It is many years since anyone seriously entertained the doctrine expounded by Shakespeare’s Richard II: ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm off from an anointed king. The breath of worldly men cannot depose the deputy elected by the Lord.’ Nevertheless, on Saturday King Charles III will be solemnly anointed in Westminster Abbey in a ceremony whose roots are ancient but whose meaning is fresh.
Behind the screen, in a very personal act of commitment, the King accepts his calling from God
The Israelites asked for a king so that they could be ‘like all the nations’. Anointed monarchs have a long history but today the rites surrounding the British monarch are unique in Europe.
In the unwritten British constitution, while much of the ancient theatre has been preserved since the coronation of King Edgar the Peaceful in 973, the symbolism has changed. During the 19th century, effective power passed to ministers whose position depended on electoral success. As power was transferred elsewhere, however, the symbolic significance of the monarchy increased. Victoria’s reign was crucial in this respect and, often much against her personal tastes, she became a symbolic focus of loyalty surrounded by increasingly elaborate ceremonial events.
The language of these events is referred to, often disparagingly, as ‘symbolic’. Yet symbols, which elude neat definitions, can open the mind and heart to the transcendent. Symbols speak for themselves and lose power if they are larded with pedestrian explanation.
Walter Bagehot, the Liberal Victorian economist, analysed the new case for monarchy in his 1867 book The English Constitution: ‘The mystic reverence, the religious allegiance which are essential to true monarchy are imaginative sentiments that no legislature can manufacture in any people.’
In the coronation of King Edgar, the central act was his anointing, and this will be the case on Saturday. Once again, as in 1953, this particular aspect of the ceremony will be shrouded to reflect its central significance and to set free the imagination. Behind the screen, in a very personal act of commitment, the King accepts his calling from God and receives the grace and power to fulfil
It is undeniable that one of the changes since the coronation of 1953 has been a steep decline in participation in public worship. Our political life is for the most part functionally atheist, but the voice of faith can be heard in the public square even if it does not dominate. The situation is very different in some other European countries, which is why the Muslim political scientist Tariq Modood has remarked that ‘the minimal nature of the Anglican establishment… may be far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphant secularism’.
The monarchy itself has played a notable part in binding the different faiths in this country and in the Commonwealth into the evolving story of our community. The coronation rites will undoubtedly reflect these new realities.
In a departure from previous practice, the oil which will be used in the anointing has its source on the Mount of Olives and has been blessed by the Orthodox Patriarch and the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem. Anointing is a symbol of a profound spiritual truth. Much of contemporary life is centred on ‘choosing’, but beyond individual choice there is the realm of ‘calling’ in which a person accepts a servant role for the common good. Those who have followed this way, consciously or unconsciously, are on the way of Jesus Christ, who found life in all its fullness by losing himself and going beyond himself in loving service.
Coronations help to define eras and promote reflection on the character of the tapestry we are weaving
The continuation of a rite which has proved adaptable in very different cultural and political circumstances over 1,000 years serves to affirm some vital principles. We are part of a story and a land which we share with generations past and future. Contrary to the assumption that we should be free to devise and enact whatever the will of a majority of citizens at any particular time might desire, the moral legitimacy of government is derived from faithfulness to given principles of justice distilled from the experience of centuries. Coronations help to define eras, and to promote reflection on the character of the tapestry which we are weaving in partnership with those who have gone before.
The partnership evoked by coronations also involves generations to come. Our generation is not the sole possessor of our land and history. We are responsible for an inheritance on which we have a full repairing lease and a duty to pass it on intact.
In a remarkable essay entitled ‘The Meaning of the Coronation’ published in the Sociological Review for 1953, Edward Shils and Michael Young (who had played a leading role in drafting the Labour manifesto in 1945) quoted the sociologist Émile Durk-heim: ‘There can be no society which does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality.’ The two authors suggested that the coronation was just such a reaffirmation in an act of national communion.
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Simply invoking abstract universal concepts such as justice and tolerance does not generate the energy necessary to bind people together in a common cause. It is when the abstractions are embodied in a story, a community memory which we can all share, or in symbolic representative figures, that they are invested with power.
The temptation is to opt for what is sometimes described as ‘secular neutrality’ in our public rituals. ‘Secular neutrality’ is, of course, a myth. It is not possible to live and act without some kind of world view, either explicit or implicit.
The coronation is one of the reference points in our liberal democracy by which the public square is kept open to voices of religion. This is as far as possible from demanding a theocratic state, but rather a recognition that a healthy version of faith needs to be vigorously articulated, or else lethal versions will be left free to flourish in a vacuum.