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God Save the King: The sacred nature of monarchy by Ian Bradley

28 April 2023

Is there still a case for an anointed monarch, asks Graham James

AT THE Coronation of King Charles III in Westminster Abbey on 6 May, God and the Church will be centre stage in a largely secular nation. What will the people of the UK make of it? Some blinked with puzzlement at the Accession Council when the new King swore to uphold the settlement of the Church of Scotland and preserve its Presbyterian character, a reminder that there are two Established Churches in these islands. As an ordained minister in the Church of Scotland, Ian Bradley writes out of that tradition. This highly readable, wide-ranging, and comprehensive book explores the history of the British monarchy and how the sacred is woven into its very nature. It deserves to be widely read.

No other European monarch has a coronation service. The nearest equivalent is the blessing that the Norwegian king or queen receives in Ndaros Cathedral in Trondheim. But that is modest by comparison. The Coronation Oath of our own monarchs to uphold “the Protestant Reformed Religion Established by law” is made in a sacramental context with anointing and holy communion, speaking of continuities which go back well before the Reformation.

Although we are told that the liturgy to be used on 6 May will be shorter than in 1953, it will be based on the rite prepared by St Dunstan when Archbishop of Canterbury in 973. The most striking continuity is even older: with the ancient kings of Israel, anointed because of their divine vocation to serve their people and embody faithfulness to God. The oil to be used this time was blessed in Jerusalem by both the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and the Anglican Archbishop; for a further inspiration for Christian monarchy is found in the humility of Jesus Christ, whose kingdom is not of this world.

Bradley offers a sympathetic and informed account of the Christian faith and breadth of sympathy of the new King. The author believes that the monarchy may be the one institution that still has a chance of uniting the diverse peoples of the UK. Many contemporary defenders of monarchy focus on an essentially secular understanding of its constitutional value. In contrast, Bradley believes that the part played by the monarch is primarily sacred. He argues that it symbolises spiritual values, promoting order and stability in the midst of chaos (as did kings in ancient times), “standing for public good against private gain”, representing faith against secular materialism, and “acting as a focal point for unity” in a society that is increasingly fragmented.

While many may be sceptical of such claims, it was noticeable that as Queen Elizabeth II became more open about the depth of her Christian faith (and respect for those of all faiths and none), both her popularity and her capacity to unite the nation seemed to grow.

Polls suggested that two-thirds of the UK population in 1953 believed that the monarch was directly chosen by God. No similar poll has been undertaken now, probably because the question is otiose, given the decline of belief in God. Does this mean that the symbols of the Coronation Service will fail to speak to contemporary people? Bradley expresses a hope that, for example, the spurs symbolising virtue, and the armills, bracelets that are signs of sincerity and wisdom, will not be discarded. In an age in which The Lion King, Dungeons and Dragons, and Game of Thrones have such purchase, these visual symbols may have new resonance. We shall see.

This book made me ask unexpected questions of my attitude to the monarchy and its place in our society. What is not discussed at any depth is the impact, if any, of the age of the new King. To be crowned in his 75th year may suggest that Charles III will have a transitional reign. Perhaps it may herald a rethinking of attitudes in our society to older people. And when one thinks of Pope John XXIII and his impact on the world, God may yet surprise us in our King. I hope so.

The Rt Revd Graham James is a former Bishop of Norwich and now an honorary assistant bishop in the diocese of Truro.


God Save the King: The sacred nature of monarchy
Ian Bradley
DLT £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.09

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