An anointing

Tom Holland a couple of weeks ago pondered the religiosity of the coronation hoopla.

The United Kingdom is alone in Europe in marking the accession of a new monarch with a coronation. Key elements of the ceremony – that it should be presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury, that two bishops should escort the king, that the congregation at the end of the service should join in acclaiming the newly crowned monarch – date back to the coronation in 973 of Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great. Dunstan, the formidable archbishop who composed the order of service, had in turn drawn on even older exemplars: some native to Britain, others reaching back to Roman times.

Oldest of all, however, and most imbued with a sense of the sacred, was one ritual in particular: an anointing. The inspiration for this, older than England, older than the house of Wessex, older than Christianity itself, was to be found in the Old Testament: “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.” This same verse, chanted at Edgar’s coronation and famously put to music by Handel, will be sung as well during Saturday’s service. Charles III will share in a ritual that originally marked out the kings of Israel – Saul and David and Solomon – as the adopted ones of God. The 21st century will be joined by means of a living ceremony to the bronze age.

It’s very archaic and it’s very theocratic. That’s one compelling reason to object to the whole thing, and indeed to protest it, even though that leads to 12 or 13 hours of imprisonment in today’s Britain. Charles is just another human, and a ceremony of “anointing” doesn’t change that, but everyone is supposed to pretend it does.

The British are an immeasurably more secular people than they were when the last coronation was staged 70 years ago. Almost 40% of the population of England and Wales described themselves in the most recent census as belonging to “no religion”. Meanwhile, the Churches of England and Scotland, both of which the monarch is constitutionally pledged to defend, are in decline relative both to various other Christian denominations and to religions that had barely registered in Britain when Queen Elizabeth II came to the throne.

There are many in the country who are not just hostile to Christianity but wholly ignorant of its history, its doctrines, its ceremonies. That its head of state rules by virtue of claims that are rooted not merely in the supernatural, but in a specifically Christian understanding of the supernatural, is an aspect of the constitution that often remains discreetly veiled. There will be no hiding it, though, at the coronation. The insistence of Charles III on following the example of his mother, and refusing to allow his anointing to be screened on TV, will serve only to heighten viewers’ sense of the sacral quality of the ritual. A British coronation stands in a line of descent from the age of Solomon or it is nothing.

Most people watching the service next weekend probably will not care very much. A spectacle is a spectacle, after all, no matter its theological underpinnings. Yet it is likely that a substantial minority of people in Britain, rather than being dazzled by the display in Westminster Abbey, will find their distaste both for the monarchy itself and for its supernatural pretensions only confirmed by the pomp and ritual of the coronation. Catherine Bennett, writing in this paper recently, despaired of how arguments for a secular coronation “appear to have dented neither the church’s coronation ambitions nor the palace’s matching enthusiasm for spiritual choreography and knick-knacks”.

God-bothering plus servile adoration of rank. I’m not a fan.

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