THE MEANING OF THE CORONATION
Last week’s Coronation in Westminster Abbey was a wonderful spectacle of historical pageantry, of dignified majesty and impeccable ceremonial. It was both magnificent and very moving. For every Monarch since William the Conqueror was crowned on Christmas Day, 1066 Coronation in the Abbey has been a rite of passage. Its present format goes back a long way. Like its predecessors, the ceremonial of yesterday’s Coronation was based on the Liber Regalis, the ‘Royal Book’, compiled in 1377 for the coronation of Richard II – and a book still kept, incidentally, in the library of Westminster Abbey. Over the centuries some of the details of the ceremony have clearly changed. The Coronation Oath has been several times amended to take into account a changing religious context. The length of the ceremony has been much shortened: just two hours yesterday, to the relief of a congregation which had to be in its seats a further two hours before the ceremony began. The numbers have been reduced: 2,000 yesterday compared to the 8,500 squeezed into the Abbey on elaborate extra tiered seating in 1953. The congregation reflects the way in which society moves on: no longer the ermine robes and coronets of the serried ranks of the House of Lords. And for the first time the different faiths had a role in the ceremony yesterday which recognised the fundamental changes in Britain’s spiritual mixture over the last 70 years.
What has not changed, however, is the essence of what the Coronation service is. It is at one level a ceremony about earthly rule and the exercise of sovereignty. But it is much more than just performance and spectacle. Fundamentally, and at its heart, it is a sacrament and religious rite of the highest significance. Within the framework of a service of Holy Communion it is a public dedication of the Monarch before God to a life of service and duty to the nation. The Monarch is proclaimed as God’s servant, responsible to God for the right exercise of his authority and leadership. The Coronation Oath is an oath about the Sovereign’s duty as Head of the Church. The anointing – the most intimate part of the ceremony – is a deeply symbolic ritual of commitment to the Almighty, in the same manner as the sign of the Cross in baptism. The regalia, the symbols of authority given to The King, above all the orb, the sceptre and the crown, derive their authority from the spiritual envelope of the Coronation. They only bestow that monarchical authority because they are given to The King after his anointing. And the climax of the ceremony, following the Homage and the Acclamation, is of course the taking of Communion by The King and The Queen at the High Altar of the Abbey.
This is what singles out the Coronation as the most important moment of a new reign. And this spiritual significance will have been the meaning of this sacred rite to our new King. For he is a deeply religious man. He is open and sympathetic to the different paths to God of other beliefs. More than 25 years ago he spoke of his wish to be known one day as Defender of Faith, rather than Defender of the Faith, as a symbol, in his eyes, of the degree to which the spiritual – faith – pervades the meaning of every aspect of our existence. But he remains in his being a steadfast and devoted Anglican. This is a man dedicated to an act of worship every Sunday, no matter where he is or what his commitments. If an overseas visit includes a Sunday, for example, his programme will wherever possible include a church service. The King’s faith matters to him in an intensely personal way, just as it did to his mother.
Coronation has, therefore, two essential aspects: it is both a very public and a very personal moment for our new King. So a word about its public significance, about what the Coronation symbolizes for the value and meaning of Monarchy today.
The Coronation is the most significant moment of a new reign. It confirms the Head of State in his onerous responsibilities and symbolises in a powerful way the importance of what the Monarchy means today. That importance takes many forms. Monarchy stands for stability and reassurance in a changing and often uncertain world. It stands for principles of behaviour which are demonstrably other-regarding rather than self-interested. It stands for service and duty, tolerance and understanding, qualities which are the bedrock of a truly civilised society, and what the Archbishop described yesterday as ‘love in action’. It is the one supremely unifying institution of the nation and its supreme representative in both good times and bad, and crucially above the thrust of party politics or the pressure of narrow interests. It is an institution which celebrates and encourages the best in our society, able to express on behalf of the country at large our most important moments of national celebration and national grief. It is able to represent a pride in all our country stands for in a way not open to anyone else.
This contribution to our national life by our Head of State is precious beyond measure. It is found, in its totality, nowhere else. So let us see the Coronation for what it is: a wonderful public celebration not just of the individual but of the Monarchy itself and its continuing importance to modern Britain. Yesterday was a day of celebration and pride – celebration of a glorious moment in a new reign, and also pride in all that our unique Monarchy represents for the good of our country. The Coronation is, in short, a rich blessing to us all. Let us treasure its value.