Vivat Regina: The Coronation Lecture
Location: Westminster Abbey
“Nobody does ceremonial as well as the British”. Tuesday’s splendid sixtieth anniversary service justified this common opinion. The Archbishop in his sermon referred to the pomp and pageantry of the Coronation service itself as a “typically British occasion”. It is indeed true that the preparations in 1953 were very thorough, and the Queen herself remembers “many rehearsals”.
The result rewarded the effort. The then Dean of Westminster, Alan Don, celebrated the fact that “everything passed off without any hitch worth mentioning. The Queen did her part with great recollectedness and simplicity, and without any outward trace of nervousness or self-consciousness. The Mistress of the Robes and the Maids of Honour were dignified and graceful and moved with notable precision. The supporting Bishops – Durham, aged under fifty and looking venerable as a septuagenarian, and Bath and Wells, not good-looking but full of solicitude for the Queen – performed their evolutions with conspicuous skill. The Archbishop of Canterbury [who has it in his power to make or mar a coronation] rose to the occasion nobly. His voice was clear, his articulation unaffected and his mastery of detail complete”.
The quotation comes from Sir Roy Strong’s marvellous book simply entitled Coronation and it is this book which those in search of a scholarly, historical survey in sparkling prose should consult. Sir Roy was present on Tuesday as High Steward of the Abbey, adding colour to the occasion as ever with a most elegant beard and moustache after the manner of Van Dyck.
You may well ask then what my particular qualifications are for giving this lecture. I am of course Dean of HM Chapels Royal, but it may be that the Abbey authorities had caught wind of the fact that, while I was in my angry young fogey phase, I composed a so called “Series Three coronation” in the modern idiom. It contained a new anthem for the entry of the trendy Archbishop in the then fashionable polystyrene chasuble and sung to music by Sir Arthur Sullivan:
“I am the very model of a modern modish minister
I’ve come by church preferment in a manner somewhat sinister
By manifold appearances on telly and the epilogues
By sneering at decorum, and wearing all the hippy togs…”
It goes on but I think that you have probably heard enough to understand why the Vice Principal said to me “Chartres, a man with your views has no future in the modern Church of England.” How right he was.
I am glad however that things have not turned out according to my nightmare vision. Instead, in recent years Westminster Abbey has again and again been successful in presenting impeccable public events which, through the medium of television, have become shared experiences for millions. We have come to expect high standards in public ritual and have concluded that this talent is peculiarly British – but it was not always so.
Only about a hundred years before the coronation of Elizabeth II, having watched a young Queen Victoria open Parliament, Lord Robert Cecil the future 3rd Marquess of Salisbury wrote:
“Some nations have a gift for ceremonial. No poverty of means or absence of splendour inhibits them from making any pageant in which they take part both real and impressive. Everybody falls naturally into his proper place, throws himself without effort into the spirit of the little drama he is enacting and instinctively represses all appearance of constraint or distracted attention…This aptitude is generally confined to the people of a southern climate and of non-Teutonic parentage. In England the case is exactly the reverse. We can afford to be more splendid than most nations; but some malignant spell broods over all our most solemn ceremonials and inserts into them some feature which makes them all ridiculous … Something always breaks down, somebody contrives to escape doing his part or some bye-motive is suffered to interfere and ruin it all.”
Today the situation is exactly reversed. With the possible exception of the Papacy, no Head of State is surrounded with such popular and conspicuous ceremonial as the Queen.
Let us first look at some of the sources and the resonances of the Coronation service. Then let us briefly survey the evolution of English coronations and how they were adapted to meet revolutionary circumstances, or simply political and cultural change. We shall consider how the dunces of ceremonial became the Diaghilevs of today and, lastly, we shall attempt to identify the essential elements in the rite and, having demonstrated its adaptability, argue for its enduring value.
First, the sources and resonances.
