Lean in to hear the echoes of history
Watching and hearing the coronation of King Charles III
The last time a monarch was crowned in Britain, a very small 4-year-old boy, his hair plastered to his head with polish, wiggled as he sat in Westminster Abbey, feet away from the queen. The queen was his mother. Tomorrow, that queen’s son, King Charles III, will be crowned in that same abbey, 70 years after his mother’s coronation.
Seven decades ago, Queen Elizabeth II was quite incredibly young to bear the crown. King Charles III is, by historical standards, remarkably old as he sits enthroned. The monarchy has changed, even as Britain has changed. Elizabeth inherited a declining empire. Charles reigns over a Britain his grandfather’s generation could not have imagined.
Furthermore, Charles is a self-consciously postmodern king. His worldview is far more New Age than classically Christian. He had dabbled in everything from pantheism to Islamic prayer. He seems far more interested in organic gardening than in orthodox Christian theology. He has offered writings and comment on everything from urban planning to metaphysics. Previous monarchs took care not to appear daft or to incite controversy by commenting on controversial issues. As Prince of Wales, Charles broke those rules. As King, his comments will carry far more weight.
A few years ago, I received an invitation to join a small group of religious leaders who would meet with Prince Charles on an American visit. The prince wanted the meeting so that he could discuss his religious ideas. I went to the meeting with the prince and, bound by royal protocol, I am basically limited to saying that, judged by historic Christian orthodoxy, the prince held to some rather unconventional religious ideas.
In a famous interview with journalist Jonathan Dimbleby, Prince Charles once announced that he was uncomfortable taking on the monarchial title “Defender of the Faith.” That title, by the way, had been first given in 1521 to King Henry VIII by the Pope Leo X, who was thankful for Henry’s writings against Martin Luther. History would soon record that Henry broke with the Roman Catholic Church over the question of his divorce from Queen Catherine of Aragon. Henry would ditch Catherine, his first wife (of six), sever relations with Rome, and start what amounted to an English Reformation. Understandably, perhaps, the pope regretted giving Henry VIII the “Defender of the Faith” title, but Henry and his heirs have kept it, applying it to the Christian faith in general and the Church of England in particular.
But in that infamous interview with Dimbleby, Charles showed his postmodern self by declaring that he would prefer to be known as “Defender of Faith,” reflecting his universalist inclinations. So much for Defender of the Faith, which had come to mean the defender of Protestant Christianity. Charles had proposed legislative changes to the 1953 Royal Titles Act, but the legislation, quite surprisingly, was not warmly received by the Church of England, of which the monarch is titular head. The titles are to remain intact, but no one expects King Charles III to be an ardent defender of Christian orthodoxy. At his insistence, representatives of other world religions will participate in the coronation ceremony.
And yet, Christians should watch the coronation carefully and note the historic Christian substance of the ceremony. The coronation of King Charles remains a Church of England ceremony undertaken in Westminster Abbey and presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury. The language of the venerable Book of Common Prayer and the majestic prose of the King James Version of the Bible will echo among stones and pillars that have witnessed nearly a millennium of English and British monarchy. The great organ will play, trumpets will sound, and the choir will be joined by boy choristers in a stellar display of English church music.
As you watch, remember that the entire ceremony is intended to hearken back to Israel, with Samuel anointing King David and Zadok the Priest with Nathan the Prophet anointing King Solomon. As King Charles is anointed, thunderous music will fill the abbey as the choir releases George Frideric Handel’s famous anthem, “Zadok the Priest,” first written for the coronation of King George II in 1727. The king will then be hidden from view behind an elaborate screen as the archbishop of Canterbury anoints the royal breast with consecrated oil. Predictably, King Charles insisted that the oil must be organic and free of any substance from an endangered species.
Organic or not, the oil and the consecration, along with the oaths and covenants and prayer and anthems and Scripture readings, are not only deeply rooted in English history, but in the Bible. The weight and ceremony of the coronation represent explicit efforts to claim divine blessing on Britain’s monarch, and divinely granted authority and majesty as well.
By tradition, the King will be given a Bible, which will symbolize the authority of God’s law. The King will also swear his oaths on that Bible. As the Bible is presented, the archbishop will declare some of my favorite words from the Anglican liturgy: “Here is wisdom; This is the royal law; These are the lively Oracles of God.”
Of course, the coronation will involve historic crowns, including King Edward’s Crown and the Imperial State Crown. Queen Camilla, a moral story unto herself, will wear Queen Mary’s Crown. The king will be presented with a scepter, invoking earthly power, and an orb, invoking divine blessing. Again, the ceremony is saturated with Christian symbolism and biblical allusion.
There will be much to reflect upon once the ceremony is over and Westminster Abbey returns to its long silences. I hope American Christians watch the coronation and understand anew the Christian roots of our civilization. At the same time, the coronation of King Charles III reflects an increasingly secularized Britain and an increasingly sidelined church. But still, watch and listen carefully. Listen for my favorite anthem of the English church music tradition, “I Was Glad,” written by Sir Hubert Parry for the coronation of Edward VII in 1902, based on Psalm 122. Listen also for the anthem for the oath, “Prevent Us, O Lord,” written by William Byrd and drawn from words by Thomas Cranmer.
Watch and listen for the pageantry of history and the voices of priests and kings. Don’t fail to hear what is said and sung by those gathered in Westminster Abbey, but lean in to hear the echoes of no less than Samuel and Zadok and Nathan and David and Solomon. And rejoice that our hopes are not invested in any earthly king, but in the King of Kings.
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