Religion Unplugged

Religious Lessons and Symbolism from a King’s Coronation

Senior Fellow, Center for Religious Freedom
King Charles III and Queen Camilla appear on the balcony of Buckingham Palace following the Coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla on May 6, 2023, in London, England. (Samir Hussein/WireImage via Getty Images)

The death last year of Elizabeth II, queen of the United Kingdom and of 14 other countries, moved many people deeply. A major factor in this was her rigorously restrained conduct.

Funeral of a queen

Over a long life she filled a role that, despite its multitude of benefits, meant that she could never reveal herself personally but always must fit into a circumscribed public role. A gilded cage indeed. That she fulfilled this role with scarcely a misstep over 70 years was almost a miracle, giving an inkling of former ages — ages with many faults but whose many virtues sadly we are losing.

Her discipline also echoed currents of political order that lie beyond the calculations of so much contemporary liberal or conservative politics. As Andrew Sullivan wrote:

You can make all sorts of solid arguments against a constitutional monarchy — but the point of monarchy is precisely that it is not the fruit of an argument. It is emphatically not an Enlightenment institution. It’s a primordial institution smuggled into a democratic system. It has nothing to do with merit and logic and everything to do with authority and mystery — two deeply human needs our modern world has trouble satisfying without danger.

The Crown has represented something from an ancient past, a logically indefensible but emotionally salient symbol of something called a nation, something that gives its members meaning and happiness.

The British royal family has helped satisfy some of those deeper needs in the U.K. — and to some degree has kept other more malign alternatives at bay. As C.S. Lewis noted many years ago:

“Where men are forbidden to honor a king, they honor millionaires, athletes, or film stars instead; even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”

Faced with America’s current dearth of leadership, we can long to have someone exemplary to represent the country itself. Biden or Trump are simply the recent heads merely of one of the three branches of the federal government, itself only one level of our constitutional structure. But, alas, currently they are by default seen as the spavined summit of the American political order.  

Crowning a king

Charles III became king the second his mother died on Sept. 8, 2022. At that very instant it was given that: “The Queen is dead. Long live the King.” Hence, a coronation is not itself de rigueur — Edward VIII did not have one, which was perhaps just as well given his subsequent abdication of the throne and his purported Hitlerian sympathies. But everyone — well, a majority, loves a parade, and many in the U.K. also love the numerous booze-ups that follow it.

So, it becomes a national celebration and festival. In America some states still restrict alcohol sales on election days, perhaps in the hope that citizens will decide soberly. In the U.K., pub hours will be extended for two hours each day over the coronation weekend, perhaps in the hope that citizens will further rejoice in a majestic spectacle that requires no decisions of them.

Charles III does not bear the burdens of his forebears Charles I, who was beheaded, or Charles II, who spent much of his life in exile. But he has suffered the strain of almost 70 years of waiting in abeyance for his final role. And, while his dignity has certainly grown in recent years, he cannot hope, nor would he claim, to have his mother’s long-earned gravitas that gradually established her as the anchor of the United Kingdom’s political order.

But in recent decades there has been the tragedy of flawed but beloved Princess Diane’s death, followed by the soap opera antics of Harry and Meghan. (The dungeons of the Tower of London were once used to confine inconvenient princes: perhaps they could become such again — it could certainly increase tourism). The final effects of this ongoing trivialization of the royal order remain to be seen, but if it continues on its present downward path, then the monarchy may all too soon expire or else survive as a Netflix soap opera or as celebrity news competing with Oprah or the Kardashians.  

But, in my hope that this will not happen, we should consider the deep meaning of this ceremonial installation of a new king.

Worship and consecration

Above all else, the coronation of this King is a worship service, held in Westminster Abbey and presided over by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It is an explicitly Christian worship service, though it will have participants from many religions. Rishi Sunak, the U.K. prime minister and a serious Hindu, will read from the first chapter of Paul’s letter to the Colossians, a text that more than any other proclaims the lordship of Christ over all creation. Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other Hindu leaders will also take part. Prayers will be recited in Welsh, Scottish Gaelic and Irish Gaelic, as well as English. 

The monarch will be presented with the Sovereign’s Scepter, which bears a cross, as does the Sovereign’s Orb, and he will be crowned with the St. Edward's Crown. During the coronation ceremony, the Sovereign’s Orb is typically carried in the monarch's left hand, while the scepter, which represents the monarch’s temporal authority, is carried in the right hand. Together, the two objects symbolize the monarch’s dual role as both a religious and a temporal leader. While briefly hidden behind a screen, he will be anointed with holy oil in explicit imitation of the anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest, recounted in 1 Kings 1:39. This verse will be quoted and, as put to music by Handel in 1772, will be sung as the anointing takes place.