Tuesday’s service included a reading from the first book of Kings:
“Zadok the priest took an horn of oil out of the tabernacle and anointed Solomon. And they blew the trumpet and all the people said, ‘God save King Solomon’.”
The story of the chosen people recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures has been a potent narrative around which the story of the English nation crystallised. The biblical account of monarchs and their rule runs the gamut between a celebration of sacral kingship and denunciations of despicable tyranny.
There is no place in the Biblical world view for an idolatrous attitude towards the State. Kings are warned by the prophets that they face judgment from a higher court, from the King of Kings and father of the fatherless who is “a strength to the poor”. There is a wealth of references to wicked kings and the divinely ordained fate that overwhelmed them.
But nevertheless there is a sacral aura around royal power. David, even when being hunted by a vengeful Saul, refrained from killing him when he had the opportunity, “seeing that he is the anointed of the Lord”.
Drawing on these Biblical references, the first recorded instance of the anointing of a king in our islands is contained in the life of St Columba by Abbot Adoman of Iona. He describes the reluctance with which Columba anointed Aidan as King of Dalriada in the late sixth century.
Continental models, however, exerted a more direct influence on the inclusion of anointing in the first known English coronation order – that of King Edgar who was crowned in Bath in 973. An eye-witness account records first the king’s procession into church escorted by two bishops. The custom by which the monarch is escorted by Durham and Bath and Wells, representing the north and south of the country, goes back to Anglo-Saxon times and was honoured in 1953.
On arrival, Edgar laid his crown aside; it was placed on the high altar and the Archbishop began the Te Deum.
After the hymn was sung, at the dictation of the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, the king took an oath “to guard the Church of God; to forbid violence and wrong; and to keep justice, judgment and mercy”.
Both Archbishops of Canterbury and York offered a prayer and “After this the king was anointed, the full voiced choir singing the antiphon which tells how Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon King in Sion.”
The investiture followed with ring, sword and crown. The king was then blessed and also received a sceptre and a rod, before the eucharist was sung.
Most of the elements of the 1953 rite, therefore, were already in place in Bath in 973. One can only marvel at the adaptability of a symbolic act which has survived for a thousand years in so many diverse circumstances.
In the Western tradition, the anointing with holy oil has been at the heart of the rite. As well as the Old Testament references to the anointing of Kings and High Priests there is also the account in Chapter IX of St John’s Gospel of the anointing performed by the “Christos” himself. “Christos” means the “anointed one” and in the gospel Jesus anoints the eyes of a man blind from his birth who then receives his sight. This catches up ancient themes which connect anointing with enlightenment. Now this connection is being given contemporary resonance.
Such is the recognition in the Commonwealth of the exemplary way in which, for sixty years, the Queen has lived out the vows she made when she was anointed that the Commonwealth Heads of Government last year launched a Diamond Jubilee Appeal. I serve as a trustee under the chairmanship of Sir John Major.
The response has been so generous that, in partnership with organisations and medical experts who have been working in this field for some time, this autumn the Trust will be able to announce full details of a strategy to put an end to preventable blindness arising from trachoma throughout the Commonwealth by 2020. This and a number of additional programmes, some concerned with other aspects of blindness and some which will benefit young people, will be a personal tribute to the anointed Queen and the translation of what is ancient into something that will bring fresh hope to millions.
The rituals of anointing and crowning have often been employed to legitimate revolutionary changes. In the West, the coup which supplanted the Merovingian dynasty and brought Pepin the Short to the throne as King of the Franks in 751 was sanctified by the innovation of anointing. The Pope, Stephen II himself crossed the Alps in 754 to anoint the King in person. The coronation of Charlemagne in Rome on Christmas Day 800 and his recognition as Emperor of the West gave birth to the modern idea of Europe.
