Sermon: Mass on the Vigil of the Coronation of Their Majesties King Charles III and Queen Camilla
“Then Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brothers; and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward.”
Both St Peter and St Paul command us to honour and pray for kings, governors, emperors, and all those in authority. It is salutary to realize that they are commanding obedience and respect, in all temporal things, even for the Emperor Nero. Order and stability are to be desired and promoted by Christians. Yet we are also called to bring about the kingdom of God upon earth – hence the conversion of Constantine, acclaimed in this city in the year of Our Lord 306, which brought about a gradual extension of the reign of Christ. The punishment of crucifixion was abolished, the position of women was improved, and the freedom to worship was established under Constantine’s rule. He was the first Roman emperor to abandon the wreath of laurels and to adopt instead the crown. The crown is a Christian symbol that we see used by Saul, David, and Solomon in the Old Testament. The pagan Anglo-Saxon kings in England wore helmets, until they were baptized, when they adopted instead the crown.
Of course, all cultures have at one time or another had kings, but there is a fundamental difference between the oppressive kingship that we find among pagans, and the biblical concept of kingship. Israel did not originally have any king but God, and when the people asked for a king, to be like the other nations, the prophet Samuel was appalled, since he considered that the people had rejected the Lord from being king over them. Samuel issued dire warnings of what would happen under a king’s reign:
“He will take your sons and appoint them to his chariots; and he will appoint for himself commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive orchards and give them to his servants…” and so on.
And indeed, all of this did indeed happen. Solomon, with his conscripted labour to build the holy Temple, turned Israel into a slave state. With his hundreds of wives and concubines he was seduced away from the pure worship of the Lord and whored after foreign gods. After Solomon’s death the kingdom split in two, and the kings of Judah and Israel only rarely fulfilled their vocation to serve the Lord.
Nevertheless, God did give Israel a king, and in David he chose a man “after God’s own heart.” The king’s role was to unite the people, to lead them in worship, to defend them against their enemies, to be a shepherd who would intercede and protect his sheep. Above all, it was from the royal line of David that the Christ was born. The king was a type and prophecy of the Messiah, who reigns eternally as prophet, priest, and king. The key difference between the kings of Israel and those of other places was precisely that the king was chosen to be a servant, not a tyrant. Pharaoh, and later the Roman emperors, were divine. Their very existence enshrined a hierarchical universe in which the poor deserved to be where they were, and in which the gods were flawed, capricious, violent, and sexually depraved. Contrast this with what happens in the Scriptures: When David sins by lying with Bathsheba and murdering her husband he is rebuked by Nathan the prophet, punished by God and brought to repentance. When Ahab murders Naboth and steals his vineyard, Elijah tells him that he and Queen Jezebel will be cut off from the Lord and that the dogs will lick up their blood. A biblical king is not free to do whatever he wishes, he is subject to the Law of the Lord as much as anyone else, and he is held to account for his actions.
King Edgar the Peaceful of Mercia is the first English king of whose coronation, in 973, we have a record, and the liturgy for this event was set out by St Dunstan. St Dunstan’s instructions are substantially those which will be followed tomorrow in Westminster Abbey. A striking feature of the English coronation since it was set out by St Dunstan is the oath that the monarch makes to uphold the laws and customs of the kingdom. A Christian monarch is not – or should not be - an absolute ruler, he is a servant of his people, and a servant of Jesus Christ. Our own King’s first words when he enters Westminster Abbey on Saturday will be,
“In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.”
This is an innovation for this coronation, but it seems to me that it recovers the spirit of the crowning of Edgar in Bath Abbey in 973. Of course there have been plenty of English kings who have failed to keep this model of servant kingship: Henry II who trod upon the rights of the Church and had Thomas Becket murdered; Henry VIII, who usurped the place of Christ Himself as Head of the Church; dare I say, Charles I, whose exaggerated sense of divine right led to the unhappiness of republican government. It is not surprising to find that the Stuarts on the whole were sceptical about the necessity for coronation, since they considered that their divine right took effect immediately upon their accession. So the Coronation tomorrow is in part an expression that the King is subject to his people, not an absolute monarch.
