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In light of last week’s coronation of King Charles III, Theos asks commentators whether the event was positive for the role of religion in public life. 10/05/2023
Yes, because it spoke of and showed, more convincingly than any other public event I can think of, the power of mystery. That things which can’t be explained or picked apart in rational terms can speak of truth in a deeper, more visceral way than overwrought explanations. A big issue for religion in public life is our generational belief that we have things all worked out: the Coronation affected many people in ways they didn’t expect, yet recognise as real. Opening the door to that more mysterious way of knowing also, I think, opens up the possibility of the Divine.
Fergus Butler–Gallie is a Writer, Priest and author of “Touching Cloth” (Penguin Books)
Faith was central to an occasion which 20 million of us were watching at the same time. The 2023 Coronation told a different story about faith in a Britain in which all faiths are minority faiths now. There was a delicate effort to bridge a Christian service representing a thousand years of Coronation tradition with the King’s commitment to recognising the multi–faith pluralism of Britain today. The strongly Protestant oath, essentially unchanged since 1688, was softened by the newly commissioned King’s Prayer and a blessing from a Catholic Cardinal. Perhaps in a more secular age many may not have noticed how unusual that simple act may seem in a historical context.
Sunder Katwala is Director of British Future and author of the new book “How to be a patriot” (Harper Collins)
In his history of Coronations, Sir Roy Strong describes the hopes of successive Archbishops of Canterbury that the Coronation might be “a vehicle to bring spirituality back to the people”. It was, he suggests, “a quest that ended in failure”. I’m not convinced that last week’s ceremony will result in a surge in Church attendance. I also think that those of us who have a faith need to be careful about projecting our reactions onto others. How can anyone not have goosebumps? I thought, as Handel’s “Zadok the Priest” reached its crescendo. Yet I think I would answer Theos’s question in the affirmative. In a society that can often seem to be rather incurious about religion, broadly tolerant but with a preference that it be a private affair, the Coronation, in its sheer strangeness, demanded a reaction.
Madeleine Davies is Senior Writer at Church Times
If you measure the influence of religion in public life in terms of column inches, then the coronation was a massive hit. There were numberless bishops in fine robes, two imams, a rabbi and a Buddhist monk amongst others. If you ask what picture of faith was on show, the answer is much more complex. Rituals create and reinforce myths, and the Christianity embodied in the coronation looked irrevocably tangled in impenetrable language, unattainable wealth and ancient feudal traditions. The new King even appropriated the words of Jesus, who said that he came not to be served but to serve. For many people there will be a dissonance between those words, and the image of a man who has children to carry his train, and a valet to squeeze the toothpaste onto his brush. It’s a long way from Westminster to Nazareth.
Andrew Graystone is Media & Public Engagement Lead at Theos
The Coronation was tops in terms of music, visuals, tradition, narrative and spirituality. A sense of sacred mystery suffused the whole event with elements that could be traced back in time through pivotal events in history to some of the earliest texts of the Bible itself. For once, we could celebrate an occasion where God really did have all the best tunes.
Ruth Gledhill is Assistant Editor of The Tablet
It was certainly a step forward to have involved some representatives of non–Anglican religions in the ceremony and other representatives of a range of religious and non–religious belief groups to attend and watch. But for me the overwhelming impact of the coronation was to remind me of the disproportionate and overweening role of the Church of England in our state. Not much could disguise the exclusive nature of the religious sentiments expressed and the fact that they lie at the heart of and motivate so much of what is discriminatory in our public life. My personal feeling was that it felt like a missed opportunity to do something that would have been genuinely meaningful to people of all beliefs. AlternativeS suggested by constitutional lawyers in advance, such as a secular and inclusive ceremony in Westminster Hall, would have done that job. But, after all, we live in a Christian state not a secular one so at least the religiosity of this ceremony was a reminder to those of us who want to see a more inclusive future of how much there is left to do!
