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Angela Tilby: We are all participants in the Coronation

28 April 2023

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ONE of the distinctive features of the 16th-century English Reformation was that it was driven not by theological reformers but by English monarchs. This is a point that Richard Hooker makes in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Henry VIII “began to repair the decays” of the Church by “beheading superstition”; the godly Edward VI continued the process; and then, finally, “in the depth of discomfort and darkness” caused by Mary Tudor’s reversal to Roman Catholicism, God caused “a most glorious star to arise”.

This was Elizabeth I, who restored the Reformed religion “as it were by a miracle from the dead”. Steering clear of any doctrine of the divine right of kings, Hooker saw the Tudor monarchy as both a gift of providence and a pragmatic political arrangement. And, although it all fell apart in the 17th century, since the Restoration the monarch has remained Supreme Governor of the Church, appointing senior clergy alongside the great offices of state. All clergy and lay ministers swear allegiance to the monarch.

As we approach the Coronation, we may well reflect that our constitutional monarchy is a curious arrangement: the outcome of historical accident and improvisation. The Church of England’s book of daily prayers for use in the run up to the Coronation of King Charles III (News, 3 March) mentions custom and tradition at the heart of the ceremony, but does not really engage with any theology which might help make sense of it all.

Yet there is a deeply scriptural theme which could perhaps enrich our participation in the event, which is that of representative personhood. The King, of course, represents both the nation and the idea of the nation. There is a sense in which the nation, and not just the individual, has a relationship with God, which is symbolised by a monarch who is both anointed and lay. He is there to be seen, and, by being visible and accessible to all, to excite a sense of belonging, loyalty, and service in the whole community.

As subjects, we all, of course, represent our country and our history, as well as ourselves. In a Christian context, our subjection to the King reflects our subjection to Christ our true King, whose all-inclusive personhood is expressed in the phrase, “Son of Man”. This reminds us that the lineage of Christ goes back to Adam, and that we are indeed, as C. S. Lewis, put it, “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve”: a destiny which Christ now calls us to fulfil as heirs of God and fellow-heirs with him (Romans 8.17).

However we choose to take part in the Coronation ceremonies, they are a reminder that the God whom we worship is not a suited bureaucrat in a correct and chilly republican heaven, but a king of beauty, peace, and justice. The Coronation of Charles III sets Christianity not only in our past, but also in our future.

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