It is hard to reconcile the conflicting accounts of what precisely happened in St Peter’s on that fateful Christmas day. Did the coronation ceremony imply the subordination of the secular to the sacred power of the Church? It was presumably to make it clear that this was not the case that Charlemagne himself at an assembly in Aachen had his son Louis the Pious proclaimed as his successor and invited him to assume the crown – whereupon Louis crowned himself.
Throughout the ninth century however as the Frankish realm was torn apart by conflict within the royal family, the question of how to regulate the succession and identify the rightful king became more urgent. The Frankish bishops began to play more of a role. The anointing and crowning of Charles the Bald in 869 by Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims together with the prayer he used on that occasion, set the pattern for the coronation of the French King for nearly a thousand years. The coronation of Charles X in 1825 was the last in the ancient style.
We have an insight into Hincmar’s intentions and thus the meaning of anointing from his own reflections on the reign of another Frankish king, Lothar II. He expressed his opposition to the idea that Lothar was “a king and subject to no human laws or judgements but only those of God who constituted him king in the realm which his father had left him”. The coronation service was intended to put limits on the claim to absolute rule. Coronation studies are no mere antiquarian pursuit but, in the language of symbols, they are essentially a discussion of the division, distribution and legitimation of power in society.
Hincmar claimed that he was using oil originally brought by a dove from heaven to anoint Clovis, hero King of the Franks. Not to be outdone, English kings later in the Middle Ages were to claim that the oil used in their coronations had been a gift from the Virgin herself to St Thomas Becket as a mark of her especial love for the English monarchy. I wonder whether the Virgin observed the recent EU directive on tamper-proof packaging for olive oil?
Exodus XXX: 22-25 gives the recipe for “holy anointing oil”. The recipe for the oil used at the coronation in 1953 is derived from the concoction of Theodore de Mayerne, an émigré Huguenot doctor, which he had made up for the coronation of Charles I in 1626. It included orange and jasmine blossoms distilled in ben oil, rose, cinnamon, benzoin, ambergris, musk, civet and spirit of rosemary. In 1953 the oil that was consecrated by the Bishop of Gloucester in advance of the ceremony contained sesame oil in place of the ben oil, which is pressed from the seeds of the horseradish tree and has been the base for perfumes since the time of the ancient Greeks.
In mediaeval England the coronation service continued to evolve in response to changing political circumstances.
One of the great treasures of Westminster Abbey is the Liber Regalis dating to the 1390’s, which records some of the developments of the coronation rite during the 13th and 14th centuries. The magnificence of monarchy was enhanced in the glory of the setting provided by Henry III’s rebuilding of the Abbey itself. The sacral character of kingship was further emphasised. Henry III asked the great theologian Robert Grosseteste in what way he was different as a result of being anointed with holy oil. Bishop Grosseteste replied, as Roy Strong says, “circumspectly, making a clear distinction between the sacerdotal and the royal offices” and suggesting that anointing simply supplied the grace necessary for the virtues required in a king. Later in the century, however, the ampulla for the oil, a version of which was on the altar on Tuesday, was added to the coronation regalia, and it is clear from the Liber Regalis that the king was anointed in eight places with holy oil and on the head with chrism.
At the same time, however, the limitations on royal power were made more explicit. In 1308 Edward II was forced to swear an oath, binding himself to observe the future laws made by the community of the realm – “les quels la communauté de vostre roialme aura eslu”. An ideological bargain was being struck through the medium of the coronation, which reflected the suspicions of the magnates who had already been scandalised by Edward’s infatuation with Piers Gaveston. The oath brought into the heart of the rite the king’s relationship, not just with the feudal nobility but with his people, and the limitation of his powers which flowed from the institutions which embodied that relationship. The coronation of 1308 also saw the re-instatement, after some two centuries of absence, of the acclamation and popular recognition of the king, placed prominently at the beginning of the service. The cry Vivat, Regina! is now raised by scholars of Westminster School and we heard them on Tuesday.
The disruption of the 16th century Reformation could not fail to have an impact on the coronation. Edward VI de-sacralised the event, as Archbishop Cranmer explained in his sermon.
