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Leader comment: The sacramental nature of coronation

28 April 2023

ON SUNDAY, the official liturgy for the Coronation Service of the King and the Queen Consort will be published. The use of the terms “liturgy” and “service”, as well as the location, of course, counter the suggestion that this will be in any way a secular or a merely ceremonial occasion. Despite the pressure to strip out various elements to reduce the length of the service, we understand that there will be a eucharist. The King will be anointed with holy oil from Jerusalem. And the congregational acclamation “God save the King!” will function as both an expression of loyalty and a prayer. In his first public address after the death of his mother, King Charles placed himself firmly in the Church of England “in which my own faith is so deeply rooted”. For this reason, theoretical questions about whether a religious service might be inappropriate for an irreligious monarch can be put off for another generation at least, if not longer.

Perhaps indefinitely, since this a coronation, not a canonisation, and thus not a recognition of any personal virtues of the Sovereign. Those familiar with the Thirty-Nine Articles will know that, running counter to the willingness in the present age to personalise everything, the character of the officiant has no bearing on their sacramental ministry (“Neither is the effect of Christ’s ordinance taken away by their wickedness, nor the grace of God’s gifts diminished from such as by faith and rightly do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them”, from Article XXVI). Similarly, the Sovereign’s value to the nation is not based principally on character but function. And this, chiefly, is to drain prestige from the ruling executive. The focus of loyalty, the arbiter of honour, a person to whom the Prime Minister defers, is a constitutional monarch who is unable to impose his will on any of his subjects. It is an odd contribution to the power-structures of a nation, perhaps best understood in comparison with other countries more susceptible to autocratic rule or populist sentiment.

But of course character matters. Debate about the future of the monarchy has been affected at times by the popularity of individual members of the Windsor family (and those whom they marry). And Article XXVI goes on to say of evil Ministers (of religion) that, being found guilty, they may “by just judgement be deposed”. The King will remember the time, not long past, when events around his divorce led to suggestions that the succession should skip a generation. But his essential goodness has dampened the criticism, and his obvious commitment to serving his people “with loyalty, respect, and love” has won the public round. In this way, next week’s Coronation will be a fitting blend of constitutional right and popular approval.

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