As Tom Holland writes: “Charles III will share in a ritual that originally marked out the kings of Israel — Saul and David and Solomon — as the adopted ones of God.” The ceremony acknowledges that power, including political power, comes from God.”

While Catholics will participate, this is not only a Christian worship service but an explicitly Protestant one to consecrate a Protestant king.

The Archbishop of Canterbury will ask the king:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established bylaw? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine,worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto theBishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privilegesas by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

Part of the king’s reply will be:

I Charles do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession tothe Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

A new addition is that, for the first time, the King will pray:

God of compassion and mercy,

whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve,

give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth.

Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness

and be led into the paths of peace. through Jesus Christ our Lord.


Another change is that the traditional “homage of peers,” during which hereditary peers had sworn allegiance to the new monarch, has been replaced by an “homage of the people.” At this point in the service, people inside the Abbey and those watching at home “who so desire” are invited to say together, “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”

Dangers of theocracy?

This ceremony, while splendid, may seem to Americans and others not only very foreign but also possibly dangerous. This stress that political power has a divine origin raises fears of theocracy. It also cements the establishment of the Church of England, whose head has just thereby been crowned.

But many countries, including solidly democratic ones, affirm that the ultimate source of political authority is God, or divine standards, or divine law. This divine authority could and has certainly be exercised in an authoritarian way by priests and kings, but it can also be exercised by judges, presidents or elected legislators, or most importantly by the population itself. The question is who decides under this government what it is that reflects an ultimate order of justice. Many robust theories of democracy, including in the United States, explicitly maintain that the people exercise political authority.  But at the same time they also insist that this authority is in turn ultimately given to the people by God. This is the source of many contemporary theories of human rights.

The American Declaration of Independence traces its authority (“rights”) to “Nature's God.” The declaration contains four distinct references to God, and the divine origin of authority is seen as a fundamental guarantor of rights and democracy.  Similarly, the much more recent Canadian Constitution speaks of itself as founded on principles that recognize the “Supremacy of God.”  References to the divine origin of political authority are abundant in the Western world, and they have nothing in common with what is popularly called “theocracy.” In fact, they can form the foundation of a robust theory of democracy and human rights.

An establishment of religion?

Clearly the coronation reflects and reinforces an establishment of religion, and the United States was founded in part to reject just such an establishment. However, there are establishments and then there are establishments. Much has changed over the centuries.

In 1776 in both England and America, establishments had teeth, and they did bite. One of the reasons for James Madison’s strong and wonderful calls for religious freedom was his personal knowledge of the religious persecution occurring immediately around him in Virginia and other colonies. The principal victims were Baptists, and the principal persecutors were Anglicans. By the time of the American Revolution, the Anglican clergy in the Virginia colony had seen to it that over half of the Baptist preachers there had been arrested and jailed at some point — and even severely tortured on occasion — for being Baptists.

But many things have changed over the centuries. Currently, the effects of the English state church are quite minimal. Scotland has a separate established, more Presbyterian, state church of which the monarch of the United Kingdom is not head. The British monarch has to be a member of the Church of England, since he or she is its head. Some other officers, including educational ones, need also to be members. Twelve bishops sit in the House of Lords and — where needed on state occasions, such as the coronation — will follow Anglican liturgy. The prime minister advises the king on the appointment of bishops and other senior church personnel, and in effect usually appoints them, but that is the extent of state interference. The state does not fund the church, which is facing hard financial times, and all are granted religious freedom.

Similar other modern establishments may also be minimal. Norway has a state church paid for by public funds. However, the church holds a privileged role only with respect to the monarchy and state occasions. Otherwise, all religions have an equal footing. Since Norwegians thought that it would be discriminatory to pay only the official Lutheran Church’s clergy, they now give funding to all religious groups, Muslims included. Similar minimal arrangements exist in Sweden, Denmark and Finland. Belgium has no established church but funds a range of churches and non-Christian groups. The German government collects church taxes. Even with these minimal establishments, these countries all have high religious freedom scores. Modern establishments may have little negative on religious freedom.

We may disagree with and reject such establishments and also views that there is a divine source for political power. But they are not paths to theocracy or repression, so we may observe and enjoy the coronation, and perhaps even learn much from it.

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