“The solemn rites of coronation have their ends and their utility, yet neither direct force or necessity: they be good admonitions to put kings in mind of their duty to God but no increasement of their dignity: for they be God’s anointed not in respect of the oil which the bishop useth but in consideration of their power, which is ordained, of the sword which is authorised, of their persons which are elected by God and endued with gifts of his Spirit for the better ruling and guiding of his people. The oil if added is but a ceremony: if it be wanting, that king is yet a perfect monarch notwithstanding and God’s anointed as well as if he was inoiled.”
Mary sought to re-sacralise the rite. She assembled a great cast of clergy. All the priests from St Paul’s except for those who were married were required to attend and in consequence the services of the Cathedral were suspended. She sent to the Emperor for fresh oil.
Elizabeth placed more emphasis on the civic progress through the capital than on the coronation itself, which was conducted by a recently appointed bishop of the ancient regime, Owen Oglethorpe of Carlisle.
Coronation ritual however proved remarkably tenacious, even under the Commonwealth. For the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, the Coronation Chair was removed from the Abbey and taken to Westminster Hall, where Cromwell was dressed in a robe of purple velvet trimmed with ermine and carried a golden sceptre. He swore an oath and departed in a coach to cries of “God Save the Lord Protector”.
Coronations of a more traditional kind were revived after the restoration, but they declined in splendour after William and Mary. The nadir was probably the coronation of George III. After a succession of mishaps, the sermon could hardly be heard above the popping of champagne corks as the congregation seized the opportunity to take luncheon.
The Hanoverian monarchy still, however, retained real political power. Continuing royal power made grand royal ceremonial unpalatable, and royal unpopularity made it impossible after George IV’s disastrous attempt to stage a spectacular coronation in 1820.
George himself on this occasion looked more like an elephant than a man, and the pathetic attempts of his estranged Queen, Caroline, to gain admittance to the Abbey marred the whole proceedings which had cost the astronomical sum of £238,238. In real terms it was more expensive than the coronation of 1953.
The Times obituary following the king’s death was devastating, “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creature than this deceased king.”
Unsurprisingly, his successor William IV was only reluctantly persuaded to have a coronation at all. It was conducted on such modest lines that London wits dubbed it the “Half-Crownation”.
Victoria’s coronation was unrehearsed. The elderly Archbishop of Canterbury William Howley, who had been tutor to the children of George III, tried to force the ring on the wrong finger and misplaced the orb.
Mangled rites did nothing to dent the national confidence at the time that we, the British, were the leaders of progress and pioneers of civilisation, and the policemen of the world. There was a lack of interest in formal Empire and a hostility to ostentation which was reflected by London itself. London was ill-suited to stage the kind of public spectacles which found superior theatres in St Petersburg, Paris or Vienna. The imperial capitals expressed the power of the State. London squares and suburbs, stations, clubs and hotels were monuments to the power and wealth of private individuals. Grandeur in cities equalled absolutism.
The Press was hostile to royal display, and in any case pictures were scarce. The London Illustrated News, launched in 1842, cost a shilling a copy and was restricted to the “Rectory public”. Rituals were only of importance to a restricted circle of participants.
At the same time, the first 70 years of the nineteenth century were among the bleakest times in English musical history.
Sir George Smart, Organist of the Chapel Royal, to whom all the musical arrangements for royal ceremonial from the funeral of George IV to the coronation of Victoria was entrusted, was notoriously inept. The choirs of the Abbey and St Paul’s were in a sad state. Rehearsals were unknown; surplices were not worn; choirs did not process; absenteeism and irreverence were rife. The clergy were on the whole, before the Oxford Movement, uninterested in ritual. At Westminster Abbey, James Turle (the organist from 1831-1882) was unable to bring discipline to the choir, and the organ he played was old and inaudible. The congregation where we are sitting, here in the nave, sang the hymns from posters hung on the columns. Even as late as the time of Dean Stanley (1870-1891), the administration of the Abbey was marked by “ignorance of finance and incapacity for business” which made the organisation of major events very difficult.
