LONDON – The upcoming coronation of Charles III, which will attract a global audience, will not be the “woke” mash-up some conservatives feared but will be unprecedented in its inclusivity.
The new king wants to present himself not only as the “Defender of the Faith,” meaning the Church of England, but all faiths, here and across the realm.
In a remarkable twist, at the urging of Charles, the coronation will acknowledge that Britain is no longer an exclusively Christian country but is in fact a multifaith nation, including many who believe in no deity at all.
Details of the coronation service were released on Saturday by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, and contain many moments that seek to embrace the 21st-century realities of both Britain and the far-flung nations of the Commonwealth.
For the first time, members of other faiths will play an active role in what has been, over the past four centuries, an almost exclusively Protestant service.
Much will be old, but some new.
The first in the procession to enter Westminster Abbey on the morning of the coronation will not be Anglican clerics but representatives from the Jewish, Sunni and Shiite Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Bahai and Zoroastrian communities.
During the service, four peers from the House of Lords – a Muslim, Hindu, Jew and Sikh – will hand to Charles objects of the royal regalia.
British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a Hindu, will read from St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which speaks to “loving rule of Christ over all people and all things.”
Finally, at the end of the ceremony, the king will receive a “spoken greeting in unison” – not a prayer – from religious leaders of other faiths.
To honor the Jewish sabbath, the rabbi will not be on mic.
To some, such gestures might seem small, but for the British establishment, this is a big change.
Crowning a king or queen in Britain – the oaths, symbols, anointing, crowning – are embedded in centuries of canonical law and what some scholars call the “invented traditions” of the House of Windsor and its predecessors.
Westminster Abbey has been the site of royal coronations since 1066. Much of the ceremony, to be broadcast to millions on May 6, would be recognizable to a time traveler from medieval times. However, some changes would be eye-popping.
Female bishops will participate in the coronation for the first time. The lords and ladies in attendance will not wear their red robes and coronets but business suits and dresses. Also, hymns will be sung, not only in English but Welsh, and Scottish and Irish Gaelic. And a gospel choir will perform, featured at the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan, the duke and duchess of Sussex.
Even at the last coronation in 1953, church attendance was already shrinking in Britain. But the latest census for England and Wales reveals that, for the first time, less than half of the population consider themselves Christians. More than a third listed “no religion.”
So it may surprise many, in Britain and across the world, how very religious the service will be as there’s not been a coronation in 70 years.
Beyond the trumpeted fanfares and golden carriage, the upcoming coronation remains at its core a deeply Christian ceremony, a two-hour church service with holy Communion and holy oils, hymns and prayers, filled with praise to God and Jesus Christ.
Charles and Camilla, Queen Consort, will both be anointed on hands, heart and head with fragrant oils consecrated in Jerusalem. But this intimate moment will happen behind a screen.
“The coronation is first and foremost an act of Christian worship. The signs, symbols and language we use remind us that our God is the Servant King,” said Welby.
Regalia to be deployed, such as the orb, are not just symbols of the monarch, but display a cross that sits atop the earth, signaling Christ’s dominion.
The crown that will be placed atop Charles’s head also features a cross. The theme for the coronation is “called to serve,” in which Charles will go forth as an earthly “servant king” with Christ as inspiration.
Welby said he was delighted the service will “celebrate tradition, speaking to the great history of our nation, our customs and those who came before us.”
But he added, “At the same time, the service contains new elements that reflect the diversity of our contemporary society.”
The late queen was a devout Christian, but Charles has had a lifelong fascination with other faiths – including his ideas about nature, harmony and divine geometries.
There has been much speculation about how far Charles would shape a new relationship between monarch and faith.
In an oft-cited 1994 documentary, Charles as the heir to the throne said that he felt more “defender of faith” than “the faith.”
He said, “People have fought to the death over these things, which seems to me a peculiar waste of people’s energy, when we’re all actually aiming for the same ultimate goal.”
Instead, he said, he preferred to embrace all religious traditions and “the pattern of the divine, which I think is in all of us.”
The “Defender of the Faith” title dates to the 16th century, when it was granted by Pope Leo X to King Henry VIII for his defense of Catholicism. When Henry broke with Rome, he held on to the title, but now he was defending the Anglicanism of the Church of England.
At the coronation, the king will vow to serve as Defender of the Faith, the Protestant faith, as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
But before Charles takes his coronation oath, the Archbishop of Canterbury will insert newly written language, in which the king will pledge “to seek to foster an environment in which people of all faiths and beliefs may live freely.”
Ian Bradley, an emeritus professor of spiritual history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, said these new moments in the coronation appear to get things right – the service remains true to tradition, to the church, but moves things forward.
“It shouldn’t bother anyone too much,” he said.
Bradley is the author of “God Save The King: The Sacred Nature of the Monarchy.” He has spent a lifetime eyeballing Charles and believes that while the new king is more of a “spiritual seeker” than his mother, “he is following her lead,” as Elizabeth often spoke of what the different faiths can learn from one another.
The archbishop of Canterbury, in his commentary, said the new inclusivity echoes what the late queen thought.
In 2012, Elizabeth said, “The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly underappreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
The public will hear throughout the service the cries of “God save The King” or “Long Live The King.”
The Archbishop of Canterbury reminds the public that these “are themselves a form of prayer.”
Catherine Pepinster, a historian and author of “Defenders of the Faith,” wondered aloud whether an atheist as king or queen would work here – as the monarchy is so wrapped up in religion.
She pondered what the coronation will mean to everyone, to other faiths and especially to nonbelievers, beyond the music and pomp.
She said Charles “is trying to find a way through” to fulfill his role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but to bring everyone else along, too.