Did you see what happened at the coronation?
Centuries of moral investment in marriage were wiped away
The coronation of King Charles III went off pretty much as planned, with pomp and ceremony designed to invoke a thousand years of history, tradition, national identity, and royal majesty. Observers might be forgiven for wondering just how the elaborate ceremony in Westminster Abbey might be described as “slimmed down” from earlier ceremonies, but it was cut down a bit from the coronation of the king’s mother, Queen Elizabeth II, 70 years earlier.
The king did take the title, “Defender of the Faith,” because the law concerning the monarchy required it, but no one took the new king as very serious about defending the Christian faith. He had proposed changing the monarch’s title to ‘Defender of Faith,” rather than “Defender of the Faith,” but that was a step too far for the British. The king did arrange to have representatives of several religions participate in the ceremony, but the traditional language of British monarchy and the Church of England prevailed, with many readings based in the Book of Common Prayer and drawn from the King James Version of the Bible.
The point is that the ceremony seemed quite successfully to have communicated long and stable continuity. And yet, anyone observing the ceremony witnessed a revolution in morality displayed in the most traditional of settings. The liturgy, the Scripture readings, the vestments and robes and boy choir—all communicated established and unshakable authority based upon unbreakable moral principles based in Scriptural truth. It was meant to invoke stable convictions and fixed moral principles.
In one unmistakable sense, it was all a lie.
The coronation of King Charles III and his consort, Queen Camilla, refutes the claim of the British monarchy to adhere to fixed principles and Christian morality. The ceremony also underlined just how much has changed over the course of the last several decades.
We must remember that King Charles and Queen Camilla are just two generations removed from the moral scandal that nearly brought down the British monarchy. That scandal was so toxic that the throne itself seemed to teeter on the brink. King George V, a model of rectitude, arguably saved the British monarchy from the terminal state that befell so many other monarchies in Europe, including his cousin, the last Russian Tsar. The problem was that George V’s heir to the throne was a moral disaster, and the king knew it, remarking: “After I am dead that boy will ruin himself within twelve months.” King George V turned out to be an optimist. “That boy,” later King Edward VIII, would in less than a year ruin himself and threaten ruin to the monarchy.
The soap-opera part is known to many Americans, if in sepia-toned hues. As Prince of Wales, Edward fell in love (and into adultery) with an American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. “Mrs. Simpson,” as the British came to call her, had already been once divorced and was, at the time of her affair with the prince, working on a second divorce. A royal affair is one thing (too many to count in British history), but a monarch married to a divorced woman (twice, eventually) posed a constitutional crisis.
The British people liked the idea of King Edward VIII, who was young and handsome and interesting, but that affection did not transfer to open moral turpitude. The British king is also earthly head of the Church of England, which held then to a doctrine that made recognition of marriage between Edward and Wallis impossible. Had King Edward married Wallis outside the Church of England, the church of which he was head would declare him an open adulterer. The Church of England refused to bend and the king was determined to marry Mrs. Simpson, so disaster loomed. Thus came the “Abdication Crisis” of 1936, and the King was forced to choose Wallis or the crown. He chose Mrs. Simpson and abdicated the throne on Dec. 11, 1936.
The rest is history, as they say, but the history is still unfolding through the release of documents from the period. It is now crystal clear that both Edward and Wallis were Nazi sympathizers in communication with the top echelon of the Third Reich. Britain’s former king was not only an adulterer and an airhead, he was also a traitor of the worst sort.
The new monarch, King George VI, brought integrity and credibility to the British crown and his daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, mother to the newly crowned King Charles III, would add to that luster and credibility. It would come at great personal cost, as Elizabeth upheld convictions about marrying a divorced spouse by refusing to grant royal assent to the marriage of her sister, Princess Margaret, to a divorced military officer. That was in the 1950s, soon after Elizabeth took the throne. Marriage was unquestionable. Divorce was unthinkable. The monarchy must be above reproach. The Church of England could not approve.
That brings us back to the spectacle in Westminster Abbey, when the (divorced) King Charles III was crowned with his (divorced) queen, Camilla, with the entire world knowing that the two had carried on a sexual affair while Charles, Prince of Wales, was married to Diana, Princess of Wales. We will forgo any recitation of the tawdry tale of Charles and Camilla other than to note that what was unthinkable in 1936 was hardly remarked upon in 2023. And Charles with Camilla went far beyond anything contemplated by Edward and Wallis in 1936 or Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend in 1955. In both those cases only one of the two had been divorced. That was enough. With Charles and Camilla, it is both—and worse.
The real tragedy is the fact that in our world today marriage has been so subverted, adultery has been so celebrated, and divorce has become so routine that no one seems to have noticed just how jarring the images of King Charles and Queen Camilla should appear.
The ceremony was supposed to be an affirmation of things that do not change. Sadly, seen in light of marriage and sexual morality and responsibility to children and the stability of the family, what the world saw in the coronation is that all these matter very little now. All the post-Christian world can hope for now is to salvage a little of what was lost and put on a good show.
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