Defender of all faiths? Coronation puts focus on King Charles’s beliefs

In 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the UK was predominantly Christian, with Sunday church attendance the norm, children taught to say their prayers at bedtime and vicars regarded with unquestioning deference.

Opinion polls in the 1950s and 1960s asking people to name their religion found that between 86% and 91% gave a Christian denomination.

Seventy years on, as King Charles III prepares for his coronation on 6 May, the picture is rather different. The 2021 census found that for the first time, a minority of people in England and Wales described themselves as Christian, with those saying they had no religion gaining ground. Attendance at Sunday services at Anglican churches in England hit an all-time low (bar the pandemic year of 2020) in 2021, at 509,000 people, or less than 1% of the population.

Nevertheless, the coronation will be a deeply religious ceremony – “first and foremost an act of Christian worship”, according to Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury. Behind a screen, the new sovereign will be anointed on his head, hands and heart with holy oil consecrated in Jerusalem, as a symbol of his divine right to rule.

In common with his predecessors for almost 500 years, Charles will take the titles of defender of the faith and supreme governor of the Church of England. He will swear to uphold “the laws of God and the true profession of the gospel, maintain the Protestant Reformed religion established by law and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established.”

Almost 30 years ago, Charles triggered a furore when he suggested he would be defender of faith in general, rather than defender of the faith, stemming from a desire to reflect Britain’s religious diversity.

Ever since, there has been speculation that the coronation oath might be altered. In fact it will be unchanged, as became clear when the archbishop of Canterbury’s office published the coronation liturgy last weekend.

In 1953, the year of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation, the UK was predominantly Christian. Photograph: PA

Instead, the coronation oath, for the first time, will be prefaced with words spoken by Welby, making clear that “the church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to maintain … will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely”.

James Walters, who leads the London School of Economics’ faith centre, said: “People got very fixated on whether the title would change. But I don’t think that was ever [Charles’s] intention; rather, it was how the title was to be understood. And in many ways that reimagining of what it means happened under his mother, who spoke of the Church of England creating a space for freedom across religions.”

Last September, shortly after the queen’s death, Charles echoed and expanded on his mother’s words. He told faith leaders at a Buckingham Palace reception that he was a “committed Anglican” but the sovereign had a “duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.”

In a significant acknowledgment of the growing number of people who say they have no religion, he added: “By my most profound convictions … I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.”

Charles’s own faith is “deep and strong, but more questing, more intellectual, more complex” than his mother’s, said Ian Bradley, an emeritus professor of cultural and spiritual history at the University of St Andrews and the author of God Save the King: The Sacred Nature of the Monarch. “He’s clearly drawn to eastern Orthodox Christianity and aspects of Islam. He’s interested in all kinds of spirituality.”

In his Thought for the Day broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 1 January 2000, Charles expressed hope that “in the new millennium we will begin to rediscover a sense of the sacred in all that surrounds us”. He also dwelt on the importance of the sacred in his 2000 Reith lecture.

The coronation liturgy, produced by Lambeth Palace in close consultation with the king, will accommodate Charles’s desire to involve leaders and representatives of other religions.

One innovation is a greeting to the king to be delivered in unison by Jewish, Hindu, Sikh and Muslim representatives at the end of the service. It will not be amplified, out of respect for the Jewish prohibition on using electricity on the sabbath. The chief rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, has been invited to stay at St James’s Palace on the night before the coronation so he can walk to Westminster Abbey, as vehicular travel is also prohibited on the Jewish sabbath.

Sensing an opportunity to engage the public’s interest in an era of sharply declining congregations, the archbishops of Canterbury and York have said the coronation “presents a unique missional opportunity for the church”. Clergy and congregations have been supplied with a pack of tips and advice.

And it may resonate. “For most of the 20th century, people thought that religion would recede entirely as education and technology superseded superstition,” said Walters. “And similarly, people have been talking about a republic in this country since at least the 1960s. But neither has happened.

“In an age of rapid change and individualism, where politics seems to have become either very technocratic and managerial or very close and divisive, there’s a certain appeal of ancient symbols and stories.”

Title: Defender of all faiths? Coronation puts focus on King Charles’s beliefs
Source: World news: Religion |
Source URL:
Date: May 4, 2023 at 05:09PM
Feedly Board(s): Religion