6 min read

After the coronation: what next for church and state?

As the coronation recedes, what's the future for an established church or a religiously impartial state, asks Jonathan Chaplin.

Jonathan Chaplin is a lifelong Anglican, a Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge and author of Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (SCM 2022) 

A team of street sweepers clear up the road after the coronation procession, outside the Houses of Parliament.
Sweeping the street after the coronation.
Westminster City Council.

The magnificent and mysterious pageantry of the coronation, climaxing in the thrill of ‘Zadok the Priest’ bursting out over the royal anointing and the tremulous descent of St Edward’s crown onto the head of the king, are now receding into memory. The performative power of the event may linger for a while, but the time for critical reflection on what just happened has already begun.  

The event will have evoked a wide variety of responses in different sections of the nation. Polls suggest that the majority remained largely indifferent, probably including many who had the TV on in the background while enjoying a long weekend spent on other things. A minority, not only vocal supporters of ‘Republic’, will have found the whole thing objectionable in principle. That will likely include many among the majority of young people who now report sharply declining support for the monarchy itself. 

To have tampered overmuch with its religious character would have been to undermine their sense of cultural identity, whatever they made of it theologically (if anything). 

Some, also a minority, will have looked to it to reconnect with longstanding British traditions that allow us to rise, even momentarily, above the grasping character of party politics and to offer to a fractured and anxious people a renewed prospect of national harmony.  

For some among that minority, the religious character of the event will have been important. To many from non-Christian faiths, the coronation consolidates an Anglican Establishment which, they think, serves to protect the public standing of all faiths. The (welcome) participation of representatives of Britain’s minority faiths in the event will have confirmed that perception. 

To others in the same minority, Christianity – represented here by the Church of England – is an essential thread in the weave of a national culture in need of shoring up. To have tampered overmuch with its religious character would have been to undermine their sense of cultural identity, whatever they made of it theologically (if anything). 

To still others – we are now talking about a small minority-within-a-minority – the Christian character of the event is decisive to its intrinsic meaning and public significance. Mostly but not exclusively English Anglicans (the category includes many Catholics, for example), such voices claim that the coronation expresses a distinctively Christian theology of accountability and service that has been vital in the formation of Britain and should be retained if such goals are to be kept alive.  

Political authority, they argue, is a trust from God, laying on its holders a solemn, ‘covenantal’, duty to govern according to God’s justice and to serve the common good. This theology was lucidly expressed in the Church of England’s commentary on the Coronation liturgy and appeared in many other Christian statements ahead of the event (for example, here, here and here). Bishop Graham Tomlin expressed doubt that there could be a better way to uphold a vision of accountable government. 

This Christian theology of accountability, while truly at the core of the coronation liturgy, was almost entirely ignored by the media before and during the day. 

The few in the secular media that did recognise its specifically Christian character mostly reacted indifferently or adversely to it (the Daily Telegraph’s Tim Stanley, a Catholic, was one exception). Some drew attention to the incongruity of one small and declining English Christian denomination continuing to preside over the investiture of the head of state of a pervasively secularised, religiously plural, and multinational, United Kingdom. The Guardian’s Martin Kettle even claimed that the event amounts to ‘a lie at the heart of the British state’. ‘The lie is that Britain is a practising Christian nation, and that it is defined and held together by the established Protestant religion, of which the monarch is the embodiment’. 

Whether or not we accept that harsh verdict, it is surely necessary for the Church of England to confront the bleak sociological facts behind it. With fewer than three per cent of the population actively committed to the Church of England, what remains of its entitlement to enjoy the privileges and bear the responsibilities of being the ‘national Church’? Is there not a glaring presumption in wishing to remain the custodian of ‘the faith of the nation’ when the nation has overwhelmingly abandoned that faith – however much some still feel an affection for it as an embellishment of English culture? 

But the Church of England should not be driven primarily by sociological considerations, telling though they are. It should be guided by theological imperatives. And that requires it to revisit the theology of accountability outlined above. The problem is not with the claim that rulers are accountable to God and people. That has long been the central assertion of Christian political theology; I affirm it. The problem is with granting that claim a constitutional status – which is exactly what investing a head of state in the context of a Christian service amounts to.  

Defenders of the coronation typically refer back to the polity of biblical Israel to justify its sacral character. But they tend not to acknowledge that, in the Hebrew scriptures, biblical Israel was, uniquely, established by God as a covenanted confessional polity in which only the religion of Yahweh was permitted (and in which the priestly anointing of kings was prescribed).  

But this arrangement has now been rendered obsolete by the ‘New Covenant’ inaugurated in Jesus Christ. The people of God have been transformed into a transnational voluntary fellowship of Christ-followers, no longer bound to any one territorial national political community, still less to one legitimated by one religion and protecting only that religion. In the era of the New Covenant, states no longer possess the right to express an official view of the truth of religious claims. By implication, that also means they may not decide that any religion should be endorsed or preferred. This suggests they should maintain a posture of impartiality towards religions, and indeed towards other ultimate truth-claims (such as secular humanism). That is one way of treating their citizens equally, which is another basic political principle originating in Christian theology. 

A religiously impartial state is not a morally empty state, but a limited state – a humble state.

