Facing Hard Truths and Gracious Opportunities:
A Reflection on the Coronation of King Charles III
In a couple weeks’ time, much of the world’s attention will focus on the coronation of King Charles III and Camilla, the Queen Consort, in Westminster Abbey, in London. Some in the parish have already said they are setting early alarms to get up and share in the service with their breakfast. No doubt there will be scones and tea.
The world has not seen a British coronation for seventy years, since Queen Elizabeth II’s service, itself actually taking place a year and a half after she became queen in 1952 at the death of her father, King George VI. It is an understatement to say that much in our world has changed in the seven decades since we last had such an event.
At its heart, the coronation is an Anglican religious service, and it will be filled with as much symbolism as one can fit within the time and space around it. Special music has been commissioned, special vestments have been made, and special oil has been consecrated by both the Patriarch of Jerusalem, His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos III, and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem, The Most Reverend Hosam Naoum, bringing together the Orthodox and Anglican traditions to mark the significance of this event. Pope Francis recently gave a relic believed to be a fragment of the True Cross, the wood on which Jesus Christ was crucified. The relic was placed in a special processional cross that will lead the entrance into the abbey’s nave. The new processional cross with this relic will later be shared between the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of Wales, which is Anglican. So, we can see the way this service has already become such a meaningful focus point of Christian ecumenism and cooperation.
While we don’t know many of the details around the service, the liturgy will be an updated form of the coronation of 1953 with fewer attending and a wider representation among participants. At its heart it remains a Christian service and much of the prayers, readings, and liturgical elements are steeped in Christian meaning. King Charles III will be presented with an orb topped with a cross, along with a scepter, and St. Edward’s Crown–only used at coronation services–and the Imperial State Crown are both topped by crosses. At the most solemn moment in the service, the king will be anointed with the specially consecrated oil, and we will see the ancient symbolism of anointing priests and kings to service.
I, for one, am looking forward to hearing the new anthems, and I always have a soft spot for the layers of liturgy that invite me to reflect on readings and movements within the service itself. I don’t care for pretension, but I am drawn to symbols like a moth to a flame–maybe especially when they are complex. We are invited to pay attention to how the king and queen move around the chancel, where they sit, and when they kneel. We are invited to pay attention to the role of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as the Archbishop of York and other bishops and priests, as the king and queen are formally crowned.
I will also be paying close attention to how this is a state occasion, and herein lies some of the tension for me. While it is very much a religious service, it is also the most formal state event the British government can host, and we will see clearly how the Church of England is the established state church. There will be a fusion, of sorts, with bishops and other leaders, as they function in a hybrid role of spiritual and political significance. Such a fusion of the political and the spiritual always makes my eyebrows furrow.
In terms of symbols, I also wonder how this service can fully appreciate and incorporate the complexity of British society in today’s world. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned, Winston Churchill was Prime Minister, and the country was recovering after the terrors of World War II. The British Empire, as such, was dissolving, with the new Commonwealth rising as a fellowship of cooperative independent states. Now, with King Charles III, the Prime Minister of Great Britain, Rishi Sunak, is a practicing Hindu who took his oath of office in the House of Commons on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. The First Minister of Scotland, Humza Yousaf, is a son of Pakistani immigrants. I am sure no one in India or Pakistan–or Great Britain–would have imagined this reality seven decades ago, but now we can celebrate how the institutions of government have become more inclusive. There is much more work to be done.
When it comes to institutions, it is no secret that our particular age is one marked by a pronounced mistrust. Scandals on one hand and changes in the culture on the other have seen us move away from any sort of blind loyalty to institutions, whether they be political or spiritual. In many ways, the suspicion is warranted, because we do need to ask difficult questions and face hard truths when it comes to the ways that many institutions have taken enormous advantage of people of various minority circumstances. Many people have clearly been harmed by institutions whose power was used to oppress rather than serve. While perhaps we shouldn’t judge another time’s worst elements by our perceived best, we do need to be honest about the experiences of pain, grief, and loss experienced by so many in our world.
With regard to the church, many people have lost interest in participating in a formal religious community; however, that does not mean they have stopped seeking and searching for meaning in their spiritual lives. I always think it is better when people share in the life of a religious community because they want to consciously grow in their faith; I don’t have much patience for cultural expectation or social status leading the way when it comes to spiritual practice. One should want to practice their faith for their own spiritual well-being, not because it would look good to someone else. Now is not an easy time to serve in a religious community, but it is the time we have been given and we should consciously engage the deeper spiritual questions that people are asking with a holy imagination.
Many are noting how there is less enthusiasm for the monarchy, and many more are asking hard questions about the legacy of colonialism within British society. Monarchies are, at their heart, symbolic institutions, and as such they focus our attention. This focus will necessarily draw out areas of shadow that demand the hard work of reflection and correction. The British have no monopoly on this dynamic. Even though we don’t have a monarchy, we Americans also have our difficult questions when it comes to the legacy of colonialism and the “manifest destiny” that has shaped so much of how we have both used this land and treated indigenous peoples.
While there is this mistrust with institutions, I am always reminded that we, as humans, will form them over and over again. We are inherently social creatures who need frameworks to make meaning, so we have seen a succession of institutions through the ages. We Americans celebrate that we don’t have a monarch, yet we are very quick to infuse celebrity culture and other shallow aspects with symbolic significance. Just pay attention to how we spend our time and money. The challenge is to always evolve with a greater appreciation that “respects the dignity of every human being,” as our baptismal liturgy challenges us. We struggle and we have often failed to live up to this calling, yet I pray we can continue walking forward, as the prophet Micah says, with an intention “to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God.”
Perhaps this will be a time when, as attention focuses on the coronation itself, we can see how an institution can embrace diversity and promote a multicultural and inter-religious reality that affirms both human dignity and the Spirit’s seemingly insistent urge to create, expand, and connect. In other words, this is a moment when the particular symbol of the monarchy, especially in its role as “defender of the faith,” can see Christian identity not in terms of sovereignty over others but in terms of service to a beautifully complex and diverse people. After all, Jesus had a lot to say about laying down our lives and loving our neighbor, and he had no patience for religious and political institutions that oppressed, objectified, or alienated people.
We Americans are a different culture in many ways from the British–not all of them for the better. How can we use this time to reflect more deeply on our own institutions, on our own common life, wondering how we affirm complexity and dignity? What are questions that we need to ask? What are decisions we need to make that honestly account for the welfare of all people? How can we see Tradition as a living embodiment that supports such growth and appreciation rather than grasping for power and control? What are our hard truths and gracious opportunities?
I, for one, am hopeful that this can be a time that directs us beyond the mere pomp and circumstance to a space where prayer and consciousness can transform our hearts and celebrate the life we all share. If done well, with an enormous amount of spiritual courage and holy vulnerability, the coronation can promote a powerful reflection on areas of much needed growth in society. I’m curious what it will be like, and I’ll be taking notes during the service. I invite you to pay close attention and bring your honest questions to the table.
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