for the Prayer Book’s magnificent confession and absolution from the Communion Service. 

Some will say that all this Christianity — the mediaeval Catholic ritual of coronation; the oaths to protect the Protestant settlement — is naturally exclusive, and wrong in the twenty-first century. Ignoring for a moment the silliness of actually believing in the chronological theory of political morality (some fairy tales deserve derision), it should be remembered that formally Christian Britain does a pretty decent job of integrating other religions. 

The kind of visible, deliberate representation in the coronation service of non-Christian peers, and the greetings offered after the end of the Christian service by leaders of other religious groups, goes beyond what can be seen at state occasions in staunchly secular France. The coronation saw Britain’s actual day-to-day ruler give a reading, as the country successfully maintains a simultaneously kingly and democratic constitutional order; likewise the British state revealed itself to be simultaneously Christian and religiously inclusive in character.

The British state “doing God” seems to be exclusive only of hardline liberal secularists, and only on rare occasions such as this. I leave readers to judge whether that is so terrible a thing.

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