The absolute nadir of royal grandeur and ceremonial was achieved in the decades when Victoria retreated from sight after Prince Albert’s death in 1861 and the Prince of Wales was mired in scandal. Between 1871-4, 84 republican clubs were founded. Walter Bagehot’s writing in defence of the monarchy had this context. He declared that, “From causes which it is not difficult to define, the Queen has done almost as much to injure the popularity of the monarchy by her long retirement from public life as the most unworthy of her predecessors did by his profligacy and frivolity.”
But, between 1877 and1914, there was a sea change. For one thing monarchs retired from active politics. Edward was disinclined to desk work and spent three months of the year out of the country. He did occasionally intervene in foreign policy, and in matters of honours. In a service in the Chapel Royal recently, we have just recalled his creation of the Order of Merit.
On the Continent, ritual was used to exalt real royal power, while in Britain there was the consolidation of a very modern type of constitution under antique trappings. Edward VII was rehabilitated in this process. As one rhymester put it when he died:
“Greatest sorrow England ever had,
when Death took away our dear old Dad.”
Britain at the end of the century was transformed, and the story of that transformation was told in the context of the sixty-year reign of Queen Victoria, who gave her name to the era. In an age of profound change, crisis, and dislocation, the preservation of the anachronistic divine rites of the monarchy as a unifying symbol of national community and permanence became more urgently necessary. In the 1860’s, Bagehot predicted with a candour we would shrink from in these more coded times that, the more democratic we become, “the more we shall get to like state and show which have ever pleased the vulgar.”
At the same time there were developments in the media which extended the reach of royal ceremonial beyond the circle of the élite. With the advent of the yellow press in the1880,s news was increasingly nationalised and sensationalised. In 1896, Harmsworth launched the Daily Mail which sold for a halfpenny and achieved a circulation of 700,000 in four years. Illustrations became more available as a result of technological change.
Other social changes enhanced the romantic glamour of coronations and other royal ceremonies. The carriage trade had been under pressure since the 1870’s with the advent of Dunlop’s pneumatic tyres. There was a cycling boom and, in a very short time, by the turn of the century horses ceased to be part of town life. Carriages, previously commonplace, became romantic. Edward VII commissioned a new state landau for the coronation of 1902, calling in the old world to redress the balance of the new.
By this time royal coronations had become imperial ceremonies. The traditions of the Middle Ag were enlarged to embrace modern Empire. London was enhanced with splendid public buildings. The Mall was widened as a processional way; Admiralty Arch was constructed and the Victoria monument was placed in front of Buckingham Palace.
There was an element of international competition, even in republican France where Bastille Day was invented in 1880. When Edward visited his nephew the Kaiser in 1909, the king was greeted with a dazzling display of ceremonial grandeur. The Kaiser remarked afterwards that “The English cannot come up to us in this sort of thing”.
There was an upsurge of interest in ritual and ceremony and a musical renaissance. Elgar was the first English composer since Purcell to have an extensive international reputation. Parry presided over a revival of the choral tradition.
The key figure at Westminster was Sir Frederick Bridge, Organist from1882 to1918, and his opposite number at St Paul’s, Sir George Stainer 1872-1888. Choirs were once more properly dressed and disciplined.
The Established Church also recovered its interest in ritual. Bishops began to wear purple and carry pastoral staffs. The disappearance of wigs made mitre-wearing once more a practical proposition. Copes were worn at the Golden Jubilee of Queen Victoria, after which Archbishop Benson wrote, “days afterwards everyone feels that the socialist movement has had a check.”
Westminster Abbey was visually transformed. The organ was rebuilt in 1884 and again in 1894.
