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Coronation vows and the relationships they make

The coronation contains significant words that are cornerstones for the state and much more. M. Ciftci explores their implications.

M. Ciftci has a PhD in political theology from the University of Oxford. He is currently writing a book about church-state relations that will be published by Palgrave Macmillan. 

A painting shows a young Queen Victoria, in her coronation dress, resting one hand on the bible, taking her oaths
Queen Victoria taking the coronation oath, by George Hayter..
George Hayter, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

What is the point of the coronation ceremony? Many, such as Orwell, have praised the monarchy for absorbing our desire to exult those who rule us, so that we do not fawn over the politicians who hold real power, as they do in some presidential regimes. Instead, we treat politicians with no fanfare, but as mere ministers of the Crown, and hence as ministers of the good of the entire country. But why do we need an explicitly Christian coronation ceremony, taking place in the middle of an Anglican service of Holy Communion?  

We can find an answer in The Meaning of the Coronation, an appreciative essay written after the last coronation by two left-leaning sociologists, Edmund Shils and Michael Young. Every society, they claim, relies on an implicit consensus around certain moral values. “What are these moral values which restrain men’s egotism and which enables society to hold itself together? A few can be listed illustratively: generosity, charity, loyalty, justice in the distribution of opportunities and rewards, reasonable respect for authority, the dignity of the individual and his right to freedom.” 

 The apparently ordinary nature of these values should not deceive us.  

“The sacredness of society is at bottom the sacredness of its moral rules, which itself derives from the presumed relationship between these rules in their deepest significance and the forces and agents which men regard as having the power to influence their destiny for better or for worse.”  

Our sense that moral rules and values ought to be respected calls us to use all the power of rite and ritual to invest them with the authority of the sacred. The monarchy is eminently suited to serve this purpose, since “the monarchy has its roots in man's beliefs and sentiments about what he regards as sacred,” albeit in a vague, and hence more inclusive, way that can be appreciated without membership of the Church of England (to which I do not belong either), or Christian belief of any defined sort. Therefore, Shils and Young argue, the

“Coronation is exactly this kind of ceremonial in which the society reaffirms the moral values which constitute it as a society and renews its devotion to those values by an act of communion.” 

We can better appreciate how the Coronation reaffirms various political and moral principles by considering some key parts of the ceremony. One of them is the taking of the Oath to “solemnly promise and swear to govern … according to their respective laws and customs” the UK and Commonwealth Realms. These words are the cornerstone of our tradition of common-law constitutionalism. As the Queen takes the Oath, according to Shils and Young, she “acknowledges that the moral standards embodied in the laws and customs are superior to her own personal will.” Historically, as H.L. Morton wrote,  

“The king’s task was to uphold the law, not to make law, still less to govern by personal will as an autocrat.”  

The Oath, then, stands in judgement over the ministers of the Crown: have they acted in accordance with existing laws, or did ministers rule by personal decree? A question always worth asking, as Lord Sumption reminded us during the pandemic. 

Another key moment is the presentation of the regalia, the symbols of how the monarch should reign. The most important regalia to be handed to the King by the Archbishop are the Sceptre with Cross and the Sceptre with Dove. The Archbishop will then say a new and somewhat clumsy prayer to ask: 

“that you might exercise authority with wisdom, and direct your counsels with grace; that by your service and ministry to all your people, justice and mercy may be seen in all the earth.”  

By contrast, in 1953, the Archbishop said:  

“Receive the Rod of equity and mercy. Be so merciful that you be not too remiss; so execute justice that you forget not mercy. Punish the wicked, protect and cherish the just, and lead your people in the way wherein they should go.”  

This conveys more clearly and artfully the significance of the Sceptre and Rod, which is to circumscribe the purpose of the state, defined simply as that of upholding justice and public order. All those who act in the King’s name, such as parliamentarians, judges, magistrates, and members of the armed forces or police, are thus entrusted with authority to carry out the King’s Oath to “cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed”. By implication, if they do or desire anything that does not strictly serve this purpose, such as gaining power and influence for its own sake, or interfering with society arbitrarily, then they go beyond their commission.  

But law is also meant to be tempered with mercy. Hence one of the ceremonial swords, the curtana, carried into the Abbey at the beginning of the ceremony has a blunt tip. The ceremony is embedded with the Christian belief that we must be humbled by knowing we are sinners presuming to judge others. Our sense of justice is imperfect. What fallible judgements we mete out to others should, where possible, be open to reintegrating the wrongdoer back into society.    