Some will reply by claiming that this is a ‘secular liberal’ stance that abandons the political community to agnosticism, leaving a moral and spiritual vacuum at its heart. Rather, this view of the religious incompetence of the state is itself an outcome of Christian claims. These claims originated with the theologically orthodox seventeenth-century Dissenters but were eventually taken up by thinkers such as Locke and others in the broader liberal movement.  

A religiously impartial state is not a morally empty state, but a limited state – a humble state. It certainly needs the resources and challenges of faith communities, among many others, to fulfil its vocation to serve the common good. But it need not, and theologically may not, confer constitutional privilege on any religion or religious organisation. 

If the UK were to become such a state, its head of state could still be installed in a rich, morally freighted civil ceremony, perhaps in Westminster Hall, in which the monarch, and the governments acting in their name, could be solemnly charged to uphold ‘law, and justice, with mercy’ (as the Coronation oath puts it). Other European constitutional monarchies without coronations perform as well as ours on that score, mostly without any elements of an established church at all.  

The task of the Church of England and other churches, alongside other citizens, would be to project into political debate their particular visions of what these commitments mean, and employ all democratic means to hold governments to account for fulfilling them. They are already doing this; they could do so more effectively.

The Church of England could then do so unburdened by the jarringly mixed messages sent by its retention of constitutional privilege and by its very visible association with the royal pomp and opulence of a traditional coronation. It may have only a decade or so to prepare itself for such an eventuality. 

4 min read

No mercy on the Megabus

Why is sin such a sickly, sticky thing in the human heart?

Jenny is training to be a priest in the Church of England. She holds a PhD in law and previously researched human rights issues in extractive industries.

An upset man holds his hands on his head as he misses a bus.
Nick Jones/

“I’m begging you, I’m begging you,” pleaded the passenger. His two large suitcases lying around him, the Nigerian man knelt on the pavement outside the Megabus station. The bus driver stood surly-faced, arms crossed. The passenger’s jacket was ripped where the driver had shoved him off the bus. The passenger had one too many bags; he had not read the Terms and Conditions on his ticket.  

The man groaned – “I must get to Heathrow, I have a flight to catch! I’m willing to do anything – to pay for an extra ticket, to pay the extra bag fee, I have money, see?” He showed the driver his wallet pleadingly, demonstrating his possession of several bank cards.  

A few concerned passengers stepped off the bus. “We don’t have a bag in the hold; we’re happy for this man to have our space.” Another person said, “I booked a ticket but my friend didn’t come – there’s a whole seat’s worth of luggage space available in the hold.” Yet the bus driver would not budge. Even though Megabus has an excess baggage policy, it was down to the driver’s discretion. The driver alone had the power of life and death, to say “yay” or “nay” – to restore a man’s dignity or completely ruin it, along with his jacket.  

As the minutes ticked on, other passengers began to get irate with the Nigerian man – “just buzz off mate, you’re making us late!” “You should have read the rules!” “You’re making the bairns on the bus cry!” Stony faces pressed against the window as the man knelt on the pavement. Even those who had tried to help him left him in the harsh hands of the bus driver and his colleagues, tiny kings in a kangaroo court For the bus driver, there was no backing down – he was pacing, sweating and red-faced, repeating over and over again to himself his side of the story. And in the end, we left the Nigerian passenger in the heartless hands of bus bureaucracy, wiping our hands of the injury done to him – “we tried.”  

How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The whole experience on the Megabus that day left me feeling sick. We all like to think of ourselves as decent folks, as long as we do our “bit”. But on that bus I realized the difficulty: what is “my bit”? Who decides what is “enough”? How quickly a petty issue of baggage can descend into a power play. How quickly do ordinary nice people become a mob when they are outraged or inconvenienced. How mucky and murky the human heart can be. 

The only word that feels strong enough to me to describe this condition is “sin”. This word may sound like a relic of a bygone Britain, but I think it’s as relevant as ever. It’s a serious word, loaded with a sense that the things we do mean more than we know. Sin suggests that I am accountable for how I treat people – not just to my own perception but some higher standard that safeguards the dignity of all human beings. Christians believe that it is God who safeguards our humanity, who sets the standard for how we should and should not treat others. We are accountable “vertically” – to God – as well as “horizontally” to each other.  

It seems to me that “sin” is not a laundry-list of rules but more like a tangled knot of slippery threads – I can’t see where it begins and where it ends, in my own heart or in the world at large. The Christian Eastern Orthodox tradition often likens sin to sickness or a dis-ease of the soul; it infects our reasoning, our emotions and our actions. And that’s why the hurt and pain we cause each other is so “sticky” – no one is left untouched by the effects of the damage we cause each other.  

It was quite clear to me that there were some “sins of deliberate fault” on the Megabus that day – the bus driver’s behaviour was patently unfair and verging on abuse. But I would say sin also flourished in the self-defending logic of the passengers who just wanted to stay in their lane, and for the Nigerian chap to stay in his. Don’t bother me, with your problems. I look after me, you look after you. There were sins of ignorance too – I felt this sick sense in my stomach as the bus pulled out of the station that there was more I could have done, but I didn’t quite know what. All I know is that every person needed mercy on that Megabus, whether we knew it or not. Ironically, the Nigerian man was the most innocent of all.