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God save the King!

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 8 June 2023

Terry Eagleton, in a piece in Unherd, finds himself comparing monarchy with democracy, particularly as to how they perform as foundations for nations. He remarks that while monarchies rely on genetics, democracy can only rely on "the people". The former seems arbitrary in that, today, genetics is mere biochemistry, while the latter seems insecure because "the people" are constantly changing. He adds that democracy is suited to modernity that expects and even demands change. Reason is on the side of republicanism. I suggest that this does not have to be the conclusion and that a constitutional monarchy with the monarch as the head of the Church has strengths that democracy lacks.

The coronation of King Charles III is a lesson on how English monarchy understands itself as foundational for the nation. I was intrigued by the number of ancient objects that found a place in the proceedings. There was, of course the crown, sceptre, and orb. These all date from 1661 made for Charles II's coronation because Oliver Cromwell ordered that they should be broken up as they stood for the "detestable rule of kings". The coronation regalia included Charles II spurs, the ampulla containing olive oil from the mount of olives, the coronation bible, the sovereign's ring, the armills of 1661, and also a glove and a coat of gold, coronation throne (1308), the stone of Scone (filched from the Scots). Each object was described as symbolising some virtue expected of the king. The purpose of this display of objects, many decorated by eye wateringly valuable jewels, some with doubtful provenance, is to demonstrate the foundations of the monarch in history and tradition.

As I watched the different objects presented to the king it occurred to me that the virtues associated with them were made up, created for the occasion. Why would the spurs of Charles II symbolise military honour and chivalry, something that the former owner lacked? Why should a glove, of unknown provenance symbolise authority, gentleness and grace, or the royal ring kingly dignity and the covenant between God and the King, or the rod, equality and grace? Do all these symbols assure the observer that the King will live up to the values prescribed? Do they assure us that this King will be a jolly good chap? Their surfeit would suggest that there is some doubt! One symbolic attribution was more substantial and controversial than the rest of the predictable and anodyne, that of the orb under a cross instructing us that all the kingdoms of the world, were overarched by the kingdom of God, obviously from a different time when such an affirmation was not seen as scandalous overreach. The objects presented to the king in his coronation were akin to a medieval reliquary containing perhaps a splinter of the one true cross, or a drop of the blood of Jesus. The king swore allegiance to Protestantism, the Church of England being part of that movement, a church that abjured all such quackery at the Reformation.


The use of ancient and symbolic objects in the coronation comes across as flat for two reasons. Firstly, the modern mind differs from the medieval in that it has ceased to think in such terms. Ancient objects, for us, may have antiquarian importance, but they have ceased to carry the values that are imputed to them. Meaning is carried not by material objects but by objects in the mind and heart, or, to avoid dualism, in the soul. This is as it has ever been, it is the material object that has fallen away. A quest for the holy grail now seems pointless. Secondly, and in the same vein, history and tradition are no longer at the centre of our lives and for good reason. This is especially true in the Church in which, certainly for Protestants, the apostolic succession, the primacy of Rome with its bones of St Peter undiscovered under the altar of the church of the same name in the Vatican are not seen as foundational. The Donation of Constantine nails the point home. Modernity expects and welcomes change, as Eagleton observed, and history and tradition are no longer understood as unchangeable foundations simply because they have been around for a long time.

After all of the regalia was touched or worn and then unworn the eucharist was celebrated. The elements shared space on the altar with the spurs, swords, rod, sceptre, and ampulla. Where previously the crown was raised above the altar, now bread and wine was similarly raised. The one act that truly symbolised the place of the Church and the unity of all people was reserved for the Archbishop of Canterbury, two servers and the king and queen. It may be that those who planned it baulked at the logistics of serving a large crowd, but this has been done before and routinely in the Catholic Church. The result was we were treated with an overabundance of symbolic objects for the sake of tradition and a truncated Eucharist that was the only real sacramental act in the proceedings.

There exists a vast difference between seeking a foundation for a nation in history and tradition and seeking a foundation in God. The former relies on meaning derived from an atavistic impulse, a feeling of attachment to an ancient people. Australians know this well when they first visit London and see the city that they have known only in representation. However, they also may experience this feeling when, after a long time from home they board a Qantas flight and hear the accents of the crew. Such feelings are powerful, but do they provide a foundation for life? The coronation attempted to use history and tradition as foundational but, in the end, it was upstaged by the truncated celebration of the Eucharist. The Godly thread, as opposed to the atavistic, was underlined by the king's prayer before his enthronement.

"God of Compassion and mercy, whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom, and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth. Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children of every faith and belief, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

The status of the king was based finally not on history and tradition but on an understanding of the gospel of grace for which all believers and unbelievers alike should give thanks. After all, grace, justice and mercy stand out among the dictators of today who worship violence, injustice and the self. As Stanley Hauerwas has noted: "In a world without foundations; all we have is the Church". The coronation may be filled with the claptrap of royal regalia which we are told are symbolic of kingly virtue, but the real foundation lies not in history and tradition but in the Church wherein dwells the risen one as an eternal presence. Modernity may not stand in awe of history and tradition, but it can stand in awe of the risen Lord who gives life to the church.

Eagleton may be in favour of the authority of the people over the monarchy, but the people are unreliable without the guidance of God. The current situation in the USA stands as a warning against an over reliance on the principle of democracy and its founding statutes. The constitution of the United States has not saved the country from riotous division, not seen since the civil war. Donald Trump is no respecter of persons, tradition, or reason. Under his presidency the foundations of the nation were corrupted and given over to galloping egotism. If anything, America suffers from too much democracy and too much individualism at the cost of community. A bastard child of Enlightenment philosophy that valued only the individual and a weakened Christianity, it is an experiment that threatens to go horribly wrong.


By contrast, the coronation emphasized that this king has come not to be served but to serve, in direct imitation of the relationship between Christ and his disciples. While in America there exists a passionate opposition to any involvement between Church and State, in Britain they are firmly connected as the coronation so aptly demonstrated. Charles III is a Christian king, head of the Church and of the state. This means that politicians cannot say "they do not do God" God is at the centre of government. We may complain that this arrangement is Erastian, that the Church needs to be independent of government, we may complain that religion has nothing to do with government, that religion is personal. However, there are great advantages to this arrangement even though we are appalled by the behaviour of some of the royals, including the king himself. We are not talking of a theocracy here, neither are we dealing with a thoroughly secular state. We are dealing with the gentle presence of Christ in government, Christ, the delight of nations guides us into fuller humanity. This seems outrageous only because we have gone so far down the path of liberalism in all its forms that we do not see that this is not only right and proper but essential to the national well-being. It therefore makes sense to cry "God save the King" because the king's subservience to God is what saves us.


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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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