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May 6, Coronation Day, will put the monarchy in the spotlight. But it won’t be just the King and Queen Camilla, who will be centre–stage. It will also focus attention on the Church of England.
For generations, the Church of England’s role as the Established Church was uncontested; it was just part of the constitutional furniture. The Church, founded by Henry VIII, after he broke away from the Roman Catholic Church over his desire for a divorce, has, since the 16th century, been the national Church. It has a duty to look after every soul in the land, the right to have bishops in the House of Lords, and to crown the monarch. It was in many ways an expression of Englishness. Long before the cross of St George was flown by patriotic football fans – look at film of the 1966 World Cup and you’ll see Union Flags waved by the crowd – it was the towers of Anglican churches that could be relied upon to fly the English flag.
But in a nation that is both so much more religiously diverse yet also increasingly secular and one where the rights of an Established Church are more openly contested, not least its right to have 26 seats in the House of Lords, its key role in crowning the King on 6 May is up for debate. And in a Kingdom that is not so united as it was in 1953, with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland asserting themselves powerfully since devolution, the role of the Church of England alone in crowning the King seems an anachronism.
There is of course no chance that the Church of England will willingly give up its role as the Established Church. Indeed, its role will be affirmed by the King when he swears during his coronation to not only maintain the Protestant Reformed Religion but also uphold the settlement of the Church of England. In that sense, the Coronation is a mutual endorsement of Church and Crown – an endorsement also expressed through the monarch being the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
But its place at the heart of the nation is not set in stone and thanks to the late Queen Elizabeth II, it has found a new raison d’etre. In 2012 at the start of her Diamond Jubilee, she gave a highly significant speech at Lambeth Palace to faith leaders. With the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, standing alongside her, she said:
“Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under–appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.
“It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co–operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
At the time, the press failed to realise quite how important a moment this was – or perhaps the world was ready for such a shift in what the Church of England was about, so there was little fuss. It was certainly a much more muted response than the one that greeted the then Prince of Wales saying, in 1994, that he would like to be known as Defender of Faith, rather than Defender of the Faith when he came to the throne. He argued that in a nation that had so many Christian denominations as well as other faiths, he had a responsibility to them as well.
Faith leaders, though, did notice what the Queen said in 2012, and embraced it. It is noticeable that many faith leaders outside the Church of England are among the greatest supporters of its seats in the House of Lords, seeing them as ensuring faith has a voice in the public square.
The King, who was proclaimed Defender of the Faith – the traditional title – when he acceded to the throne and is also, like monarchs before him, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, emphasised just after his accession that he has a role to play when it comes to other faiths. He told leaders of Christian denominations and other faiths at a special faith reception in Buckingham Palace a week after he became King, that he had a duty to protect faith, while also being “a committed Anglican Christian” who would “at my Coronation take an oath relating to the Settlement of the Church of England”.
So this enthusiasm for diversity and the Church of England’s responsibility for it, will be evident at the Coronation. The Coronation Order of Service has yet to be published but I am reliably informed that it will be noticeably ecumenical. In 1953 the only nod to other Christian denominations was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland presenting Elizabeth II with the Bible on which she swore her oaths. Expect far more involvement of other Christian representatives this time.
Finding a role for other faiths is trickier. Church of England canon law precludes their prayers being said within one of its churches. On occasion it has happened but it usually leads to a rap over clerical knuckles, as happened a few weeks ago at Manchester Cathedral when it allowed a Muslim call to prayer from the nave, and then had to apologise. But a procession of leaders of other faiths is entirely possible, as happened at the late Queen’s funeral in September.
The Coronation’s organisers have also found an ingenious solution to further involving other faiths by having four peers, representing the Muslim, Hindu, Sikh and Jewish faiths, to carry in the procession special items to be used in the Coronation. Whether we will see any other involvement, such as a group of faith leaders offering the newly crowned King greetings, rather than prayers, and possibly gifts, symbolising their faiths, is not yet clear.
At his Buckingham Palace reception for faith leaders, the King also gave a nod to non–believers, when he said: “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.”
It was a tactful comment but those with secular ideals are possibly more of a problem for the Church of England than the King. Whether Roman Catholics or Muslims, people of faith might not share the Church of England’s devotion to the Thirty Nine Articles but their understanding of divinity makes common sympathy possible. But as those with no beliefs grow – and the 2021 Census revealed that in England and Wales there was an increase of 8.5 million non–believers taking those with no faith to 22 million or a third of the population, common sympathy – or lack of it becomes an issue. Once, many people who had little belief would have turned to the Church of England for hatching, matching and dispatching. But now they opt for naming ceremonies, weddings in country hotels, and humanist funerals. That nominal connection with the Established Church is broken.
And yet it isn’t entirely. Churches – and they are often Anglican ones – are at the heart of communities still. The National Churches Trust’s House of Good report, published in 2020 and updated in 2021, highlighted how important churches are, from hosting food banks, to running groups for the elderly and families with children, to offering pastoral care of all kinds. They offer not just bricks and mortar but welfare and wellbeing – even to the non–believer. There is nothing like them, as can be seen in times of crisis, such as when someone is murdered and people flock to their local church for prayer, to light a candle or just have a quiet space in which to reflect.
So there is sympathy left for our Established Church and a place for it in our lives. Perhaps the most difficult issue when it comes to the Coronation is that so many people today lack religious grammar: they won’t understand the liturgy or what is going on in the ceremony. The Church of England has produced a book of prayers for the Coronation – but that’s a conversation between friends, as it were. Which non–believer is going to purchase a book of prayers? The effort put in to communicating what the Coronation is about to those who may well be mystified is not apparent, which is a shame, because the Coronation, with a little effort and imagination, could be an opportunity to communicate what faith is all about. You’d have thought this moment would have been seen by the Church of England as a mission to explain. But that baton seems to have been passed to the media – to broadcasters and press and online journalists. Perhaps we should be flattered by the Church of England’s trust. But if I were an Anglican bishop, I’d have tried a little more direct communication with the public too.
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.