I WAS not surprised to see the letter to The Times from the President of the National Secular Society (NSS), Keith Porteous Wood, arguing for a secular Coronation. He argued that the King should abstain from pledging allegiance to any religious tradition, especially to one that has only one million “congregants” on a normal Sunday.
Until recently, the NSS has stood for a quite aggressive form of secular atheism, following its founder, Charles Bradlaugh. These days, though, the NSS takes care to promote itself more as a guardian of inclusive values and personal freedom, which just happens to include freedom from religion, along with freedom of religion.
So, while the NSS would permit the King to be a devout Anglican in his spare time, the coronation vows would have to be rewritten. As it happens, the King has already made his first religious oath, which is to preserve the Church of Scotland (News, 16 September). His second, a declaration of his Protestant allegiance, could come at the next state opening of Parliament. At the Coronation, in addition, he should promise to maintain the establishment of the Church of England. It is, of course, possible that these could be rewritten, but not in such a way as would satisfy secularists.
The new King himself, following his mother’s lead, has already interpreted his role to maintain the establishment of the Church of England in such a way as to mean that other faiths and beliefs are also protected and should have a place in public life. Everyone matters.
The irony is that, although the monarch clearly sees the social value of faith and its traditions, the Church of England itself is driving in a different direction. In recent years, we have seen the start of a conscious attempt to distance the Church from tradition, from liturgy, from the formality that offers shelter from over-intensity and zealotry. We are already conceding much to the secularists by suggesting, as some do, that formal, civic religion is a travesty of authentic, personal faith based on an experience of Jesus. The reality is that the Church needs both.
The grand simplicities of scripture and the Prayer Book are well expressed in formal worship and ceremony. But ceremony is not at odds with simplicity and personal devotion. Driving a wedge between the two turns the C of E into a group of “congregants” at a time when it has shown that it still has a capacity for “holding” the nation’s emotions.
When the Church comes to believe that its mission imperative requires it to junk tradition in favour of informality and spontaneity, it is doing no more than reflecting secular liberal values — the values, in fact, of the National Secular Society. It would be a shame if we were to end up, in effect, disestablishing ourselves.