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.Continue reading