15 May 2023

Rites & Ceremonies: The Coronation of King Charles III

I watched the coronation of King Charles III on TV, I was interested in it primarily as ritual, a liturgical spectacle. I wanted to see what kind of theological understanding of kingship, rulership and authority it expressed. On the whole I was rather favourably impressed.

On the other hand someone who is a Tolkien scholar, commented on Twitter

I am forced to conclude that no fantasy author has ever conjured up a more ostentatiously outlandish ritual than a real-world British coronation.
I found that rather strange. I somehow think Tolkien would have approved of the rite.

Christian theology, like Jewish theology before it, has been rather suspicious of kings. When the people of Israel told Samuel they wanted a king, he was unhappy about it. If Israel was God's people, they didn't need an earthly king. But God was prepared to compromise. Let them have a king, but tell them they should not be surprised if the king introduces things like taxes and military conscription. For the surrounding nations kings were a part of their religion. They had a mystique of political power, and saw it as divine, and therefore those who held such power were, at the very least, semi-divine. Kings were very much a pagan thing.

When Christianity got going the Roman empire was one of the most powerful the world had ever seen, and the emperor cult was also a political loyalty test. Christians, however, reinterpreted the principalities and powers that the Romans and others worshipped. As the lesson read at the Coronation service pointed out (read by the Hindu prime minister -- I wonder what he made of it) the principalities and powers, the rulers and authorities, were not independent and autonomous powers: they were creatures, created by the creator God, who made all things, whether visible (like the flesh and blood bodies of kings and emperors) and invisible (like their power and authority).

When Christians became emperors of Rome, or Roman emperors became Christian, there was a conflict of interest. The pagan idea of a divine emperor clashed with the Christian notion of a creator God who was "Almighty", YHWH Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts, the ruler of the powers. In the later Roman Empire (the so-called "Byzantine" empire) the ideal of a Christian emperor developed -- of a ruler who was to make the earthly kingdom as much like the heavenly kingdom as possible, ruled not for the benefit of the rulers, but of the ruled, to establish justice and mercy. The earthly empire was to be an ikon of the heavenly kingdom. 

Most of the flesh and blood emperors and empresses failed, of course, but the ideal was there. And this notion that political power was not absolute came out quite strongly in the coronation ceremony of King Charles III. The king was responsible to God and not for him, he was responsible for establishing justice and mercy in the land. The theme of justice and mercy was repeated again and again; the only jarring legalistic note came when he had to promise to maintain the establishment of the Protestant faith by law.

That particular feature is described in the "Liturgy" blog as "an excellent example of Anglicanism as protestant software running on catholic hardware" and

But in this, actions (as in liturgy generally) speak louder than words. The coronation procession was led by a cross. Two shards of wood given by Pope Francis, shards that the Vatican says are from the “True Cross” on which Jesus Christ was crucified, had been incorporated into this new processional cross.

Mitred bishops, indistinguishable in attire from Roman Catholic bishops, were front and centre. The chrism oil, central to the coronation rite, was made from olives of the Mount of Olives at the Monastery of the Ascension, and the Monastery of Mary Magdalene [The Monastery of Mary Magdalene is the burial place of Charle’s grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece]. It was pressed in Bethlehem. This chrism was consecrated in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre (where Jesus died and rose again). It was consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, and the Anglican archbishop in Jerusalem, Hosam Naoum.
Things strike people in different ways. We see what we want to see. The symbolism of the cross in the ceremony, for example. To some the symbol of the cross above the orb symbolises Christianity as a conquering imperialist religion, embedded in colonialism, going out to conquer the world. But in the context of the coronation rite as a whole, it appeared to me in its true light, that Christian kings (as the rite assumed Charles is) are to rule in the spirit of Jesus as he explained to James and John: The rulers of the nations lord it over them, but it is not to be so among you. Christians often get it wrong, and invert this, falling back into the way of the world (if you want to see just how wrong Christians can get it, there's a good example here: Beware the Christian Prince).

As another Anglican hymn puts it:

Conquering kings their titles take
from the lands they captive make
Jesus, by a nobler deed
from the thousands he has freed
but for more on that, see here: The Church as the Liberated Zone.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails