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Notes on the Coronation

Dr Stephen Gregg

Following the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III on Saturday 6 May, Stephen Gregg, President of the British Association for the Study of Religions and Head of the Department of Social Sciences, blogs on the historical and cultural significance of the coronation. 

Whilst much of the press attention has been on family in-fighting, invitees from countries with dubious human rights records, or the exact carriage in which the King will ride, it should not be forgotten that the Coronation of His Majesty King Charles III was the most important religious ceremony in Britain for decades.

Whatever our own views, it reminds us that religion sits at the heart of British constitutional, political, ceremonial and social life.

Of the music at the ceremony, eighteen of the twenty-one pieces had lyrics based on Old or New Testament texts, but many viewers may not have recognised them as such. A Bible was given as a gift to the King by the Church, but fewer than 8% of Britons access a Bible regularly. Perhaps most interestingly, Rishi Sunak – a practicing Hindu – read a passage from St Paul’s Letter to the Colossians that explicitly states that we receive redemption only through Jesus. Complications and contradictions abound regarding the place and role of religion in contemporary Britain.

One often reported issue during Charles’ time as heir was his liberal views on different faiths. News filtered through from the Palace that he would wish to be called ‘Defender of Faith’, rather than ‘The Faith’. That did not happen.  Representatives of many religious traditions were present, and some played symbolic roles in the ceremony – Catholic, Orthodox and Jewish leaders spoke and community leaders from Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist communities were present. Special arrangements were made for the Chief Rabbi so that he could observe the prohibition on using electricity on the Sabbath.

This was the most religiously inclusive Coronation in history – but it was still a Protestant event, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, wherein Charles was affirmed as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. Oil, brought from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem – the holiest place for Christians – was used to anoint the King, and he read a personal prayer to express his own faith, to which he has spoken many times since the death of his mother.

None of this reflection is to press for a view of Britain as a ‘Christian nation’ (we’ve never been that, but that’s a blog for another day…) but to remind us how central religion is to British culture, and to reflect on how it changes from generation to generation., coronation to coronation. It also tests our understanding of what it means for people to be religious, and how we ‘do religion’ in both pomp and ceremony and everyday life.

Part of this change relates to social attitudes and practice which are themselves complex. Anglican church attendances may have fallen, but Pentecostal and Evangelical churches are seeing huge rises in congregations across the UK.  Census figures show us that 37% of respondents have ‘no religion’ and yet over a third of under-35s describe themselves as ‘Spiritual but not Religious’. The 2010 Equality Act protects, amongst other characteristics, religion, sexuality and gender, but at the same time, religions can exclude other protected characteristics when insisting on male-only priesthoods or the enforcement of same-sex celibacy. Religion both includes and excludes. It is ever-shifting and played-out in new ways in every generation.

Our relationship to religion is complicated, but it remains central to our identity as a nation. Indeed, the Commoners and Lords Sovereign who will enact legislation on the new King’s behalf in the two houses of Parliament are required, with very few Humanist objectors, to swear an oath to both God and King.  I often wonder if the two are conflated at times like these.

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