Finally, there is the anointing itself, the central act following the taking of the Oath and before the presentation of the regalia. This is the most archaic part of the rite, hearkening back to prophets, priests, and kings of Israel who, according to scripture, were anointed with oil to signify that God had dedicated them to perform a role for the good of the whole people.  

The anointing was one of two moments in the ceremony that were not televised in 1953, a precedent that will be followed again this year. For the anointing is an act that is really a prayer – and who likes to have people gawping at them when praying? The King removes his Robes of State before the anointing because this is the moment when he asks humbly to be given divine aid to dedicate himself to the service of his people.  

There are too many examples of failed and collapsed states to make us doubt that the continued existence of any state is not something we can guarantee by our ingenuity.

The Sovereign’s dedication to public service is one side to the covenant that binds the country together. Rather than a social contract between individuals to protect their self-interest, in our Constitution there is an exchange of vows, binding one to another with rights and obligations. The monarch and those acting on his behalf swear to serve us (and condemn themselves when they fail to do so), and we swear to bear true allegiance in return.  

Whether those promises will be kept is not a matter of effort and skill alone. Just as in a marriage, the weightiness of the promises makes us naturally feel unequal to the task and in need of strength greater than we can muster. There are too many examples of failed and collapsed states to make us doubt that the continued existence of any state is not something we can guarantee by our ingenuity. Hence, at the heart of the Coronation is the unfashionable but humbling idea that to remain faithful to the vows pledged, and for there still to be a United Kingdom in future generations, are gifts given by something above us and beyond our ability to control. 

Essay
Belief
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1 min read

Everyone comes from somewhere

Why young people need to understand the religious landscape.

Roger is a Baptist minister, author and Senior Research Fellow at Spurgeon’s College in London. 

A young person stands in front of railway station platfrorms and below a large informaton display.
Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash.

I had never been so self-conscious of being British. I had flown into Denver, Colorado and for the first time I realised that I had an accent. I had gone to study and a Canadian instantly knew I was a Brit. The locals were less clear. Some had me down as an Aussie, others guessed a South African.  

But it wasn’t only accents. I quickly learned the differences between us went much deeper. Private health care, guns and the separation of church and state were a whole new cultural landscape. They felt very strange to my British sensibilities that were accustomed to the welfare state, the absence of guns and an established church.  

My exposure to all things American began in the early 1990s. The sociologist James Davison Hunter had just published his prophetic commentary, Culture Wars: the struggle to define America. For those I was beginning to get to know, the campaigns to reverse Roe Vs Wade and ban abortion, along with active attempts to introduce prayer into the public school system highlighted the cultural differences between us. 

Likewise, they found it hard to comprehend that in England Religious Education (RE) in state-funded schools was mandated by Act of Parliament. That I considered this a bad thing mystified them. 

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime.

Of course, RE itself had a chequered history. The 1902 Education Act provided state funding for denominational religious instruction, mostly benefiting the Church of England. Nonconformist churches were outraged at the thought of the established church indoctrinating their children. Methodists, Baptists and Congregationalists withheld their taxes and, by 1904, 37,000 summonses had been issued, thousands had their property seized and 80 had gone to prison in protest.   

Thankfully things have moved on. During the twentieth century denominational instruction evolved through several stages to the present world religions curriculum. 

Still, over the years I have consistently felt that our approach in the UK was in danger of proving ‘the inoculation hypothesis’ with regard to faith. That is, providing a small harmless dose of exposure to religion in childhood can effectively prevent the real thing developing in adults. 

Of course, faith-based schools and RE remain hot topics. Only this month the government launched a public consultation on removing ‘… the 50 per cent cap on faith admissions’. Warmly welcomed by providers like the Catholic Schools Service, it was condemned by Humanists UK and others advocating a fully secular provision.  

This line of contention has become a familiar one. On one side sit around a third of mainstream state schools that are church or faith-based, most affiliated with the Church of England. On the other are groups like the National Secular Society who correctly point out that the privileged position of church-sponsored education is not reflective of wider society. 

These positions have become entrenched over the years. Arguments are laced with rhetorical hyperbole and are often either ill-informed or merely raise strawmen arguments to symbolically knock down. We can no longer afford to be so self-indulgent.  

The world we are living in has changed. Issues around religion have become more critical than at any point in my lifetime. It is now more important than ever that we have a handle on it.  