Before the First World War, these developments were part of a general European trend. After the war, with the fall of the German, Hapsburg and Romanov Empires, the ritual surrounding the British monarchy became exceptional.
While the theatre of monarchy looked back to revived ancient traditions, a very modern constitutional reality was being established. The combination of political neutrality with personal rectitude, exemplified in the lives of George V and Queen Mary, enabled the monarchs of the period to represent a national family at a time of great strain and distress. The King was faced by the advent of the first Labour government and behaved with impeccable constitutional propriety. Union leaders and socialist ministers were welcome at the Palace. One particular conversation at a levée between George V and the trade union leader JH Thomas has been recorded. “Tell me Mr Thomas,” said the monarch, “Is the economic and financial situation really as serious as the Chancellor, Mr Snowden, keeps on telling us?” “King,” said Thomas, “the situation is that serious that my advice to you is to put the colonies in the wife’s name”.
Percy Schramm, the great German liturgical scholar, remarked of the Coronation of 1937, “Everything at Westminster remains as of yore while Aachen and Rheims are desolate”. There had been a great culling of crowned heads and, in other states like Hitler’s Germany, Stalin’s Russia and Mussolini’s Italy, the use of the latest cars, tanks and planes in great public pageants and rallies betokened impatience with anachronism and an embrace of the most modern technology, allied with spurious scientistic doctrines of racial superiority or historical inevitability which, in their view, licensed them to restrict access to the public square, to discount continuities and, in particular, to exclude religious institutions and references.
But even in Britain technological change had a significant impact. The development of the BBC permitted the first Christmas broadcast in 1932. Everyone could now take part in royal pageants, although there was still considerable nervousness on the part of the authorities. The Daily Mirror reported that, after the 1937 coronation (also incidentally held in the rain), “Dr Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, will go into a dark room in the West End to play a new role – film censor. His Grace, ever vigilant of public interest and good taste, will carefully scan the films of the coronation made by the news reels. With him will be the Earl Marshall the Duke of Norfolk and they will have a free hand to cut from the film records anything which may be considered unsuitable for the public at large to see.”
The coronation of 1953 was the last great imperial celebration whose glory, despite the rain, shone all the more brightly by contrast with the years of drabness and austerity which had followed the Second World War. Television ensured that the Queen was crowned, as the rubric directs, “in the sight of the people”. The number of licensed television sets doubled, from one and half to three million in anticipation of the event.
Following Alan Don with whom I began, it was probably the most impressive ceremony and spectacle in the whole thousand-year-long history of the coronation rite, but the changes since then in the past sixty years have been every bit as momentous as those which occurred in the reign of Queen Victoria.
The Empire has been reduced to a handful of realms and territories. The hereditary element in the House of Lords which played such a prominent part in the 1953 service has been much reduced, and may even be entirely abolished. The Queen reigns over a realm with vastly greater ethnic, cultural and religious diversity than was the case in Churchill’s Britain. Her first Prime Minister belonged to a ducal house and had participated in a cavalry charge at the battle of Omdurman barely a year after the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria. Post-War Britain experienced a social revolution which spelled the end of the culture of deference.
Last Tuesday, the procession of “representatives of the United Kingdom” carrying the flask of oil from the Great West Door to the Sacrarium suggests one of the ways in which ritual can be adapted to modern circumstances. The question remains, however, as to whether Westminster will join Aachen and Rheims as an empty stage inhabited only by ghosts.
In his King’s Speech at the recent inauguration of his reign as King of the Netherlands, Wilhelm Alexander helpfully observed that, “The monarchy is not a static institution. Within the bounds of our constitutional rules, it has always managed to adapt to changing circumstances….At the same time the monarchy is a symbol of continuity and unity. It is a direct link with our constitutional past. It is an historic tapestry which we are still weaving together today”.
