5 May 2023
1 min read

Coronation vows and the relationships they make

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. 

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

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. 

Freedom of belief
2 June 2023
1 min read

The month of May(hem) in Manipur

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

On the 27th May, Archbishop Justin Welby tweeted about the violence unfolding in Manipur. Belle Tindall re-winds the clock to May 3rd and tracks the events that led to his tweet.
A church interior glowing red as parts of its furniture burn. A man walks down the aisel
A video still of a church interior on fire, during violent clashes in Manipur, India.
Open Doors.

On 27th May, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted about his concern at what has been, and still is, unfolding in Manipur in India. He wrote, 

‘I’ve been distressed to hear about the attacks on the indigenous tribal Christians of Manipur, India, and of the churches that have been destroyed in recent weeks. 

Kailean Khongsai is training for ordination to the priesthood in the Church of England, and is from Manipur. I join him in praying regional authorities would protect all minority groups, including Christians and their places of worship, and that justice and peace would prevail.’ 

In doing so, Archbishop Justin pointed the world in the direction of those who are facing extreme pressure, discrimination, and violence in their home of Manipur. Therefore, allow me to paint a fuller picture of what has been happening (largely unnoticed) for weeks now – let’s rewind to May 3rd.  

May 3rd  

On the streets of Manipur, a state in the northeast of India, indigenous communities protested the (apparent) impending accreditation of Scheduled Tribe status to the Meiti community. Let me provide some context as to why this would be a development to protest about.  

Manipur is a self-governed state. A state that is home to the Meiti community, who make up around 53 per cent of the population, and other indigenous communities – the largest of which are the Kuki community, to the south, and the Naga community to the north. There is, and has long been, friction between these neighbouring people groups. The Kuki and Naga communities, being minority groups, have Scheduled Tribal status, thus ensuring that they have a right to protection (particularly regarding the reservations they call home) and representation. The Meiti people, being the state’s majority demographic, do not have such a status… yet.  

Despite their legal protection, the Kuki people, in particular, have already faced ongoing evictions from their homes in the hill regions that they have inhabited for hundreds of years. Their expectation is that this is only the beginning. The fear is that, if the Meiti people were to be granted a similar Tribe status, it would result in the Kuki people further losing the right to keep and protect their spaces in both the hills and the forests. It would also pave the way for the Meiti people to assert more societal dominance, as they would be entitled to increased governmental representation; the imbalance would no longer be countered. 

 And so, on May 3rd, people from both the Kuki and Naga communities took to the streets and marched for ‘tribal solidarity’.  

Within a matter of hours, a peaceful protest was transformed into riotous violence as the people marching were met with a wall of resistance. Since that Wednesday afternoon, whole villages have been burnt down, around 15,000 people have been made homeless, hundreds have been injured, the price of essentials has risen to unprecedented levels, schools and public facilities have been closed, internet has been suspended, and although numbers are proving a challenge to confirm, it is thought that anywhere between thirty to seventy people have been killed. Some media outlets are perceiving this violence as the rumblings of an impending civil war; while the Kuki and Naga communities are placing the entirety of the blame upon the Meiti people, The Meiti community are directing all blame toward the tribal communities. And the violence continues to rage on.    

And so, there we have it: a whistle-stop tour through these catalytic weeks in Manipur. Somewhat behind the scenes (resembling the lack of time and attention given to the ongoing situation in Nagorno-Karabakh), a state is imploding, and the ramifications are devastating.  

But there is just one more piece of context that undergirds the Archbishop’s tweet, one more thing to note about the societal dynamics at play in Manipur: while the Meiti community are a majority Hindu people group, the various indigenous groups are almost entirely Christian.  

A complex ethno-religious conflict  

The goings-on in Manipur are anything but simple; and so, it is not my intention to reduce the geographic, political, and historic complexities of this conflict, nor to wholly define it as a war between religions. Following Archbishop Justin’s lead, it is with particular caution that I speak of violence being inflicted particularly on Christians in Manipur, acknowledging that it is not the only identity marker that is proving to be targetable.  

Nevertheless, it is being widely reported that Christians are being singled out; their Christianity used as a target to aim at, their identity wielded as a weapon against them. Whether it be as the means or the end, as the goal or merely the tactic: it is happening.  

 According to Open Doors’ reports, derived from their partners in Manipur, around three hundred churches have been burnt down thus far, one of which still had people in it when it was set alight. A further one hundred public Christian buildings have been destroyed, while one thousand homes which were owned/inhabited by Christian people were ruined, while neighbouring properties remained untouched.  

And it isn’t only the Kuki Christians who are facing such discrimination, the (very few) Meiti Christians are also facing particular difficulties as a result of their unusual ethno-religious identity. Noticing this, one Indian news publication is reporting that from the perspective of the Meiti Hindus, Meiti Christians are somewhat of an oxymoron, personified. It is believed that to be Christian is to have converted to a tribal way of living (assimilating the Kuki and Naga people), and therefore comes with assumptions of deep betrayal. And yet, the publication also observes that ‘if their [Christian] faith is making them feel insecure in the valley, it has not come to their rescue in the hills either. The Kukis have made no distinction between them and other Meiteis’. They are, subsequently, a community that are ‘sandwiched’ in conflict.  

While the conflict is undoubtedly spilling over ethnic and religious lines, Manipur has just become one of the most dangerous places on earth to be a Christian. In yet another part of the world, it is now a hazardous faith.  

And so, back to Archbishop Justin’s tweet.  

The need to be seen  

One only needs to spend thirty or so seconds tracking the comments generated by this particular tweet to get a sense of how powerful it is to be seen. To be noticed when in distress, to be acknowledged when in chaos, to be advocated for when in danger.  

In many ways, social media is a genie that we wish we were able to squeeze back into the bottle. And as justified as such feelings often are, in this case, as in many others in our recent history, it has proved to be a way in which our eyes are opened to what is happening in the most remote corners of our world. Archbishop Justin has publically called for protection, justice, and peace, and in doing so, has made it difficult for the conflict to continue to rumble on unnoticed.  

It is now on all of us to refuse to look away. The people of Manipur, Christian and otherwise, need us to continue to look in their direction. 


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