The monarch’s role as Defender of the Faith in an increasingly secular society

The role of the Church of England in the British state will be front and centre at the coronation of King Charles III, which takes place on Saturday. Catherine Pepinster argues that Charles and his mother, Elizabeth II, have reinvented the monarchy’s relationship to religion in twenty-first century Britain. Quite where that leaves the relationship between the monarchy and the more secular in society remains open to question.

Bit by bit, drip by drip, Buckingham Palace has gradually been revealing the details of the coronation of Charles III and Queen Camilla. There have been announcements about the crowns they will wear and the music that will be played, as well as commentaries from the press about the King not wanting a lavish ceremony and striving for both continuity and change on 6 May. Then in December 2022, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak described it as a unique moment that would ‘allow us to showcase the very best of Britain’.

Amid this chatter, there has been barely any coverage of what lies at the heart of the coronation – religion. Since the time of Henry VIII and his creation of the Church of England, religion and monarchy have been inextricably linked. The sovereign takes the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which is the established church in this country. Long before that, church and monarch were intertwined, with both bestowing different forms of power – temporal, spiritual – upon the other. For more than a thousand years, the coronation of first the English, and later, the British monarch, has been a Christian service, with roots in Biblical ideas of kingship, focusing on notions of service and the importance of the monarch being blessed with wisdom. This is most memorably expressed in Handel’s spine-tingling Zadok the Priest, composed for the coronation of George II and performed at every coronation since. It is expected to be played again in May, including the lines from the Old Testament’s First Book of Kings: ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king’.

Note the reference to Solomon – a byword for wisdom – and note mention of anointing. Most people assume crowning is at the heart of a coronation, and it is certainly the most visually affecting moment. For constitutionalists, the most important aspect of the coronation is the oath-taking. This is when the monarch promises to govern according to laws and customs, honour the legal settlement of the Church of England and its rights and privileges, as well as uphold the Protestant religion. However, for the clerics, Christian believers, and monarchs, it is the anointing, when the sovereign is blessed and the grace of God is called down upon him, that is the key aspect of the ceremony.

All three key moments – anointing, oath-taking and crowning – highlight the connection between the monarchy and religion – or at least, the Church of England. This connection is as old as the monarchy itself but is rarely debated. That link was clearly apparent in September 2022, when the Accession Council met, and the proclamations of Charles as King took place. Several times that day he was pronounced Defender of the Faith – the title that all our Anglican monarchs since Henry VIII have held, despite it being first given to him, pre-Reformation, by Pope Leo X for Henry’s refutation of Martin Luther.

While Defender of the Faith means being an advocate of at least Anglicanism if not Christianity as a whole, the King’s other religious title, Supreme Governor of the Church of England is about supervising its running by the bishops. That special relationship between the monarch and the established Church of England – founded by Henry VIII when he broke with the Roman Catholic Church – is emphasised at the coronation through its oaths and by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Primate of the Church of England, crowning the King, assisted by the Archbishop of York and the Bishops of London and Durham. It is a moment of mutual endorsement.

There are now fewer than a million people in the UK who attend Anglican Sunday services. Despite this, the Church of England remains the established church, with its special privileges. These include having 26 bishops involved in law[1]making through membership of the House of Lords, and several special duties, such as offering to bury anyone – for all Britons are nominal members of that Church. However, the Church does not have the influence it once did. The 2021 Census showed that only 46.2% of people identified themselves as Christian – a drop of 13% in 10 years. This raises questions over the right of the Church of England to retain responsibility for the coronation of the monarch and over the special relationship between the Church and the Crown.

With less than a week to go before the coronation, it is evident that the Church of England is not relinquishing its hold on the ceremony. Involving other denominations is relatively easy, with their clerics involved in readings, or blessings, although inviting the Roman Catholic Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster on to the altar while the King promises to uphold the Protestant religion – a vow rooted in anti-Catholicism – may be hard to square. But finding ways to involve other faiths, when Anglican canon law prohibits joint prayer and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has hard-line members of the Anglican Communion watching his every move, may prove trickier still.

The King though, like his mother, Elizabeth II, has found more room for manoeuvre outside the coronation ceremony itself. In 2012, at the time of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, she made a landmark speech at Lambeth Palace, highlighting the role of the Church of England in enabling all faiths to prosper, and was keen for the Commonwealth Day service to involve not only other Christian denominations, but non-Christian faiths as well. Charles III held an unprecedented reception for faith leaders just days after his mother’s death in which he emphasised he was a committed Anglican but also promised to ensure other faiths thrived.

Thirty years ago, the then Prince of Wales surprised bishops when he said that he would rather be known as Defender of Faith rather than the traditional Defender of the Faith. However, when the Queen died, he was given – and took – the ancient title. As his mother did, he has reinvented the monarchy’s relationship to religion in twenty-first century Britain. The King has cast himself as a protector of faith, holding a metaphorical umbrella to shelter belief from the storm. Quite where that leaves the relationship between the monarchy and the more secular in society remains open to question.

This post is the third in a series of articles about the monarchy, which will be published regularly in the runup to the coronation to promote the Unit’s new report, The British Monarchy, co-published with UK in a Changing Europe.

About the author

Catherine Pepinster is a journalist, broadcaster and author of Defenders of the Faith: the British Monarchy, Religion and the Coronation.

Featured image: House of Lords Tributes to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) by ukhouseoflords.