Every state has its theatrical aspect which serves to publish, in vivid terms, the way in which power is legitimated and distributed. Not many state theatres these days, of course, have royal boxes, but republics have discovered that they cannot do without a measure of pomp and pageantry. The French and American Presidents are of course potent political figures. Fascinatingly, the powers of the American President; his sometimes troubled relationship with Congress and his particular connection with the armed forces mirrors in a remarkable way the prerogatives of George III –except of course for the vital exception that his term is limited, and he must submit himself to the electorate every four years.
By contrast, our constitution has evolved in the past hundred years. The arena of party politics and the proper struggle for influence among partisans has been evacuated by the monarch, who now embodies and points to a realm of shared values which transcends politics. The queen has continued the tradition of private probity and public grandeur with strict political impartiality which makes the monarchy a credible sign of the unity of the nation beyond political conflict. The involvement of the Queen and many members of the Royal Family in charitable work is also an example and an encouragement to millions of volunteers, and to those who are active in their local communities.
King Wilhelm also pointed to the role of the monarchy in symbolising continuity. There are some who are impatient with anachronisms like coaches and cavalry escorts, and who allege that the theatre unhelpfully allows us to ignore our diminished place in the world and compounds our failure to come to terms with a post-imperial age. It is, of course, true that 1953 will be the last “imperial” coronation, but this particular aspect of the processions and celebrations is very modern and only goes back to the coronation of Edward VII in 1902.
The continuation of a rite which has proved adaptable in very different cultural and political circumstances over a thousand years serves to publish and affirm some vital principles. We are part of a story and a land which we share with generations past and future. Contrary to the populist orthodoxy that we should be free to devise and enact whatever the will of a majority of citizens at any particular time might desire, the moral legitimacy of government is derived from faithfulness to given principles of justice distilled from the experience of centuries. Coronations help to define eras, and to promote reflection on the character of the tapestry which we are weaving in partnership with those who have gone before.
The partnership evoked by coronations also involves generations to come. The effects of living as if our generation was not the steward but, rather, the sole possessor of our land and history, is only too evident in the suffering we have inflicted on our environment. We are responsible for an inheritance on which we have a full repairing lease and a duty to pass it on intact to future generations.
In a remarkable essay entitled “The Meaning of the Coronation” published in the Sociological Review for 1953, Edward Shils and Michael Young (who had played a leading role in drafting the Labour Manifesto in 1945) quoted the sociologist Durkheim. “There can be no society that does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality” The two authors suggested that the coronation was just such a reaffirmation in an act of national communion.
Simply invoking abstract universal concepts like justice and tolerance does not generate the energy necessary to bind people together in a common cause. It is when the abstractions are embodied in a story, a community memory which we can all share, or in symbolic representative figures, that they are invested with power.
There is, for example, a potent connection between respect and affection for the Royal family and one’s own family. Royal weddings and funerals are the brilliant publication of common human experiences. I remember, when Princess Diana was lying in the Chapel Royal after her tragic death, talking to a man outside who had been weeping. He said to me “My mother died some years ago and I couldn’t cry. I did not know the princess but her death has really broken me up.” The truth is that on that occasion we gave each other permission to release the great reservoir of unexpressed grief which a society without adequate mourning rituals accumulates. The man was belatedly weeping for his mother.
So far, however, we have not strayed from the themes delineated in the King’s Speech in the Netherlands, but it is significant that, although his investiture took place in the Nieuwe Kerk in Amsterdam and the setting may have summoned up memories of the Christian past, there was no explicitly religious element in the investiture. The King swore an oath, and the Chairman of the Senate made a speech in reply and took a reciprocal oath in the name of the people of the Kingdom. There followed a joyful river pageant.
Is the UK now so diverse in its cultures and religions that the explicitly Church of England element in the rite of 1953 has become indefensible? It could be argued, as Shils and Young did, that “Britain came into the coronation period with a degree of moral consensus such as few large societies have ever manifested”. Is there sufficient consensus today even to permit an explicitly Christian service?
