The Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla
Golden horse-drawn carriages, crowns and gowns, marching troops and Anglican liturgy with resplendent music surrounded the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Shorter in length than the 1953 coronation of the late Queen Elizabeth II, this celebration sought to modernize the rite to be more inclusive of the multi-faith, multi-cultural reality of Great Britain and the realms. Like all institutions, the British monarchy is always evolving and adapting to new circumstances. But because of its antiquity, changes to the monarchy come very slowly. The coronation of Charles and Camilla gives some clues about the direction that the new King and Queen intend to take this ancient and sometimes troubled institution. Whether the changes will be sufficient to re-set the monarchy in the 21st century, only time will tell. Canadian Anglicans have a particular interest; after all, Charles is also our king and the coronation took place in our church. What did the coronation teach us about our faith and our future?
At its heart, the coronation is an Anglican celebration of Eucharist with prayers to set apart the King and Queen for Christian service. In the full view of British nobility, international heads of state and a huge television audience, the Archbishop of Canterbury presided at a liturgy that acknowledged the rightful reign of King Charles and anointed him to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. This raises the question of whether it is possible to combine service in the name of Christ with the enormous privilege and wealth of the sovereign. After all, in Christian theology, Jesus is referred to as King only ironically—as in the King of Kings is a crucified victim, or eschatologically—anticipating the end time when “all things will be reconciled in Christ who will reign for ever.” Confusion easily arises between the human king and the divine one when, as happened at the invitation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the congregation acclaimed, “God save King Charles. Long live King Charles. May The King live for ever.” For ever? Not likely for Charles, but of course eternally for our Lord.
In its shape, the coronation liturgy is similar to the ordination of a deacon, priest, or bishop: indeed, in addition to being anointed, the King was vested in a stole—otherwise reserved for clergy. Those who found this intersection of royal privilege and Christian ideals troubling might have found the archbishop’s sermon helpful when he said, “God will give all things for our sake, even His life. His throne was a Cross. His crown was made of thorns. His regalia were the wounds that pierced his body. Each of us is called by God to serve.”
Service was a key theme of this coronation, beginning with the King’s response to a welcome from a boy chorister, “I come not to be served but to serve,” and repeated in the King’s prayer which linked service to another major theme of the liturgy—inclusivity; the King prayed “God of compassion and mercy whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom … Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and belief, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace.” Although Charles was asked to affirm that he is a faithful Protestant, the tone of the liturgy, including the presence and participation of religious leaders from many faiths, his blessing—offered by an ecumenical group of clergy including the Roman Catholic cardinal, and the reading of a scripture lesson from the British prime minister, a Hindu, spoke to the new King’s desire to be the “defender of faith” rather than the “defender of the faith.” Britain, like Canada, cannot now be regarded as a Christian nation; King Charles clearly recognizes this and took some small but significant steps to affirm it.
Stitching together the many different ceremonies within the coronation was music, beautifully performed by a mixed-voice choir—including girls and women (again a first for a coronation). Sir Hubert Parry’s classic anthem “I was glad” was sung at the entrance of the Queen and King into the abbey, magnificently choreographed so that their procession through the quire was perfectly synchronized with the choral acclamations, “Vivat Regina Camilla! Vivat! Vivat Rex Carolus! Vivat!” (“Long live Queen Camilla! Long live King Charles!”). New compositions celebrated the work of living composers, notably a Kyrie composed by Paul Mealor, sung in part in Welsh and performed by the choir with the incomparable baritone Sir Bryn Terfel as soloist. A gospel Alleluia by Debbie Wiseman was sung by the combined choirs and a gospel choir. A Veni Creator Spiritus, with verses sung in Welsh and Gaelic (both Scottish and Irish) preceded the anointing of the King which took place behind a screen, with the archbishop speaking sotto voce whilst the choir sang Handel’s “Zadok the Priest.” In honour of the Greek heritage of the late Prince Philip, a Byzantine chant ensemble sang verses from Psalm 72. An anthem based on Psalm 98 by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber was immediately forgettable. Classic Anglican hymns “Christ is Made the Sure Foundation” and “Praise My Soul the King of Heaven” rounded out the musical program.
This coronation demonstrated that the monarchy continues to evolve, slowly. Because the Church of England is a state church and the King its supreme governor, deeper changes will only come if and when the church is disestablished. But in the meantime, the coronation signals that King Charles is poised to continue his mother’s commitment to service, adding in his own commitments to inclusivity, and that he will, as he is able, bring this ancient and troubled institution slowly into the 21st century.