In the week when Queen Elizabeth II reached a momentous landmark in her reign, it does feel rather inappropriate to be talking about what will happen once she is no longer with us. But this is exactly what the Christian think-tank Theos has been doing, and has published the results and analysis of a poll studying the public’s views on whether the expected coronation of King Charles III (or King George VII) should be an exclusively Christian affair, as it has been throughout English and British history.
The Queen is – as every coin issued by the Royal Mint reminds us – ‘Defender of the (Christian) Faith’. It is a title that she accepted at her Coronation in 1953, and has continued to honour with every fibre of her being, within the constraints of constitutional monarchy. Prince Charles, however, commented back in 1994 that he would rather be known as ‘Defender of Faith’, which led to a couple of decades of speculation that he is intending his coronation to be some sort of multicultural, multi-faith shindig.
In case anyone is still unsure if this remains the case, the Prince of Wales made his position crystal clear during an interview with Diane Louise Jordan on the BBC’s Sunday Hour back in February. He said:
No, I didn’t describe myself as a defender: I said I would rather be seen as ‘Defender of Faith’, all those years ago, because, as I tried to describe, I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths. It was very interesting that 20 years or more after I mentioned this – which has been frequently misinterpreted – the Queen, in her Jubilee address to the faith leaders, said that as far as the role of the Church of England is concerned, it is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. I think in that sense she was confirming what I was really trying to say – perhaps not very well – all those years ago. And so I think you have to see it as both. You have to come from your own Christian standpoint – in the case I have as Defender of the Faith – and ensuring that other people’s faiths can also be practised.
His Grace discussed the matter at length at the time, and concluded:
So when, by the Grace of God, Prince Charles swears the Coronation Oath, it will be upon the Holy Bible; not the Qur’an, the Guru Granth Sahib or the Bhagavad Gita. When he is anointed with holy oil, it will poured out by the Archbishop of Canterbury, with leaders of other faiths no doubt paying homage. When he is crowned King, he will, God willing, fulfil his spiritual vocation to “maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel, maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law and maintain and reserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England”.
Of course, whether a metaphysically neutral Parliament permits him to keep his Oath remains to be seen.
We will have to wait and see if there is any public pressure targeted at our parliamentarians to change this historic ceremony when the time comes, but, judging by the results of the ComRes survey for Theos, any move to fundamentally change the nature of Charles’ coronation would not be in accordance with the wishes of the majority of the British population.
Their survey of 2,159 adults found that only 16 per cent thought that the coronation of the next monarch should be modified in any way. 12 per cent said that a Christian ceremony would alienate them. Just 18 per cent said that the ceremony should be multi-faith, and slightly more at 19 per cent thought that it should be secular. Jeremy Corbyn and his fellow republicans will be disappointed to see that only 9 per cent strongly agreed that the Coronation is pointless and should be abolished. And in case anyone was wondering if a Christian coronation might offend some minority faith groups, this simply isn’t the case: among respondents of every religion (and none), there was a significant majority in favour of Christianity remaining at the heart of the ceremony.
Despite what some liberal elites might say, we British are very proud of our national identity and history. Though our society has changed radically over recent decades, there are some traditions which are simply ‘off limits’. We refused to let go of sterling when much of Europe jumped into bed with the euro; our pints of milk will not become a litres – at least for now; we cling to our miles and we cherish our Monarchy. One of the most persuasive reasons why there is a good chance that we will leave the EU in two years time is the drive by Brussels bureaucrats to make us uniformly European, diluting our notions of Britishness and national identity.
To fundamentally change the Coronation ceremony would be to destroy part of our nation’s inheritance. It is a cornerstone of our Constitution: each time a new monarch is anointed and crowned we are reminded of where we have come from and what has brought us to where we are. It is a reminder that Christianity and our islands’ history are inextricably linked.
To remove all traces of Christianity from the Coronation would leave it hollow; devoid of much of its meaning and emptied of its solemnity, in much the same way that a secular ‘naming ceremony’ for a baby can never quite match the transcendent significance of a christening. We are likely – within the next decade or so – to see the present Prince of Wales enthroned in Westminster Abbey as King. He will make his vows before God at the behest of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He will be given a Bible, take communion, and declare his beliefs using the words of the Nicene Creed. Then, after being anointed with oil, he will be handed the Orb surmounted with a cross which represents the rule of Jesus over the world. He will also be given the Sceptre with the Dove, and the Sceptre of the Cross. These signify that his authority is subject to that of the Holy Spirit and to Christ. Finally, St Edward’s Crown, with the cross of Jesus at its apex, will be placed upon his head, and the congregation will cry, “God save the King!”
Take all of the above away, and the Coronation would be unrecognisable. Every aspect of the ceremony places God at the centre because for generations we have acknowledged that the Monarch – along with our political leaders – are in submission to God’s wisdom and authority: in Him they find their refuge and strength to govern. As secularism has swept across our land, much of this traditional reliance on God’s provision has been forgotten, but that does not stop the need for it. And perhaps no-one knows or understands that more than the Queen. She readily acknowledges that it is her Christian faith that has sustained her over the past 63 years. During her Christmas message in 2002, she said:
I know just how much I rely on my own faith to guide me through the good times and the bad. Each day is a new beginning, I know that the only way to live my life is to try to do what is right, to take the long view, to give of my best in all that the day brings, and to put my trust in God… I draw strength from the message of hope in the Christian gospel.
As we reflect on our Queen’s glorious longevity and accomplishments, it is important to consider continuity; what happens when her magnificent reign comes to an end. Rather than looking to push religion further out of the life of the nation, as some are attempting, we should rejoice in how the Christian Faith has shaped who we are, and how much we have benefitted from a monarch who long ago gave her life to Christ and seeks to serve him with all her mind and heart. And if we are wise, when the time come to anoint a new king, we will understand the manifest need to reaffirm its place at the heart of our nation.