Andrew Copson is Chief Executive of Humanists UK, President of Humanists International, and the author of “Secularism: A Very Short Introduction” (OUP)
Not really. Faith doesn’t work like that. It may seem a fine line. The Queen’s funeral – scrupulously magnificent; rehearsed down to every last hoof–step – spoke to our own very real and deep grief for a woman as present and significant as a grandmother. Helped by a sermon rousing in its unapologetic reassurance of the Resurrection and our knowledge of the Queen’s own personal and very real Christian faith, the pomp, the ritual worked for us. The Coronation’s didn’t. Showy, historic, a vehicle for international one–upmanship, it seemed largely irrelevant – except for selling newspapers. Faith doesn’t feed on such displays. Faith tends to be inspired by personal sacrifice; by individual example; by a strong hand proffered at a critical moment. There’s nothing wrong with the Church doing what she has done for a thousand years amongst all the flash and glitter. But how the Church has changed lives for a thousand years is more often with a mug of tea for a rough sleeper or smile of kindness to a struggling neighbour. Not on a head crowned in an archaic and still very sexist and elitist ritual.
At our street party, as men with mullets belted out eighties’ classics, my foster children danced with their refugee friends and elderly neighbours. Food and drink were shared. Unlikely friendships were forged. Even my fiercely atheist friend wanted to talk about Zadok the Priest and how moved he was seeing King Charles III strip down to a linen shirt for his anointing. While the service clearly broadcast the central themes of the Christian faith: humility before a higher authority, a life laid down for others, and a coming together of the nations, for me most inspiring was the way faith, hope and love then spilled out into the community. Long live that connection!
Dr Krish Kandiah OBE is Director of Sanctuary Foundation
When you think the Cardinal of the Catholic Church stood outside Westminster Abbey in the 1953 Coronation, we have come a long way in terms of representation of the major religions and also church ecumenical representation and involvement at the Coronation. The faith leaders being involved in the launch of the Coronation Big Lunch and the Big Help Out also encourages religious communities in the work of community cohesion and social action. However, the vast amounts of money spent on the Coronation during the cost–of–living crisis has rightly been called out. There is also the problematic relationship of the countries in the Commonwealth who still have the King as a head of state (the Realms). As second generation Windrush I support these nations removing The King as head of state while remaining in the Commonwealth should they wish. The call for reparations must also be heard, and I welcome the fact that the new monarch has at least indicated he is open to this. Let’s see where this goes. Finally hearing the dissenting voices is vital in a thriving modern democracy.
Rt Rev Mike Royal, General Secretary of Churches Together in England
Public rituals like coronation dramatize and seek to legitimise constitutional arrangements. The UK Coronation of a UK monarch should reflect all four nations of the UK state and both established churches. The Church of England, Palace and Cabinet Office failed to understand and implement needed reforms, relying on pomp and circumstance to endorse Anglican dominance, ecumenical exclusion and arcane symbolism. Some were charmed, but as many if not more, were alienated by this very English coronation, in which, for all the tweaks, an old church crowned an old man in the old style.
Doug Gay is a Kirk minister who teaches theology at the University of Glasgow and is author of “Honey From The Lion – Christianity and the Ethics of Nationalism” (SCM)
Yes, but it only tells half the story. The coronation service was beautiful. The representation of non–Anglican faiths was (I thought, as a Quaker) sensitive, and moving in its own right. That our Head of State is not just crowned but anointed makes an important statement about the higher authority to which he remains subservient – itself a powerful role for faith in public life that should continue beyond the bank holiday weekend. That said, this role is perhaps better reflected in the thousands of faith–run community projects, foodbanks, and small acts of neighbour–love that happen in every town and every street corner, every day. These efforts have no military band to announce their arrival, and they challenge the shortcomings of the State, just as much as they uphold it or celebrate its most indulgent excesses. They take no oath to validate their integrity; their witness speaks for itself. Through this lens, as an interviewee in one of our recent reports put it, faith is not so much at the heart of public life as its ‘capillary level’, bringing lifeblood to the places no one else seems to reach. In Jesus’ name and after his example.
Dr Madeleine Pennington is Head of Research at Theos
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Theos researches and investigates the intersection of religion, politics and society in the contemporary world.