In our parliamentary democracy that is obvious enough: such royal prerogatives as still exist can only remain so long as they are not used. The King, like his chess counterpart, does not make active moves, but he occupies a space that prevents others from doing so.
Amongst the oaths that His Majesty will swear is one that is problematic for us, that he is a faithful Protestant. He will do so according to statute, and we know that today this no longer entails an exclusion of Catholics from public life. While we continue to pray for the conversion of England, the difference we have in religion with our Sovereign should not change the loyalty we owe him. Rather we should rejoice that a sacred, Christian, ceremony remains at the heart of the British Constitution. The anointing of a monarch with holy oil is a powerful reminder that government is a vocation, and contrasts sharply with the violent and unstable regimes of secular, republican rulers. The Crown, the Orb, and the Coronation ring are all surmounted by the Cross.
One advantage of a dynastic head of state is that it enables us to see our place in history. A failure to understand history and tradition leads inevitably to social disaster, and our own St John Henry Newman spoke of the importance of history to every Catholic: “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” Of the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838, Newman makes but passing reference – there was no television on which to watch it of course – and he went for a walk with Manning, another future cardinal that day. Of the coronation of William IV in 1831, Newman takes no notice at all, but then the king himself thought coronations a waste of time and money – a low point in our national life. But in 1821, for the coronation of George IV, the most lavish and expensive coronation in British history, the twenty-year-old John Henry, then an undergraduate at Trinity College, Oxford, was staying at home in London during the vacation. Newman and his sister Harriet decided at the last moment to hire a booth from which they could see the coronation procession. The day is recounted in a letter to their aunt a few days later. They left home at five in the morning and were not back until six that evening, starving and exhausted. They were fortunate that a man behind them was able to identify the various figures who appeared, including Sir Walter Scott and Prince Leopold. Prince Leopold was the widower of Princess Charlotte of Wales, the daughter of George IV. Had she lived, Charlotte would have been Queen rather than Victoria – Leopold went on to become the first King of the Belgians. It was because of mourning for Princess Charlotte that John Henry Newman was wearing black gloves at the time of his first Holy Communion as an Anglican in Trinity College Chapel in 1817, and he tore the gloves in his flurry to remove them.
Newman does not mention the most interesting, and scandalous, occurrence of the day, which is recorded instead by Harriet. Just as they arrived at six o’clock there were great applauses and they heard, “the Queen!” “the Queen!” Queen Caroline, the estranged wife of George IV, presented herself at the Abbey and was humiliatingly turned away from several doors before retreating. She died just a fortnight later. Harriet is also more frank than her brother about her impressions:
“I am quite astonished to see how old, ill and ugly the King looks.”
Newman himself says,
“The king looked very pale going, but much better coming back.”
He is more interested in the appearance of the crown:
“The new crown is very handsome. I can indeed fancy a gewgaw thing all over colours which create a vulgar splendour – but I cannot fancy anything more tasteful, more classical, more elegant, most chaste, and more brilliant. The green of the emerald, the red of the ruby, the yellow of the topaz are imitable by coloured glass, and a crown not worth £10 may look as well as the most gorgeous that can be made up of these gems but the sparkling brightness of the diamond and the soft lustre of the pearl are inimitable – and of these is the crown composed.”
And so we might say too, that whatever the faults of our current constitutional arrangements, whatever flaws in the royal house at their head, however shifting with the sands of the centuries they may be, they are nevertheless inimitable, and we may see in the brightness and lustre of St Edward’s Crown some dim glimpse of the majesty of Christ our eternal King. In praying for our Sovereign Lord King Charles, and for Queen Camilla, we are fulfilling that duty that the Scriptures lay upon us, and in witnessing this Coronation we are reminded of the call to holiness by which we must hasten the advent of the reign of Christ on earth.
And as the Spirit alighted upon King David at his anointing, so may He guide Charles, our King, in all his ways. Amen.