Charles III, crowned

Where does royal power come from?

Yesterday’s coronation showed Britain doing what Britain does best – putting on the most gloriously bonkers ceremony the world has seen for decades. From Penny Mordant with a giant sword to Charles and Camilla seemingly playing a very important game of musical chairs, along with some of the strangest costumes you’ll see outside of a ComicCon, it was enough to ensure that the eyes of the world were all on Westminster Abbey for a few hours.

Much of the strangeness of the pageantry stems, of course, from the fact that bits and pieces of the ceremony date back hundreds of years. But there’s one crucial piece of the ceremony that really should have been updated over 300 years ago because not making this change means that there’s a big lie at the very heart of the ceremony.

It’s a lie about where the monarch’s power comes from.

Through most of the centuries that we’ve been crowning our monarch in Westminster Abbey, Britain has been a Christian nation. The coronation service has, therefore, been a Christian service. And it has, at its heart, a belief that the power wielded by the monarch comes from God. And that remains at the heart of the ceremony to this day. In the most sacred part of the ceremony (the bit that takes place behind screens because it’s too important for us to see) the new monarch is anointed with oil while the Archbishop of Canterbury says this:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who by his Father was anointed with the oil of gladness above his fellows, by his holy anointing pour down upon your head and heart the blessing of the Holy Spirit, and prosper the works of your hands: that by the assistance of his heavenly grace you may govern and preserve the peoples committed to your charge in wealth, peace, and godliness; and after a long and glorious course of ruling a temporal kingdom wisely, justly, and religiously, you may at last be made partaker of an eternal kingdom; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

And it bit later on (as the king is being handed various bits of regalia) the Archbishop says this:

With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God and all people of goodwill, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order: that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue; and so faithfully serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this life, that you may reign for ever with him in the life which is to come. Amen.

Both of these extracts ask for Jesus to help the monarch by giving them the power to reign over the kingdom in the way that God would like. This all makes perfect sense in the days of the Divine Right of Kings, but there are at least two good reasons why it no longer makes any sense today:

  • Firstly, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 made it perfectly clear that British monarchs don’t reign because God wants them to. No, it’s now the British parliament that gives them the power to reign over the country. And the fact that it’s parliament that is the source of royal power is enshrined in law in the Bill of Rights (1689) and the Act of Succession (1701).
  • And, secondly, Britain is no longer a majority Christian country. Claiming that the monarch takes their power from a supernatural being that large numbers of us don’t believe in just isn’t sustainable in our modern society.

Before yesterday, we heard a lot about how diverse this ceremony was going to be. But that’s really not what I saw on the day. Yes, there was a procession of leaders from many different faiths. But having taken their seats, they just sat there for the duration of the ceremony. The only non-Christian who seemed to have a role in the ceremony seemed to be our Hindu prime minister giving a reading from the Bible (which seemed slightly imperialist to me, to be honest). Other than that, the most diverse thing I saw was the leaders of a number of other Christian denominations giving blessings. Maybe having a Catholic Cardinal and a Greek Orthodox Patriarch speaking in an Anglican cathedral counts as diverse for some people, but it didn’t exactly seem groundbreaking to me.

I first started feeling slightly uncomfortable about the link between the royal family and the Church of England during the late Queen’s funeral last year. But, at that point, I was able to put my misgivings aside as I knew that she was a deeply religious woman and I could (to an extent) see it as a personal choice. I’m sure that the new King is also religious, but he’s on record as wanting to be a more modern and representative monarch and I’m afraid that just doesn’t sit well with all the wall-to-wall Anglicanism.

To me, this just looks like an unanswerable argument for the disestablishment of the Church of England.

If Charles wants to be the figurehead of a society that contains people of many different faiths (and, let’s not forget, no faith at all) then he cannot be seen to privilege his personal faith over those of other people. Surely, he has to become just a member of his church and not its Supreme Governor. Of course, that’s a bit tricky when, at the start of yesterday’s ceremony, the Archbishop asked him:

Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?
And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

And he replied:

I am willing.

CHARLES do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

It seems unlikely that he’ll want to go back on an oath he gave just yesterday. But I don’t see how he can pretend to be a modern and representative monarch without doing this.

I’m not saying that he needs to stop going to church if he wants to. That’s personal to him (and his family on special occasions like Christmas and Easter). He can continue his mother’s traditions of family outings to the churches at Sandringham and Balmoral for as long as he wants (although I do wonder at what point we’ll have an heir who knows it’s all nonsense and is just going through the motions – perhaps we already do!)

No, all I want is to break the link between the Monarchy and the Church of England (and if we have to remove the link between the House of Lords and the Church of England at the same time, I really wouldn’t object). Surely it’s obvious in the 21st century no church should be given a position of privilege over all the others.

Imagine, if you can, a version of yesterday’s ceremony that was truly inclusive and multicultural. One that didn’t lie about where the monarch’s power comes from. It could still have room for Penny Mordant and her giant sword, the Pursuivants of Arms and whatever other ancient British traditions you want. But it could also bring in the most ridiculous pageantry from the other Commonwealth realms and other faiths. It would be magnificently insane. And it wouldn’t exclude any of the people of His Majesty’s realms.

I think that’s something worth aiming for. And I hope it happens in time for William’s coronation.

0 thoughts on “Where does royal power come from?

  • As an ideological monarchist and plain-vanilla theist (i.e. there MUST be an Infinitely First Cause but no religion’s claims to speak for that IFC (the definition of God) have ever been valid),I maintain in the teeth of any denials that the only possible thing that legitimizes the Crown is the absolute inalienability of the Monarch’s right to abolish Parliament and all its works at will,though ten thousand years of Parliaments pass laws declaring the Monarch to have no power whatsoever,and ten thousand years of completely convinced Monarchs joyfully sign them.Monarchy represents power from above,what people need,what is actually right or wrong…politicians represent power from below,what people want,what is believed.In the real world,”do the right thing” and “do your own thing” are ever in tension.Accommodations must be made between theory and practice,and the exercise of the above-enumerated power is far from practical…but all power,including that of legislators and anyone permitted to elect legislators,should be seen as delegated by and borrowed from the Monarch,to whom all are responsible for using it wisely and unselfishly…just as the Monarch is accountable to God.
    A low-key “emperor-worship” is the only appropriate state religion,I think,but governments derive their effectiveness,not their authority,from the consent of the governed,and should see themselves as acting for the benefit,not on the behalf,of the governed when these are in conflict.

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