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Opinion: Music and symbolism speak most powerfully

11 August 2023

Ian Bradley identifies what worked well — and less well — at the Coronation, and service of dedication and thanksgiving

WHAT lessons can the Church of England and the Church of Scotland learn from the Coronation (News, 12 May) and the more recent service of dedication and thanksgiving for the King in Edinburgh? These occasions allowed our two national Churches to showcase their liturgy and ethos, and to preach the gospel to huge audiences. It is worth reflecting how they performed in this regard before the memory fades.

Many aspects of the service in Westminster Abbey on 6 May were handled well (News, 12 May). The welcome of the King by a boy chorister, with his personal prayer in reply, emphasising servanthood, were inspired innovations. The anointing behind the beautifully woven screen and investiture with traditional regalia spoke powerfully of things seen and unseen. There were, perhaps, too many words, especially for the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his invitation to television viewers to make their own act of homage was generally reckoned somewhat crass and ill-judged.

There was also a distinctly anachronistic element in the emphasis given to the Protestant character of both nation and monarchy.

This was made more of than in the 1953 coronation, with the inclusion of both the third Coronation Oath, which many of us expected to be changed, still binding the King exclusively to maintain “the Protestant Reformed Religion”, and the Accession Declaration Oath, in which he declared himself to be “a faithful Protestant”. It was followed immediately by an anthem by that devout Roman Catholic, William Byrd; an irony which seems to have escaped those who framed the service — or was it a subtle ecumenical gesture?

Despite the Archbishop’s introductory words about the Established Church’s commitment to freedom of belief, these oaths struck an archaic and exclusive note. They must surely be updated and made more appropriate to our age before the next coronation. This is a matter for the Government and for Parliament rather than the Church; but it would be as well to put it on the agenda now and not kick it into touch again.

THE service in the High Kirk of St Giles on 5 July made no mention at all of Protestantism, although it did have a certain dour Presbyterian plaintiveness, something that Charles, who, as one Scottish columnist observed, is not himself a stranger to melancholy, seemed to appreciate.

It, too, was perhaps over-wordy, but what was impressive and memorable in it were the commendably brief but deeply personal prayers for the Monarch which were delivered by representatives of non-Christian faiths, and came over with a particular authenticity and sincerity.

The inclusion of a humanist in their ranks disturbed this paper’s television critic (14 July), but it struck me as showing welcome breadth and inclusivity. It was in striking contrast to the act of homage by faith leaders by the west door of the Abbey after the Coronation, which seemed a gratuitous appendage, tacked on just as the King was leaving, and which could not be heard by either the congregation or the watching millions. This is something else that should be looked at before the next coronation.

Perhaps what lingers in the memory most from both services is the music, much of it specially commissioned by the King. Some might say that there was too much, and that it threatened at times to turn an act of worship into a concert, especially perhaps in St Giles’, where there was a substantial piece played by Nicola Benedetti in the middle of the service.

But what it signals, I think, is that, increasingly, to many people, music and visual symbolism speak more powerfully than words of spiritual matters and sacred mysteries. If there a lesson here, it is about the spiritual effect of music, be it “belters” old and new such as “I was glad”, Zadok the Priest, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s thrilling “Make a joyful noise to the Lord”, or the more meditative Orthodox chant, Gaelic psalmody, and works by Paul Mealor.

Both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland took the opportunity to preach trenchant, punchy sermons on the themes of service and climate change respectively.

OVERALL, our two national Churches provided much for the watching millions to feed on. I hope that, before long, there will be broadcast acts of worship and dedication attended by the new King and Queen in Wales and Northern Ireland, following the precedent of the very moving services held in Llandaff and Armagh Cathedrals after the death of Queen Elizabeth II.

It would be good, too, to see services held in cathedrals around England later this year, or early next, on the pattern of the medieval “showings”, in which recently crowned monarchs progressed around the country. There is a real opportunity here for the Church to reach out to the nation.

The Revd Dr Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews. His most recent book,
God Save the King: The sacred nature of monarchy, is published by DLT (Comment, Books, 28 April).

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