In a guest post, Jonathan Chaplin, an Anglican, Fellow of Wesley House, Cambridge, and author of “Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England” (SCM 2022), offers a sceptical personal view of the Church of England’s role in the Coronation.
Moving a motion in a Westminster Hall debate on ‘Christianity in Society’ on 30 March 2023, Nick Fletcher MP declared:
‘At the Coronation, His Majesty the King will be anointed in the name of God as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, as well as Head of State. St Edward’s crown, which will be placed on his head, contains a cross and orb symbolising the King and our world under the authority of God’.
He speculated that ‘Many people who do not have a personal faith in Christ still value this history and the benefits it has given us’.
Defenders of Establishment will be approaching the Coronation with similar sentiments in mind. They will be looking to the Church of England to step forward, with its customary dignity and solemnity, to preside over a unique moment of national identity-formation, rich with historic, civic and spiritual meaning.
The fact that it is the sole surviving religious coronation (indeed the only coronation) in Europe, and is not even needed to confirm accession, would for them likely be a mark of pride rather than a reason to interrogate the ceremony’s contemporary legitimacy.
For the more theologically informed defenders among them, the Coronation will be an occasion not only when the nation celebrates the ceremonial consecration of their new monarch and the Church prays divine grace upon him, but also when it confesses (as I do) that political authority is not a mere human creation but is entrusted to a nation by a transcendent source to which it and its leaders are accountable. For such defenders, it will amount to a public proclamation of the truth that the British head of state, and by implication the governments that act in the monarch’s name, remain bound by a national covenant of service to Jesus Christ.
Specifically, that will mean, for example, governments accepting the duty expressed in the 1953 Coronation Oath in which the monarch pledged to ‘cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all [her] judgements’. One is tempted to ask how British governments since 1953 have performed on that score as compared to comparable nations without a sacral coronation (or established church) – but leave that aside.
Church leaders who defend the Coronation seem to assume that this highly particular and obviously controversial theological meaning is still effectively communicable today, even in our pervasively secularised and religiously plural nation; otherwise, why would they continue to defend the Church’s role in it?
Thus Malcolm Brown, Director of Public Affairs for the Church of England, in a special issue of Ecclesiastical Law Journal in 2019, argues that the Coronation is ‘not just a bit of invented pomp’ but a ‘solemn religious rite in which the Church of England, in its priestly role representing God who was incarnate on earth in Christ, confers upon the monarch her temporal and spiritual authority’.
Similarly, Adrian Hastings asserts that Establishment generally, with the Coronation at its heart, has the effect of ‘symbolically limiting the sovereign of the secular state by publicly recognising the principle of “God’s servant first”.
Brown also sounds the ominous warning that without a symbolic recognition of divine authority, the foundation of political order is vulnerable: ‘the source of ultimate authority will remain problematic unless we build in some concept of God. If power is conferred by a human authority, it can become manipulated or taken away by human authority’.
I would also defend a version of that claim. But Brown then concludes, problematically, that this means that we need an Established Church ‘bound into the structures of the State – not subservient to them, but cognizant of its role at the apex of the symbolism of authority, but at the base of the pyramid of power’.
Surely we must question whether presiding over the sacral coronation of a political ruler has ever been theologically defensible for a church called to model the example of Jesus Christ, ‘who though he was rich, yet for your sakes he become poor’ (2 Cor. 8: 9 NRSV). Even though it exercises minimal political power, the Church of England’s enjoyment of a uniquely privileged constitutional role at the symbolic ‘apex’ of authority hardly sits well with that ‘kenotic’ abandonment of status.
But whatever we make of this theological justification of a sacral coronation, here I want to press the question of whether such a justification stands any chance of being received by the overwhelming majority of the nation on whose behalf the event takes place.
Almost all of us who see the coronation will watch it on television (or some other live-streaming platform), or on one of the thirty big screen sites to be set up by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. (Luckily, it will be over before Liverpool plays Brentford in a crucial premier league tie later in the day.)
The cameras will not lie. We will be treated to the usual spectacular wide-angle vistas of the procession from Buckingham Palace, and of the glorious interior of Westminster Abbey where we will be reminded in hushed tones that coronations have taken place on this site for almost a thousand years.
And we will be fascinated by close-up shots of the complex liturgical choreography of the event, called by the former Dean, Wesley Carr, ‘the intimate ritual’. This will include the eucharist, and may well include the “unction” – the anointing with holy oil – which in 1953 was shielded from the cameras because of its sacred character.
But in assessing the prospects for a reception of the coronation’s theological meaning, it is essential to acknowledge that for the vast majority who know nothing of the complex theological symbolism of this choreography, the meaning of the event will be largely mediated by mainstream television anchors and their invited guests.
Such guests, no doubt distinguished examples of the great and the good, will opine enthusiastically and expansively on the historical, cultural and aesthetic dimensions of the event. But I think we can confidently predict that the event’s decisive theological meaning – the subordination of political authority to the authority of Jesus Christ, and the accountability of holders of the former to that of the latter – will get no airing at all.
Nothing in the training or experience of even the most seasoned media professionals, not even religious affairs correspondents, equips them to interpret such a claim, or to elicit it from any guests who might happen to grasp it.
