It’ll be because I swim in metro-liberal waters that I am perpetually surprised by the breadth and the depth of the British public’s support for the monarchy.
Around those quinoa-and-rocket-laden dinner party tables that I no longer frequent, bring up the subject of monarchy and subjects, or the coronation, or even the Queen, and there is a sigh of despair. Monarchy? Really? In the 21st century? And yet, as Ipsos/MORI, who have been tracking public opinion on the monarchy for thirty years, repeatedly report, for every one republican among the British there are three or even four monarchists. It appears that Islington isn’t the perfect litmus test for British public opinion after all.
That’s the monarchy. The coronation is different. We might countenance a mediaeval institution at the heart of our constitution but surely not a mediaeval ceremony. Not least because, as Simon Jenkins and the National Secular Society among others have said over recent years, a Christian coronation is not only archaic but inappropriate for a modern, plural society such as our own. You can’t possibly risk a Christian ceremony alienating a non-Christian religious population of around 4.5 million people, or a non-religious population at maybe five times that.
Up until now, no-one has ever sought to ask the public about all this. However, according to new research from ComRes, commissioned by Theos, the British public would prefer a Christian coronation to a secular or multifaith one by a ratio of nearly 3:1. According to the study of over 2,000 British adults, a majority of people (57%) think that the next coronation should be Christian, compared with 18% who disagree, 19% who think it should be multifaith and 23% who think it should be secular.
It wasn’t simply the usual Christian subjects who felt this way. Indeed, this preference held across both genders and all social grades and age groups, as well as across every geographical area and almost every ethnic, non-religious, nominal-religious and practising religious group.
Less than one in five people (19%) thought that a Christian coronation would alienate people of non-Christian faiths from the ceremony, and even fewer (18%) agreed that it would alienate people of no religious faith. When asked whether they thought that a Christian coronation would alienate them – as opposed to some abstract notion of a different social group – 22% of people from a religious minority agreed that it would (only 9% agreeing strongly) and 18% of people of no religious faith said it would. In other words, the answer to the title question is the British people.
Coronations are not, of course, decided by referendum. There may be convincing reasons of principle why the next coronation should not be Christian. However, the key principled argument – that a Christian, indeed an Anglican coronation, would someone exclude, alienate or disenfranchise the public from this seminal constitutional moment – founders on empirical rocks. As of 2015, it doesn’t.
Ultimately, modern Westerners, especially metro-liberals, get nervous around acts of authority, seeing in them the potential to diminish individual freedom or exclude ‘the other’ from community. Hence, the often well-meaning calls for secularism – let’s keep the public square ‘neutral’ to avoid any imbalances of authority – or multi-faithism – let’s apportion the public square ‘equally’ and ‘fairly’ to avoid any imbalances of authority. By this line of thought, a public ceremony of the coronation’s significance simply cannot be particular and confessional. That way lies authority abused.
It is a fair criticism and we should not be blind to the way that authority can be abused in this way. But there is an alternative to secularism and multi-faithism, that of a generous and inclusive religious settlement, which seeks not to secure power for itself or its adherents but to make space for religious, and indeed non-religious commitments.
This is apparently the view of the present monarch who remarked at the start of her Jubilee celebrations in 2012 that the role of established Church “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions [but] to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country… [and] to create an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.”
Doubtless the Church of England is imperfect in its discharge of these duties. But there is, as yet, little reason to believe a multi-faith, let alone a secular settlement (or coronation) would be any more perfect. That, at least, is what the British public seems to think.
Nick Spencer is Research Director at Theos and co-author, with Nicholas Dixon, of the report Who wants a Christian coronation?
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