Love, Grief, and Hope: Emotional responses to death and dying in the UK
Madeleine Pennington and Nathan Mladin’s report examining emotional responses to death and dying in the UK. 27/11/2023
In light of this weekend’s coronation of King Charles III, George Lapshynov unpacks the religious symbolism found within the service. 03/05/2023
“The Queen is dead, long live The King!” As in death, so in life, the reigns of British monarchs – and the monarchy as a whole – are deeply steeped in religious Christian symbolism.
Indeed, Her late Majesty The Queen’s memorial and funeral events last year were, for twenty–first century Britain and as far as public events go, marked with an unprecedented amount of Christian language, Scripture and symbolism.[i] And the Coronation of her son will be no less so.
Unlike some contemporary European monarchies, such as Belgium, where the king constitutionally takes the throne after swearing a solemn oath before the united Chambers of Parliament – a strictly secular affair – the crowning of English and then British monarchs since at least King Edgar in 973 AD has always taken place in the context of a Eucharist. Although British monarchs swear the constitutional Coronation Oath before the beginning of the church service proper, the oath is administered not by the Speaker of the House, but by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Likewise, the anointing, investment with the symbols of power, crowning and enthronement all occur in the course of a Communion service.[ii]
Norwegian monarchs still have a religious rite of royal consecration – a rite of blessing for their reign. Some other European monarchs attend some form of religious service after taking office. But the UK is the only monarchy in Europe that retains a religious coronation in the strict sense of the word, where the monarch is actually invested with a crown and symbols of power.
Moreover, both Elizabeth II and Charles III, but Charles particularly, have been outspoken advocates of the monarch’s role not only as Fidei Defensor, Defender of the – established, i.e., Anglican – Faith, but as a ‘defender of faiths’ more widely, a vision that this Coronation will embrace more than any other in British history.[iii] The preamble to the Oath, a novelty compared to 1953, has the Archbishop reassure the king that his commitment by law to maintain the settlement of the Anglican church need not clash with his vision of a confessionally diverse Britain. If anything, the preamble goes, “foster[ing] an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely… is the true profession of the Gospel”.[iv]
What then can we expect from the service? Coronations are not an everyday affair, and Britain has changed much since the last one – including only 12% of the population identifying as Anglican according to the 2019 British Social Attitudes survey, as the religious landscape diversifies.[v] Understandably, many people may not “understand the liturgy or what is going on in the ceremony”, as Catherine Pepinster wrote in a recent piece for Theos. With this in mind, we have put together a helpful guide to 10 moments of religious significance to watch out for:
Westminster Abbey has been the theatre of 39 coronations. Since William the Conqueror chose to be crowned in the Abbey on Christmas Day 1066 – choosing it because of its association with the Saxon king St Edward the Confessor – all subsequent coronations of British monarchs have taken place in the Collegiate church. Its hallowed vaults and chapels have seen the burials of saints, royalty and national heroes. Indeed, the Abbey undoubtably remains to this day a centre of great religious and national significance in the United Kingdom.
The procession into Westminster Abbey will be led by the recently finished and blessed Cross of Wales, a gift of the King to the Church in Wales. The Cross is itself a symbol of cooperation between the Anglican and Catholic Churches as it features two shards of wood said to be from the True Cross (the cross upon which Jesus was said to have been crucified), presented to the king by Pope Francis.
For the first time in British history, four members of the House of Lords from non–Christian major faiths – Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism and Judaism – will participate in the ceremony by processing to King Edward’s Chair in the Abbey with key pieces of regalia. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland will reprise his role presenting the Bible to the monarch before the Oath. Members of the clergy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Roman Catholic Church, Free Churches, and Churches Together in England will bless the newly crowned king. And leaders from other faiths will form a Procession at the opening of the service and be given a place of honour in the proceedings, while not taking actively part in them.
Since biblical times, kings, queens, prophets and priests have always been anointed. The oil, called chrism – which has given us ‘Christ’, meaning the Anointed One – and coming from the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, was blessed for the upcoming coronation by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Jerusalem, Theophilos III, and the Anglican Archbishop Hosam Naoum. Through the act of anointing, the monarch is said to be ‘consecrated’, i.e., belonging to the realm of the sacred, set apart for the service of God in a specific capacity. It is considered the holiest rite of the coronation ceremony, and is the only part that will not be filmed. Where the late Queen used a canopy to give her ‘figurative privacy’ from the cameras during this part of the service, Charles wanted actual seclusion for this part of the ritual and commissioned a specially–made decorated screen that will enclose him on three sides.
