The last Christian king?

How inclusive can something be and still be considered Christian?

Union flags hang over Oxford Street in London, April 27, 2023, ahead of the coronation of Britain’s King Charles III. (AP Photo/Alberto Pezzali)

(RNS) — King Charles III’s coronation Saturday (May 6) in Westminster Abbey will largely accord with a millennium of tradition, as the world looks on at the splendor and pageantry of a service designed to inspire confidence in the new sovereign, the institution of the monarchy and the Church of England.

Yet in large ways and small, the Christian rite that will crown Charles king — the first time most people living will watch a British monarch be anointed — will account for two dramatic changes: the continued decline of the United Kingdom’s established church and the rapid acceleration of religious diversity across His Majesty’s realms.

These developments were reflected in last week’s rollout of the details for the coronation. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby remarked that “the service contains new elements that reflect the diversity of our contemporary society” — specifically, Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders will have roles in the ceremony — while assuring the public that “the coronation is first and foremost an act of Christian worship.”

Welby also published a commentary on the Church of England’s coronation liturgy, a first, and probably a good idea given that twice as many Britons attend Catholic Mass than Anglican services, and less than half the population identifies as Christian at all. 

Exclusively Protestant for more than four centuries, the liturgy this time will reflect the reality of religious pluralism, extending the limits of ecumenical and interfaith inclusiveness. As William Booth, London bureau chief of The Washington Post, reported, the coronation “will not be the ‘woke’ mash-up some conservatives feared but will be unprecedented in its inclusivity.”

But how inclusive can something be and still be considered Christian? Does watering down the religious specificity of the ceremony dishonor people of other faiths that are being included, and the Christian tradition itself?

To take one example, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who is more than casually Hindu, will read a passage from the New Testament that, according to the service notes, extols the “loving rule of Christ over all people and all things.” The Right Honorable gentleman will then say, “This is the word of the Lord,” which he obviously does not believe. (On the other hand, it’s not certain that every putative Christian on hand does either.)

The presentation of royal regalia also poses challenges. Four peers from the House of Lords — a Muslim, a Hindu, a Jew and a Sikh — will assist in handing Charles objects with less overt Christian symbolism. Senior bishops will hand him the Christian objects, including the orb and scepter. The archbishop will say, “Receive this orb, set under the cross, and remember always the kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord, and of his Christ.”

If the lords have to tiptoe around the phrases and symbols of Christianity, does it really project unity or, more importantly, equality?

Queen Elizabeth II’s death last year felt to many like the end of an era. At her coronation in 1953, Britons were struck by the young queen’s sincere faith. Remarking to an American correspondent, C.S. Lewis said of her coronation, “What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it.”

Throughout her life, she upheld her official duty as Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England with a strong, vital Christian devotion. Thus she had an extra measure of strength, solace and wisdom when debates erupted within the state churches or when she faced moments of personal loss and trial.

But the Church of England was already in popular decline by the time she took the throne, and the seeds of the country’s astounding diversity were already well planted. Throughout her reign, Elizabeth was widely praised for promoting interfaith dialogue and never erred in her promotion of religious toleration.

Charles has been careful to reiterate his own Anglican faith, but there is little evidence to suggest he shares his mother’s devotion. As Patron of the King James Bible Society’s 400th anniversary, he wrote a brief foreword to its 2011 edition but got no churchier than to proclaim the “high priority to the spiritual roots of our society.” His un-offensive paean betrayed His Royal Highness’ care over the years to express an interest in Islamic education and the presence of other faiths in the realm.

It is perhaps ironic, then, that Charles will have to to set a stronger tone for the role of religion than his mother did early in her reign, when the monarch’s religious connections were simply assumed.

Already in his first speech as king, last year, Charles took pains to acknowledge “the Sovereign’s particular relationship and responsibility towards the Church of England — the Church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted,” while noting, “In the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths.” He added, “Whatever may be your background or beliefs, I shall endeavor to serve you with loyalty, respect, and love.”

Whatever success he has in promoting religious diversity, Charles will have little power to reverse Christianity’s decline in England. True, the coronation offers the Church of England a rare opportunity to show all the crown’s subjects — and a watching world — the faith’s considerable spiritual power, truth and beauty. As with the queen’s funeral, the coronation will be accessible to billions and resplendent with color, pageantry, majesty and robust Christian theology. Indeed, Anglican liturgy always expands the literary and theological heights of what the English language can convey.

Which will more powerfully inspire people to cling to their faith and their ruler, whatever may be their background or beliefs? The balance between authentic devotion and religious pluralism is vital, for England and every nation, and for individuals as well in the growing diversity of globalization. It will be fascinating to watch Charles continue to recalibrate the relationship between church, state and subjects, and, as far as we are allowed to see, to watch him negotiate these questions for himself until this last Christian king exchanges his earthly crown for a heavenly one.

(Jacob Lupfer is a writer in Jacksonville, Florida. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

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