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.

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The accession and coronation of King Charles III

Before the accession of King Charles III, the Unit published two reports related to the accession of the new King: one on the accession and coronation oaths, and another on the coronation ceremony. Today the Unit has published revised versions of these reports. In this post, co-authors Robert Hazell and Bob Morris outline the reports’ conclusions and discuss how the coming coronation will be on a much smaller scale than the previous one, in a UK that is radically different from the Britain of 1953.

Five years ago we conducted a study of the accession and coronation oaths. These are three religious oaths which the new monarch is required by law to take at or soon after his accession. King Charles has already taken one, the Scottish oath, at the inaugural meeting of his Privy Council. He swore to uphold the Presbyterian church in Scotland in the following words:

I, Charles the Third by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and of Northern Ireland, and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the True Protestant Religion as established by the laws of Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly an Act intituled an ‘Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government’ and by the Acts passed in both Kingdoms for the Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland: so help me God.

At his first state opening of parliament King Charles will take a second oath, under the Accession Declaration Act, to be a faithful Protestant; and at his coronation he will swear to uphold the rights and privileges of the Church of England. All three oaths are a hangover from an earlier age. Legally speaking none of the oaths are necessary. The Church of Scotland Act 1921 gave full parliamentary recognition to the Church’s status as a national church. The European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act 1998 contain strong guarantees of religious freedom. Nor can it be said that the oaths have any effect. Now that the sovereign has long ceased to be head of the executive, it seems odd that the King should be asked to swear to something which he has no power to enforce.

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