Although primordially a symbol of kingship, the Sword is blessed by the Archbishop as is all the other regalia. With it, the monarch is entreated to “do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God, help and defend widows and orphans”. It represents the power of the monarch to use the might of the state against its enemies, but is also a symbol of justice – a means for the monarch to fulfil their duty as bringer of justice and preserver of peace.
These are liturgical vestments that represent priestly authority. By virtue of the monarch’s consecration during the Anointing, he or she is in fact ordained to the very specific ministry of kingship. The Imperial Robes, and the Stole in particular, thus represent the sacred and spiritual nature of kingship and the indissoluble link between earthly rule – serving and protecting the people, delivering justice – and divine command. As God is King, so is the monarch God’s servant.
Laden with particularly strong Christian symbolism, the ‘Orb set under the Cross’ represents Christ’s dominion over the world, in particular through a Christian earthly ruler. In use since antiquity, the globus cruciger is an unmistakable reminder to the world that the monarch holding it is Christian, and that “the whole world is subject to the Power and Empire of Christ.” It has also a strong evangelistic connotation, as it calls (or certainly historically called) the monarch to spread his or her own temporal realm as a means of spreading Christianity.
Featuring at Western coronations since at least the Middle Ages, the meaning of the King’s Ring might be less self–evident. A symbol of kingly dignity, the Annulus is like a signet ring, bearing not the personal arms of the monarch, but the symbolic seal of faith. Reminiscent of the ecclesiastical ring of Catholic bishops, it is also another symbol of the priesthood, as well as of marriage. As if wed to the nation, the monarch enters into a covenant with his or her people and promises to serve the realm faithfully, with love and care.
The Sceptre with the Cross and the Rod with the Dove are respectively the tokens of the monarch’s temporal power as Head of State and of his or her spiritual role. Both find their roots in the shepherd’s staff, through the episcopal crozier, as symbols of care. Heavy with biblical symbolism, they represent the monarch as a Good Shepherd. The Sceptre is surmounted by a small globus cruciger, pointing again to the inextricably spiritual nature of temporal rule. The Rod is surmounted by a dove, representing the Holy Spirit. Together, they balance each other out, so that the monarch’s rightful use of power might be inspired and tempered by God’s mercy and equity.
And last, though certainly not least, while holding the Sceptre and Rod, the monarch is finally crowned with the Crown of St Edward. With temporal power in one hand and spiritual and pastoral responsibility in the other, the monarch can now assume the full responsibilities of kingship. The ultimate symbol of royal authority, the crown is also no less charged with religious symbolism. The ‘crown of the faithful’, ‘the crown of glory and righteousness’, the ‘crown of thorns’, or the ‘crown of immortality’ it mirrors – as does so much of the regalia – the divine Kingship of Christ, and by extension the divinely sanctioned nature of temporal kingship in the name of Christ. It invites the monarch to foster in his or her reign all the virtues and qualities of Christ.
Much more could be said about the rest of the coronation ceremony, which does not end with the crowning proper. The clergy and the people swear allegiance to the monarch, old and new commissioned pieces of sacred music are sung… More importantly, the newly crowned monarch’s first acts will be to pray, confess their sins and receive Communion, thus placing the entire rest of their reign under the sign of their lived faith.
The nature and responsibilities of kingship take on the form of Christian ministry throughout the ceremony: consecration, priesthood, pastoral care, divine inspiration, evangelistic calling, Christic emulation.
Beyond the sacred Christian character of the entire coronation rite, Charles also clearly signals his aspiration to an ecumenical role as a link between peoples of all faiths within his realms and territories. Leaders of other Christian denominations and of other non–Christian faiths will take part for the first time, hymns will be sung in Latin – a first since the seventeenth century – and our practicing Hindu Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, will read the Epistle.
Symbolism is, of course, open to many interpretations. Where some see in the sword a symbol of justice, others will only see oppression. Where some see superfluous golden trinkets and a waste of money, others still might see an earnest attempt at capturing in matter, albeit imperfectly, a glimpse of the glory of God.
As the nation prepares to re–engage with its renewed and reinterpreted thousand–year–old traditions in less than a week, we hope this short article will give you the means to decrypt and better enjoy the event.
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i. Bible Society. “The Bible, the Funeral – and the Coronation”.
ii. The Order of Service for The Coronation of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II.
iii. Speech by The Queen at Lambeth Palace, 2012. Also here.
iv. Authorised Liturgy for the Coronation rite, 2023.
v. British Social Attitudes 36, 2019. “Religion: Identity, behaviour and belief over two decades”.
Photo by Mike Bird from Pexels
George is the Research, Communications & Events Intern at Theos. He holds an MRes in International Relations as well as an MA(Hons) in History and Politics from the University of Glasgow. He is interested in the place of wisdom in contemporary politics and has published articles on the history of religious music.
Posted 3 May 2023
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