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Leader comment: The Established Church at the Coronation

12 May 2023

THE late arrival of the Waleses or Pretty Yende’s dress were not the only unexpected occurrences at the Coronation. Some things became clear only as the day unfolded. We remarked before (Leader comment, 5 May) on the return/redemption of the royal regalia and what it said about the balance of power between giver and receiver, Sovereign and State. What we failed to appreciate was the evident relief with which the King gave these up. It was striking that the more the King was encumbered with garments and objects, the more helpless he became, until he was almost unable to move without the assistance of two hard-working bishops. How much more relaxed he looked before the crown was put on, smiling at the gospel choir’s Alleluia, for example. It was impossible not to read into this more than mere physical encumbrance. The King’s self-determination, never great, has been further restricted since he became Sovereign. At that point in the service, there cannot have been many who envied him, especially among other 74-year-olds, his wealth notwithstanding.

Nor could one avoid noticing the historic echoes as he walked out of the Abbey behind an unsheathed sword of state, albeit less lethal than the one that dispatched the first King Charles in Whitehall, past which the present King was driven on the route back to Buckingham Palace.

A more general observation is that the Church must look to its image. There will have been many observers who marvelled at the splendour of the music, the elegance of the choreography, and the magnificence of the vesture. But the Church in dress uniform is only one of its manifestations, and arguably the least important — as likely these days to alienate as to enthral. Sandwiched between two flamboyant military parades, and enveloping the King (literally) and his chief officers of State in its embrace, the Church was exposed to the misapprehensions that always threaten it when it associates with temporal power. The liturgy was sound, the additions were reasonable, and the message of servant-leadership was wisely reinforced by the Archbishop in his sermon. But even though the words at the enthronement make it an act of God — “King of kings and Lord of lords, bless, we beseech thee, this Crown, and so sanctify thy servant Charles upon whose head this day thou dost place it” (our italics) — the person who did the crowning was clearly Archbishop Welby.

There was no faulting the variety in the congregation, the breadth of the musical items, and the involvement of other denominations and other faiths. The key actors performed their complicated tasks without a slip. And there were genuinely moving moments: the Greek intonation of Psalm 71; the Prince of Wales’s homage; the Welsh Kyrie — and nowhere else is the Bible more beautifully described. But the enduring image was exceptionally episcopal (chiefly archiepiscopal) and glittery. What was described as assistance was in danger of looking like appropriation. Establishment is many things, but the Church should be concerned if this is the chief image that people have of it.

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