What is more, everything in the professional socialization and codes of impartiality of public broadcasters will discourage them from giving the slightest endorsement of the idea that such a controversial and uniquely Christian assertion is integral to the nation’s constitution. Indeed, out of what they take to be necessary deference to the nation’s deep pluralism of religion or belief, they will in fact need to conceal that theological meaning, for fear of offending one or other section of the new non-Christian British majority (and I do not blame them for so doing).
And, of course, the great majority of the nation’s viewers will in any case approach the event quietly persuaded that political authority is conferred by the people, not by Jesus Christ – if they are prompted to reflect on the question at all.
What the Church thinks is the coronation’s core meaning might, perhaps, be picked up by a handful of its own members, if they happen to hear sermons on the event, read articles in diocesan or parish newsletters, or stumble upon the special book of coronation prayers issued by the Church at the start of Lent.
That meaning might, perhaps, fleetingly touch the surface of the nation’s consciousness in the odd clips of archbishops’ or bishops’ interviews, in a ‘Thought for the Day’, or perhaps in a minute or two of the Today programme (more likely the more niche Sunday programme).
But for the overwhelming majority of the nation, the event’s theological meaning will be entirely lost in transmission. For the Church to imagine otherwise is to be in the grip of a profound delusion. If so, for it to continue to participate in it is to sustain a charade – which one online dictionary defines as ‘an absurd pretence intended to create a pleasant or respectable appearance’.
It is time for the Church of England to abandon its persisting romanticisation of the coronation, and more broadly, of its supposed pre-eminence at the “apex” of the constitution. Let this be the last sacral coronation. Let the Church now commend a civil investiture as the theological and politically preferable option – better for nation and Church, because finally honest about the actual beliefs and loyalties of both.
Such an occasion could still be rich with profound moral and civic meaning, the content emerging from an expert commission of constitutional lawyers, philosophers and civic and religious leaders, enriched, or perhaps challenged, by the findings of people’s assemblies from the four nations of the UK. It could be held, perhaps, in the historically resonant setting of Westminster Hall, presided over by the President of the Supreme Court or the Speaker of the House of Commons.
The Church of England, or a coalition of Churches, could then offer a voluntary service of blessing and commissioning of their own, on their terms, for any new monarch who wanted one. The media would certainly want to cover that, but should be allowed to do so on the condition that the Churches would decide who would interpret the event to the nation.
The Church of England may have only a decade or so to rethink its role in this problematic and anachronistic event before the state comes knocking on its door expecting it to preside quiescently over the next one.
 Christianity in Society HC Deb vol 730 cc363-380WH. It is at least true that some non-Anglican Christians value it: for a Roman Catholic endorsement, coupled with a plea to abandon the requirement that the monarch be Protestant, see Catherine Pepinster, The British Monarchy, Religion and the Next Coronation (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2022).
 On the history and choreography of coronations, see David Torrance, The Coronation: History and Ceremonial, House of Commons Library Research Briefing (6 December 2022); Bob Morris, The Coronation of Charles III (The Constitution Unit, UCL, October 2022). For a supportive theological account, see Wesley Carr, ‘This Intimate Ritual: The Coronation Service’, Political Theology 4.1 (2002), 1-14.
 Not surprisingly, the National Secular Society doubts this (’NSS calls for a more secular and inclusive coronation’, NSS website, 3 November 2022).
 ‘Establishment: Some Theological Considerations’, Ecclesiastical Law Journal 21 (2019), 338.
 ‘The Case for Retaining Establishment’, in Tariq Modood, ed., Church, State and Religious Minorities (London: Policy Studies Institute, 1997), 45.
 ‘Establishment’, 339. Yet more elevated metaphors are offered by Ian Bradley in his fulsome defence of a sacral monarchy (God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy (London: Continuum, 2012)).
 See Jonathan Chaplin, ‘Should the Church of England be Disestablished?’, Law and Religion UK (8 June 2022), and more fully in Beyond Establishment: Resetting Church-State Relations in England (London: SCM Press, 2022).
 Carr, ‘This Intimate Ritual’.
 The one possible exception might be Northern Ireland, where anchors, and some of their invited guests, did display such skills during the events surrounding the death of the Queen. Anchoring BBC coverage in GB, however, the otherwise wonderful Kirsty Young, for example, was wholly mute on theological questions during those events. This is to assign no personal blame, for in being so she was only representative of the profession generally.
 It was perhaps plausible in 1953 for the Archbishop of Canterbury to express the hope ‘that the traditional Rite could still be given meaning to the secularized millions of Britain and beyond’ (quoted in Morris, ‘The Coronation of Charles III’, 28). In 2023, that hope seems threadbare.
 This goes beyond the proposal, canvassed in Bob Morris, The Coronation of Charles III, of a civil event in Westminster Hall following a religious coronation.
Cite this article as: Jonathan Chaplin, “Lost in transmission – on not romanticising the Coronation” in Law & Religion UK, 4 April 2023 <https://lawandreligionuk.com/2023/04/04/lost-in-transmission-on-not-romanticising-the-coronation/>.