It’s been a truism of secular culture that any conversation that combines religion and politics should not be hosted around a dining room table. But, like it or not, the Coronation fuses politics and religion irrevocably together. It sometimes takes a GK Chesterton to refuse this bourgeois timidity insisting “I never discuss anything else except politics and religion. There is nothing else to discuss.”
The authors of the Coronation service set out to find the most convincing means of fusion tradition with the ever-flowing progressive cultural climate. But there isno obvious way of ensuring that the shifting and evolving gods of progressive energy can be either appeased or integrated into a thousand-year-oldexperience of Kingship.
Part of the challenge is that no institution is less representative of the current values of the secular religion of Diversity, Inclusion and Equality than the monarchy. What could be less diverse than one royal family at the apex of society? What could be less inclusive than dynastic exclusion? What could be less equal than royal hierarchies? How is this cultural heresy of monarchy to be managed?
The strategy they chose was to down-scale, demystify the liturgy, dilute the powerful Christian symbolism and amplify and celebrate the values of relativism. The intention is to root the validity of both the crown as an institution and the coronation as an event as acceptable to the present. But will that work? When does incongruity become contradiction?
The real circle that Lambeth and Buckingham palaces are trying to square is a philosophical one; how to marry the absolute and the relative? How to reconcile the historic claims of there being only one truth with the contemporary insistence that all truths are equally valid?
The material they have to work with is difficult. Both the monarchy and Christianity make absolutist claims for themselves. At the heart of Christianity is the claim that Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life, and the only way to the Father; at the heart of the monarchy (constitutional or not) lies the insistence there is only one legitimate ruler. Inclusivity does not stretch to welcoming either pretenders of anyone but the heir to throne.
The King however, has in religious terms at least , grown up to be a relativist. The point at which this tension played out most problematically was the King’s determination to be defender of all faiths in an inclusive culture. Yet the coronation oath he was required to make is unyielding. It required him to make a wholly exclusive commitment as a partisan Protestant monarch in a promise which is the centrepiece of the coronation liturgy.
The publication of the service was inexplicably delayeduntil almost the last minute. A series of leaks suggested the explanation was that there had been a stand-off was between the King and Anglican canon lawyers.
The King was resolutely determined to carry out the novel role he had chosen for himself as Defender of all Faiths. He wanted members of other faiths to offer prayers in the service. The canon lawyers at Lambeth had to convince him that canon law, backed by Parliament, did not allow people who belonging to other religions, repudiated the Christian faith, to offer Christian prayers in Church. Not even in Westminster Abbey which is designated a Royal Peculiar and escapes many of the ordinary rules that govern the C of E. The inter faith relativism of the King collided with the unyielding absolutism of parliamentary legal history.
An imaginative compromise was proposed. Let the representatives of faiths, (who by definition do not believe in Jesus), carry the accoutrements of chivalric allegiance in a procession. Canon law had nothing to say about that (never having envisaged it). And there would be a further procession of representatives from a long list of other religions: Jewish, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Bahai and Zoroastrian. The gods of multi-culturalism would be venerated and appeased.
However moving and effective this inclusive choreography is, it sits very awkwardly and contrasts rather fiercely with the severity and exclusivity of the coronation oath. Muslims, Bahai, Zoroastrians, Hindus and Buddhists get to be included; but Catholics are excluded. The oath involves an energetic repudiation of Catholicism. In The fiction of inclusivity evaporates in the face of Protestant and political exclusivity as the oath is invoked.
The King is asked by the Archbishop of Canterbury;
“Will you to the utmost of your power maintain
in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?
Will you maintain and preserve inviolably
the settlement of the Church of England.”
To which the King responds.
“I Charles do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God
profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant,
and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments
which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne,
uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law”
All the king’s enthusiasm for treating all religions as if they were of equal collides with the anti-Catholic impetus of the history which brought him and his ancestors to the throne.
When does incongruity become contradiction? It doesn’t end with the relativism of faiths.
Lambeth Palace tried to glue together the conceptual contradictions by promising that “the Archbishop will contextualise the Church of England’s modern understanding of the legal texts- namely that it seeks to foster an environment where people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.” This sounds like a commendable ideal or a pleasant truism, but may actually commit both Church and crown to a more radical involvement defending free speech and freedom of conscience than they expect. For religious freedom and freedom of conscience is proving not to be something that can be taken for granted in the clashing absolutisms of exclusive religious or secular ambitions.
Within the whole process of monarchy lies a relationship between King and people. In its earliest form it was expressed within a feudal framework involving the peerage. But the feudal relationship between monarch, peers and people also gets stretched to breaking point.
A great deal of the feudal symbolism was reduced from their original tactile drama to simple gestures of acknowledgement. No real touching of crown and kissing on cheek; no real acceptance of spurs, no acceptance of the bread and wine of the Eucharist to acknowledge sacerdotal overtones. Just a wave of acknowledgement.
But the heart of the feudal contract was the offer of faithful service by the people in return for protection by the King. The King certainly promises to protect his Protestant state against Catholics but what other protection does he offer in exchange for the homage and allegiance of his people?
The creative writing team at Lambeth Palace added what they hoped would be a modern democratic touch by inviting all watchers to make their own oath of allegiance and fealty to the King :”I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.” Any sense that this might constitute a realistic political or personal commitment was undermined by the following over-pious innovation: “God saver King Charles… May the King live for ever.”
There is not likelihood that the King will live for ever no matter how many people wish it. It is doubtful than in fact anyone literally wish it. But the lack of realism may reflect the tension between hope and reality in the collision between the absolute demands of some faiths and the more secular insistence there is no essential difference between them; and between the lack of any real reciprocity of mutual responsibility where feudal dynamics or its remnants are exhausted.
There will in fact be many people wondering if the King’s promise to defend any kind of faith works for them. They might range from the Protestant RE teacher in Batley who remains in hiding, to the Catholic women whom the police keep arresting for admitting they are praying silently for the pre-born and Christians who retain the obscure and cancellable belief that marriage is best between a man and a woman.
The Archbishop of Canterbury chose the option of preaching a sermon during the service. This inevitably presented him with a choice: either to engage with the challenge of addressing the issues thrown up by the implacable shifting of the tectonic plates of competing cultures at a time of rapid and destabilising change, or to play safe and offer a simpler homily that did not tax his audience’s theological and spiritual skills. He chose the latter course. Focusing on the theme of monarchical service he presented a group of accessible phrases which repeated his theme: “Service is love in action….the Holy Spirit draws us to love in action…each of us is called to serve…people show love by working for charities…”. What he sacrificed in depth or profundity at this moment of national history, he gained in simplicity and accessibility.
I am often asked whether or not the monarchy can survive for many more generations given the stretch between incongruity and contradiction. The obvious answer is that a Christian monarchy can certainly survive of the country is Christian. There is no evidence yet that either the King or his advisors have considered the option that the interests of the monarchy are served better by articulating and embodying the Christian values the monarchy was founded to embody, rather than attempt a speedy and rather inconstant evolution to secular and relativistic values that morph from one progressive tenet to another with increasing and bewildering rapidity.