The temptation is to opt for what is sometimes described as “secular neutrality” in our public rituals. “Secular neutrality” (which is a theme also invoked in the field of education) is, of course, a myth. It is not possible to live and act without some kind of world view, either explicit or implicit. “Secular neutrality” closes off access to a realm which is a lively concern for the overwhelming majority of citizens of this country. The most recent census figures for London for example reveals that, although at 44% the number of self- identifying Christian citizens is the lowest in the country, the number of those reporting no faith is also the lowest in the country. More than eight out of ten Londoners identify themselves with one or other of the great world faiths.
The coronation is one of the reference points in our liberal democracy by which the public square is kept open to voices of reasonable religion. This is as far as possible from demanding a theocratic state, but rather a recognition that a healthful version of faith needs to be vigorously articulated or else lethal versions will be left free to flourish in a public religious vacuum.
In 1953, only the memorable part played by the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland recognised the presence of other religious traditions in these islands. By the time of the fiftieth and sixtieth anniversaries of the coronation in this Abbey Church, there was participation from other parts of the Christian family in the presence of representatives of the world faiths.
The nature of the Establishment of the Church of England, just like the monarchy itself, has changed since 1953. Last year, the Queen herself drew attention to “the significant position of the Church of England in our nation’s life”. “The concept of our Established Church is occasionally misunderstood” she said, “and I believe commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead the church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” That is not an uncontroversial statement and would not satisfy many Anglicans, but it echoes the view expressed by the Muslim political scientist Tarig Modood that “the minimal nature of the Anglican establishment, its proven openness to other denominations and faiths seeking public space and the fact that its very existence is an on-going acknowledgement of the public character of religion are all reasons why it may be far less intimidating to the minority faiths than a triumphant secularism.”
The royal family themselves have played a notable part in binding the different faiths in this country and in the Commonwealth into the evolving story of our community. Coronation rites will undoubtedly reflect these new realities, just like the observance at the Cenotaph every November which takes place in the presence of an increasing number of representatives of different faiths. One year the Foreign Office generously put a robing room at their disposal and I had to have the notice on the door as a souvenir because it read, in capital letters, FAITH CHANGING ROOM. I had a surreal vision of someone going in a Calvinistic Methodist and coming out a Zoroastrian.
In many ways, most notably financially, the Church of England with its huge responsibilities is the most disestablished church in Europe, relying on tens of thousands of volunteers and fund- raising to maintain noble buildings like the Abbey itself in the absence of public subsidy. I would argue however that we should continue, gladly, to maintain the thousand-year spiritual integrity of the Coronation rite in times when the relationship between faith in God and respect for democratic principles is once again a major international concern. The alternative would be something more like the Dutch investiture.
There have been times in the past sixty years when it seemed as if the story of God would only have one end – relegation to the leisure sector as the harmless hobby of a minority with antiquarian interests. No one is saying that now, and even the editor of the Economist has co-authored a book entitled God is Back and, if the editor of the Economist says so, we must take it seriously.
The spiritual integrity of the Coronation rite should be maintained rather than some lowest common denominator ceremonial with no explicit divine dimension, but no doubt much could be done by reviving (as has been done many times in the past) customs which have been abandoned. I am thinking of the banquet in Westminster Hall, which ceased to be part of the ceremonies after the shambles of George IV’s coronation. The success of the Diamond Jubilee lunch suggests ways in which the concept of the recognition of the sovereign by every part of British society could be enhanced.
We ought also to restore the sermon at a time when the meaning of the rite urgently needs an authoritative commentary that is not entirely dependent on the views of the international media. But, as a bishop, I would say that, wouldn’t I?
In summary, I believe that we are living at a time when, having lost the attributes of rulership, monarchy once again embodies transcendent themes of the kind vital to the preservation and good health of the community. We may have outgrown the divine right of kings, but we should certainly not surrender our divine rites.