The night before the new sovereign was anointed, I joined a “Mass for the Coronation of King Charles III & Queen Consort Camilla” held in every parish in England and Wales at the request of the Catholic bishops. We prayed for the newly minted if aging monarch—that he “may continue to grow in every virtue…be preserved from every harm”—and learned that through this eucharistic celebration we pledged our loyalty to him. This was not so unusual, our parish priest reminded us in his homily, for “Catholics have a very strong loyalty to the Crown.” Even in the dark days between 1534 and 1680, he added, the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period went to the gallows expressing their affection for, and loyalty to, the monarchs who had put them to death.
True, of course; but the fact that this had to be pointed out showed how unusual this was. The post-Communion hymn was weirdest of all. Not everyone was happy to sing “God save our gracious King.” “Never once heard the national anthem sung in a Catholic church, in a lifetime of going to Catholic churches in every part of the UK,” tweeted Raymond Friel OBE, who runs Caritas, the official national body coordinating Catholic charities. It wasn’t personal; Friel had been awarded the OBE by King Charles. But he spoke for many Catholics when he said he was “uneasy at the prospect.”
These feelings never arose at the last coronation seventy years ago, when Catholics were offside spectators. In those days, a Catholic could not step into a Protestant church, let alone join a coronation service. The only non-Anglican minister in Westminster Abbey in 1953 was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who gave Elizabeth II the Bible on which she swore her oaths. Now the Catholic Church in England and Wales is one of the twenty-seven “privileged bodies” allowed to offer a “loyal address” to the monarch, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, did at King Charles’s accession last year. And he was in the Abbey on May 6, startling in scarlet, alongside various ecumenical representatives—Greek Orthodox, Free Churches, and so on—to pray over the newly anointed and crowned monarch, that God pour on him “the riches of his grace” and “keep you in his holy fear.” Nichols was the first Catholic cardinal at the coronation of a monarch in these islands since Cardinal David Beaton presided at that of the infant Queen Mary of Scots in 1543. And Nichols wasn’t the only one. The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was representing Pope Francis, who had earlier gifted fragments of the True Cross for a “Cross of Wales” commissioned by King Charles for the Coronation.
It is hard to understand all this without the Queen’s 2012 address to faith leaders at the start of her Diamond Jubilee. The enlargement of the established church’s tent took place gradually during her reign, but this was the moment establishment itself was redefined. Standing in Lambeth Palace alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, she told leaders of all the faiths and denominations that the point of this church recognized by the law as official “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but “to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” The Church of England, she said, “has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely,” and added: “Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active cooperation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
The significance of the remarks was mostly missed, but the faith leaders there took note, and the coronation service on May 6 was its fruit. Given that the 1688 Oath of Succession and 1701 Act of Settlement were intended precisely “to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions,” this was an ingenious reframing, one that allowed both church and monarchy to find a raison d’être and shared mission at a time when both institutions look ever more anomalous.
As a narrative it just about works because it reflects reality. In secular Britain (the 2021 Census revealed that a third of the population has no faith at all), a liberal national church whose liturgies are rare and sparsely attended has taken on more and more of the role of an NGO, in partnership with other churches and faiths. The Church of England does this well, taking advantage of its physical omnipresence and relations with power brokers to host food banks, support clusters of hosts housing Ukrainian refugees, run groups for the elderly and families with children, and so on. In times of crisis—Covid, floods, a local tragedy—the church offers organizational heft and armies of the willing, and a gentle, accessible form of religiosity (candles and hymns) for those who need it.
At the same time, the monarchy has itself become more and more like an über-NGO, a convenor of charitable and volunteer organizations, and a promoter of loving service. This shift is also a response to changing times. Even after the royals lost real power in 1688, they could still count on deference, both to their position at the apex of a social hierarchy defined by bloodlines and heritage, and to their role as defenders of a Christian morality defined by the Church of England. That deference was still in place in cap-doffing, churchgoing 1953, but has now all but vanished. What ties people to the crown these days is something far more vague and sentimental: a reassuring sense that it safeguards the national mythos, combined with affection and grateful admiration for royals who incarnate a spirit of service, as Elizabeth II did, and Charles III does.
This was the idea of royalty at the heart of the coronation service, which began with the king being welcomed by a child to the Abbey “in the name of the King of Kings.” “In his name, and after his example,” Charles declared, “I come not to be served, but to serve.” In his brief homily, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said Jesus Christ “creates the unchangeable law of good authority that with the privilege of power comes the duty to serve.” He described service as “love in action” and said it could be seen in care for the poor and conservation of the natural world. “We have seen those priorities in the life of duty lived by our king,” he said.
At his touching tribute in the coronation concert the evening after the Abbey service, the Prince of Wales sounded like the executive of a major charity. William praised his “Pa” for his environmental advocacy and for the Prince’s Trust, which “has supported over a million young people, many from disadvantaged backgrounds, to realize their ambitions.” The King, he added, “has always understood that people of all faiths, all backgrounds, and all communities, deserve to be celebrated and supported”—precisely what Queen Elizabeth had said about the purpose of the established Church back in 2012.