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism. 

The invasion of Ukraine by Putin’s Russia is no mere materialist land-grab. To fail to take into account the theological dimension compromises any understanding of what is going on. The history of Eastern Orthodoxy and the Russian Orthodox Church help define the Russian identity that sits behind this conflict. 

In Israel, the bloody atrocity enacted on Israeli citizens by Hamas, and the brutal devastation wrought in Gaza by Netanyahu’s Israeli Defence Force are beyond words. But this conflict is theologically as well as politically fueled. Hamas embraces a militant interpretation of extremist Sunni Islam, while Netanyahu’s religious-nationalist coalition sees his Likud party kept in power by ultra-Orthodox parties and far-right religious factions.  

In India, the world’s biggest democracy, 970 million voters this year participate in an election stretching over six weeks. Yet this formally secular state has been travelling on a different trajectory. Yasmeen Serhan observed in The Atlantic that under Prime Minister Modi the ‘Hinduization of India is nearly complete’. 

And then there’s the frequent stereotyping of religion in the media. Off-the-peg religious reporting ‘templates’ are easy to use but are ‘lazy’ journalism.  

A leading newspaper recently carried instant opposition to the thought of Kate Forbes being a potential First Minister of Scotland because of her ‘traditionalist’ views. Somehow, her commitment in a BBC interview to defend the right to same-sex marriage even though it clashed with her personal views was insufficient. 

Across one of my social media feeds as I was writing this piece came a plea, ‘I’m proud to be British. I’m proud to be a Muslim. I am not a terrorist. Why don’t they get it?’ 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars. 

But always there is America. And here’s where a penny unexpectedly dropped for me. If you keep religion out of schools, for many young people you deny them the tools, the ideas, and a framework with which to understand the religious dimension of life. This can have catastrophic implications.  

As G.K. Chesterton is reputed to have observed, ‘when people stop believing in God they don't believe in nothing; they believe in anything.’ 

Then, for those living within a practising religious home, the absence of religion in school heightens the possibility that their thinking is siloed purely in their own rarefied tradition. 

Maybe the American approach to religion goes a long way to explain something of their culture wars.  

If it's true that whatever happens in America inevitably makes its home in Britain, we need to sit up and take notice. More than ever, we need our young people to be adept at understanding the religious landscape. With the ubiquity of social media, the unseen influence of echo-chamber algorithms and the nefarious activities of those bent on radicalising the vulnerable, we need them to have the tools and skills to be aware, see and understand. 

This is what has caused me to think again and, surprisingly, change my mind. We need to draw a line in the sand on our historic arguments, disagreements and differences of conviction. The situation is more pressing. We need a reset.  

If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward. 

The encouraging thing is that the groundwork for such a step change is already in place. In 2018 the Commission on Religious Education (CoRE) proposed a reconceiving of the subject as Religion and Worldviews. Their intention was to make it more appropriate and inclusive for the twenty-first century. For them, the ‘complex, diverse and plural’ landscapes of different religions and worldviews deserved both understanding and respect. Yet, students also needed to develop the ‘necessary critical facility to ask questions and challenge assumptions’. 

Such an approach embraces the insights and philosophical commitments of non-religious worldviews too. ‘Everyone has a worldview’, said the report. Nobody stands nowhere was the title of an excellent animated short film on YouTube produced by the Theos think tank. 

The truth is, ‘everyone comes from somewhere’. This is as true for secular humanists as it is for cradle-to-grave Anglicans, majority-world Pentecostalists and British-born Muslims. Helpfully CoRE defines a worldview as: 

… a person’s way of understanding, experiencing and responding to the world. 

The report maintained that it was vitally important that different worldviews were understood as ‘lived experience’. This was not just about abstract beliefs, doctrinal understandings and theoretical convictions. This was about real people, the lives they live and what is important and gives meaning to them. 

If living in a genuine democracy is about learning how to rub along together. If it is about understanding and respecting those who have a different take on life than we do, no matter how ‘odd’ it seems. If democracy is not a zero-sum game where the majority gets to impose its will tyrannically on the rest, this has to be a way forward.  

Given the challenges that face us, it seems to me that not to change our approach to RE would be negligent. Yet to remove all reference to religion from our schools risks our young people falling prey to manipulation, subversion and control by bad actors, misinformed activists and cranks. 

These would be the seeds of our very own culture wars.  

Personally speaking, I’d rather not go there.