What the world will see when Charles III is crowned is not just the rare spectacle of a monarchy that still practises lavish coronations, but the equally rare spectacle of a thriving multifaith democracy. When Prince Charles declared in 1994 that he wished to be seen as the ‘defender of faith’ rather than just the Defender of the Faith, he caused controversy. But his coronation will bear out the wisdom of his earlier comment.
There will be a reading from Rishi Sunak, a Hindu. Also in attendance will be the Home Secretary, a Buddhist; the mayor of London, a Muslim; and Humza Yousaf, the First Minister of Scotland and the first Muslim to lead any western European country. The Chief Rabbi and his wife will walk to Westminster Abbey from Buckingham Palace where they are staying as guests of the King, who was mindful that if they travelled by car they’d be breaking the Sabbath.
Britain is stronger for absorbing all religions in an atmosphere of free and open worship
It’s a measure of Britain’s instinctive tolerance that almost no one thinks this strange. No one cares that the Prime Minister has a Hindu shrine in 10 Downing Street and a Ganesh idol on his desk. It was not controversial when Yousaf released pictures of himself praying in Bute House on his first day in office. Both men have their detractors, but their faith is never under attack. Kate Forbes, who opposes gay marriage as a member of the Free Church of Scotland, came within an ace of being elected first minister with 48 per cent of the SNP vote, though her faith challenges the modern definition of equality.
The historian John Robert Seeley said of the British Empire that we seemed to ‘have conquered and peopled half the world in a fit of absence of mind’. In absence of mind, we seem to have created the world’s most successful multifaith democracy.
Britain was, through empire, the original multi-ethnic state. Ironically, it is our colonial history that has made Britain more diverse and more tolerant and, according to a recent poll, one of the least racist countries on Earth.
It is remarkable how natural all this seems, how little comment it has generated compared with the overt and forced attempts at ‘multiculturalism’ generated by public authorities over the years. ‘Is Britain still a Christian country?’, commentators are apt to ask whenever a council clumsily attempts to downgrade Christmas and elevate an alternative religious festival in its place. Of course Britain is still a Christian country: the coronation’s liturgy, the magnificent surroundings of Westminster Abbey, the readings, the hymns and the symbolism will all demonstrate that. The King is the supreme governor of the Church of England and he will be crowned by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. But Britain is all the stronger for its tolerance, and for absorbing all religions in an atmosphere of free and open worship.
The freedom to worship was one of the driving forces behind emigration from Europe to the New World. The US remains a country where religious freedom and tolerance reigns supreme, but the same is true of Britain. Religion is no bar to holding the highest public offices here, and nor is race.
Welcoming overseas dignitaries at the coronation will be a black Foreign Secretary whose mother comes from Sierra Leone. Kemi Badenoch, the Secretary of State for Business and Minister for Women and Equalities, is of Nigerian heritage. Suella Braverman, the Home Secretary, is the daughter of a Kenyan Catholic father and a Mauritian Hindu mother. The Indian press excitedly refer to Downing Street as ‘Browning Street’ but very few British people think it worth mentioning. No one expresses any anxiety that there is only one white man – Jeremy Hunt – in the four great offices of state.
This lack of comment, the air of cheerful acceptance, is perhaps the most British thing about it all. For all the media attention and invective which has been generated since the Black Lives Matter protests were imported from the US three years ago, Britain has for decades been quietly evolving into a successful multifaith, multi-ethnic society.
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And it is no accident that this evolution has taken place under a constitutional monarchy. Though a monarch might seem to some to represent all that is fussy and outdated, a hereditary head of state keeps the constitution away from the grubby business of day-to-day politics. The monarchy exerts a unifying force at a time when politics is so often polarising.
Britain is on show this week. Rarely will so many world leaders and heads of state gather not to discuss crises but to celebrate. The Britain they will see is one of tradition, tolerance, celebration of difference. Not all of the British public support the monarchy – and it is the right of every individual to advocate for a republic if that is what they believe in. But even republicans might admire the fact that the coronation gives this country an opportunity to show itself off in its best light.