The English genius for breathing new life into ancient institutions means now that church and monarchy share an identical mission as hosts of philanthropic activity in partnership with faiths and civil society generally. But then, into this irenicism and liberality, the coronation oath sworn by King Charles III at the Abbey landed like an unexploded bomb. Enshrined by an Act of Parliament in 1688 after the Glorious Revolution, the oath binds the king to the defense of the Reformation. Instead of the previous vague promise to protect bishops and churches, every monarch from 1689 has to declare himself “a faithful Protestant” who will defend “enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne,”, while promising to uphold “the true profession of the Gospel and the Protestant reformed religion established by law.”
The confessional state was enshrined because Britain felt beleaguered and demanded uniformity in religion for national security. The first to take the 1688 oath, William and Mary, did so after the anointed king, James II, the last Catholic monarch, was overthrown by Protestants who feared a lifting of the penal laws. Later, the only justification for George I acceding to the throne in 1714 was that he was Queen Anne’s most senior Protestant relative. George was the first of the house of Hanover, the current royal family, and ever since then the British monarchy has been legitimated not just by bloodline but also by belief in the Thirty-Nine Articles. The current prime minister may be a practising Hindu, but the monarch must be Protestant.
The oath is, obviously, anomalous and offensive—and not just to Catholics. Many Anglicans do not see themselves as Protestant. The Irish, Scots, and Welsh are excluded. And it is hypocritical: King Charles, who declared himself in the oath a “faithful Protestant,” is spiritually closer to Greek Orthodoxy than to Anglicanism. So why not just remove it and replace it with an oath more in keeping with Queen Elizabeth’s redefinition of the Church of England’s role? Because that could only be done by an Act of Parliament, and the debate would open more than one can of worms. The appetite for a godless republic may be growing, but it is still a minority, and—so runs the prevailing view—it is best to leave well enough alone.
So while Charles was stuck with saying the oath—his expression did not conceal his distaste—Archbishop Welby tried to draw the sting out of it by explaining to him and to us that it meant not what it said but what his mother had said it meant. “Your Majesty, the Church established by law, whose settlement you will swear to maintain, is committed to the true profession of the Gospel, and in so doing, will seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.”
But is this shrewd re-interpretation enough to justify the enthusiasm for the coronation by the Catholic bishops? The unease at the new coziness could be seen, in the run-up to May 6, in the controversy over the so called “Homage of the People.” The idea had been to give space in the service for ordinary people—not just nobles—to declare their allegiance: Archbishop Welby would “call upon” all persons of goodwill “to make their homage, in heart and voice, to their undoubted king,” using the words in the ordo: “I swear I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty.” But after the ordo was published a week before the coronation, many felt pressured, and said they would defy the call. Among the critics was the Dominican writer and preacher, Fr. Timothy Radcliffe, OP—tapped by the Pope to lead a retreat for members of the synod in early October—who told the Times of London that it could remind Catholics “of an earlier call for allegiance to the monarch during the Reformation, when failure to conform led to torture and execution.” In the tradition of soggy Anglicanism, Welby dampened down the words on the day of the coronation, now “inviting those who wished to do so” to reflect silently or to use the words in the ordo.
The Catholic bishops, meanwhile, have done their own reframing, reminding Catholics that the coronation service, with its roots in antiquity, is essentially a sacramental liturgy, similar to an ordination, one that was Catholic (five hundred years) for longer than it has been Protestant (four hundred). Catholic participation at the service, as well as the inclusion of William Byrd’s sixteenth-century Gloria, written for recusants, represented a “coming together again” of elements that had become divided, said Cardinal Nichols. He told the Tablet all this was “a reciprocal ecumenism, an exchange of gifts.” The new king, he added, had the highest regard for Catholics, had met Pope Francis twice, and had been at the canonization in Rome in 2019 for St. John Henry Newman. Nichols acknowledged that the words of the coronation oath were “sharp,” but he believed the king had set “his wholeheartedly accepted constitutional duty into the wider context of our contemporary nation.”
British Catholics are mostly happy with this reset. As the coronation showed, the monarchy is one the few things that works well in the UK. Some also sense an opportunity. You could hear it in my parish the day after the coronation, when the parish priest pointed out that its ancient sacramentality was probably more intelligible to Catholics than to most people watching.
It was true that, while media coverage focused on the pageantry and pomp, the Shakesperian theatricality of it all, the angelic music and the bling (the swords, the orb, the bracelets, etc.), the heart of the service was not well understood. It was easier, perhaps, for Catholics to see that the real action was in “that strange moment when Charles, shielded by embossed screens, was anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury with holy oil poured from an eagle-shaped ampulla to the sounds of Zadok the Priest,” as the Guardian put it, describing the coronation as “pure theatre.”
But it wasn’t, even if the crowning added nothing at all to the legal powers or authority that came to Charles when his mother died. The coronation service was, above all, a liturgy with a sacrament at its center. Disrobed to his shirt, the King was consecrated for service, especially of the poor. The previous archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said it best when he described Elizabeth II’s anointing, which she herself had often referred to as an experience of light and peace. It was, Williams said, “a gift of the Holy Spirit to hold a fragile human person in faithfulness to this place where community can gather for restoration and renewal.”
It may be an unholy mess of entangled traditions, of shame as well as glory, that Britain keeps stitched together out of fear of something worse. But because church and crown still believe that authority is consecrated for service in a sacramental liturgy, I was happy on May 6 to stand in front of the TV, hand held aloft, to pay “true allegiance to our undoubted king.”