6 min read

After the coronation: what next for church and state?

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) 

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

1 min read

Parliament’s floor tiles that empowered a queen

Belle is the Reporter at the Centre for Cultural Witness, writing for Seen and Unseen. 

From Palace of Westminster floor tiles fit for a Queen to feminist theology, Belle Tindall takes a thought journey.
A grand highly dercorated hall in the neo-gothic style, with encaustic tiles in the foreground.
The Royal Gallery in the Houses of Parliament.
Houses of Parliament 360° virtual tour.

Engraved into the floor tiles of Westminster’s Royal Gallery are the words Cor Reginae in Manu Domini, which is the Latin script from the biblical book of Proverbs. However, there is one salient difference, one which has caught both my attention and imagination. In English, the original Proverb reads, 

‘in the Lord’s hand is the king’s heart’ 

But what is written on the floor of the Royal Gallery is, 

‘the Queen’s heart is in the hand of the Lord’  

Right there, on the floor of the Palace of Westminster, is a little piece of feminist theology. 

In a parliament that was the apogee of Victorian values and sentiment, the political and cultural epicentre of an Age that was (ironically) remembered in reference to a woman but was nevertheless pontificated on laws that treated women as chattels, these tiles were theological dynamite (as opposed to literal dynamite – that was a century or two earlier).  

Female empowerment was present below the feet, if not within the hearts and minds, of the men who oversaw an era of undeniable and near-absolute patriarchy.   

Feminism: A little context 

Feminism is not an easy concept to define. It isn’t black and white, however much we wish that it were. In truth, it more accurately resembles the entirety of the grey scale. It cannot claim to be singular any more than the female experience is singular. In reality, it is brimming with nuance, complexity, and subjectivity. What’s more, I would confidently wage a bet that you have arrived at this article with an already in-tact pre-conception of the term. None of us approach feminism neutrally, be weary of anyone who claims to do so – it is simply impossible. Therefore, we are not only faced with the endless external nuances of feminism, but we’re also tasked with sifting through our differing internal understandings. Like I say, it’s about as definable as the shade of grey.  

Nevertheless, for the sake of being on the same page, allow me a moment to try. A moment to (briefly) unpack what I mean by the term feminism. For that, I will borrow the words of award-winning author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who influentially declared that feminism is the belief in ‘the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’  

That’s it.  

To me, feminism is nothing more, and certainly nothing less than that. Of course, as a self-proclaimed feminist, it’s necessary for me to plunge the dark depths of the subjective nature of such a belief. But it is more important to ensure that I continually come back up to the surface for a deep breath of air, and I consider Chimamanda’s over-arching definition to be that air.  

With Chimamanda’s words filling our lungs, let us dive beneath the surface for a moment.  

Feminism has, and still does, get worked out in the most tangible of ways: through marches on the streets, protests outside government buildings, petitions, boycotts, legal battles and demands. All of which is advocating for the empowerment of women, the restoring of an equilibrium, and the ensuring of that all-important equality of the sexes. 

As well as the macro-examples that adorn the history books and media outlets, we must also acknowledge the micro-battles; the thousands upon thousands of non-news-worthy conversations, changes, and decisions that nudge the individuals and communities involved toward the very same goal of equality. Afterall, feminism is as personal as it is political. And all of these actions, past and present, whether they be macro or micro in scale, are (often imperfectly) working toward the practical, tangible, measurable flourishing of women and therefore society.  

And so, with all of that practical work going on – with the many battles won and the many more that are raging on - why on earth would we need something as abstract, as contemplative, as time-swallowingly-indulgent as feminist theology?  

I’m glad you asked.  

Feminist theology as an imaginative endeavour  

By way of an answer, I’d like to return to those words on the floor of the Palace of Westminster. Victoria was the Queen. She wore the crown, she sat on the throne, she lived in the palace, she presided over the government, she ruled over the country. All the evidence was there; it would have taken a rather large dose of delusion for anyone to have questioned it. And yet, according to the existence of those floor tiles, the tangible evidence wasn’t quite enough.  

Queen Victoria’s right to be such was ultimately held by the divine. So much so, that the intangible was made tangible, literally carved into the ground that she (and others) would walk upon. And therein lies the need for feminist theology.  

Whether one considers themselves to be Christian or not – or even religious, for that matter – we all have ‘imaginative landscapes’. Not ‘imaginative’ as in fantasy, but rather, ‘imaginative’ as in our landscapes of thought. These are the interior places where we attach meaning to our experiences, and therefore judge the significance of every waking moment. As Francis Spufford so eloquently puts it,

"we are meaning-making creatures. We cannot stop making enchantments.' 

This is also the realm in which we wonder about the existence of God, the mysteries of our universe, and the significance of ourselves.  

And so, it’s in those places, as well as the practical, that work is being done toward the equality of the sexes. It’s in those places that we must grapple with the inherent value of women. Because, in many ways, those are the truest places. Those are the places where reality is crafted, ordered, and understood. It is in those places where truth is sought, viewpoints are galvanised, and actions are decided upon. Feminist Theologian, Serene Jones, writes it this way, 

‘Closely tied to the view of practical transformation is feminist theology's contention that changing society requires both changing laws and practices and challenging the categories and processes we use to think about life and to make sense of our world.’ 

In short, feminism has work to do in both the seen and the unseen. Feminist theology, therefore, is an imaginative endeavour. Which makes it a profoundly important one.  

It is the work of digging into biblical texts with an un-denied bias, a particular mission, a sole question that needs answering. We do so in order to uncover what the maker thinks of the made (the maker being God, the made being women), and from there do all other feminist inclinations flow. We find evidence of the empowerment of women in the divine agenda, so it naturally gets included in ours. We spot profound equality of the sexes present in the original blueprint of a flourishing earth, and so we work in partnership with it. We find validation of female worth, value and power in the pages of the Bible, and then work about writing it into the pages of the history books. And on it goes. We get things straight in our imaginative landscapes, and then we get them straight everywhere else.  

Did the fact that Queen Vicotria walked upon those affirming floor tiles eradicate any possibility of sexism or misogyny? I doubt it. But I like to think that it was a profound start-line, a radical piece of feminist theology that we are still running to catch up with. 

You may be thinking that this is interesting, albeit utterly irrelevant. Because we now live in a secular society, one where we don’t need any kind of God to legitimate the way we perceive anything – least of all ourselves. This is not the good old Victorian era, after all.  

And to such arguments, I may be tempted to direct you toward the work of Nick Spencer or Tom Holland and suggest that we’re not quite as secular in our values as we first appear. Or perhaps I could point you to the discography of Nick Cave, Lauryn Hill, Paul Simon or Stormzy and question whether our craving for something truer than what we can see is a craving we’ve truly progressed beyond? Or even bring to your attention the fact that the Barbie Movie is the highest grossing film of the year (you didn’t really expect me to not mention that film in an article about feminism, did you?), and argue that we’re obsessed with wondering what we’re for, what makes us who we are, what generates our value. It is an itch we cannot stop scratching.  

I could point to all those things. But oddly, I don’t feel the need to. Because I think you know, as do I, that our imaginative landscape is there, and it matters. We know it, we engage it, we feel it. 

And that’s why feminist theology matters. At least, to me.  

Gosh. All those thoughts from a few floor tiles. Maybe I need to get out more.  



All insights into the Palace of Westminster are curtesy of Richard Hall; architectural historian and author of The Palace of Westminster: Faith, Art, and Architecture: an illustrated guidebook that uncovers the Christian legacy that underpins the visual culture of the Palace of Westminster.