Anointed, Blessed, and Consecrated: Reflections on the Coronation Rite
By Peter Eaton
When His Majesty King Charles III and Her Majesty Queen Camilla are crowned on May 6, it will be the first coronation in 70 years. The last such lengthy interval was between the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1838 and her son King Edward VII in 1902. Today, as in 1902, there are few people alive who have participated in a coronation. King Charles is one of those few, and he was ushered in only for the crowning, spending the rest of the morning with the other royal children playing games in Buckingham Palace while their parents were in church. There is a famous photo of him looking bored as he stood next to his grandmother. According to one witness, he asked questions of her rather loudly while he was there.
The service is more aptly called “the consecration of the sovereign,” or, in more archaic language, “the sacring” of the sovereign, and this is an important clue to the meaning of the rite. The crowning may be the most dramatic moment in the service, but is not its most significant action. The heart of the rite is the anointing of the king and the queen, and it is this act that is the sacramental sign of the grace that the service bestows on them for the life and work to which they have been called.
Every coronation has been different, sometimes significantly, sometimes only in some details. This coronation is quite distinct from its predecessors, and in many respects happily so, and represents a significant development of the coronation liturgy. The rite is no longer a liturgy of the nobility and the aristocracy alone (as in the past), but now includes a range of involvement of others from across British and Commonwealth society. The focus is quite clearly on service, and this is evident at every turn.
Like all great actions of the Church, the coronation properly takes place in the context of the Eucharist. In earlier times, the coronation rite preceded the coronation Mass. But it was part of the genius of the Anglican revision that the anointing and crowning should be placed between the reading of the Gospel and the Offertory, in the same place where other sacramental rites occur. So we see the basic Eucharistic shape of the rite at this coronation, even if there will be much other ceremonial besides — as there is now, for example, at the consecration of a bishop.
The Archbishop of Canterbury is responsible for the liturgy, in consultation with the sovereign and the Dean of Westminster. The Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, is responsible for the arrangements for the day, even to the extent that he is given full control of the Abbey in preparation for the coronation.
Another layer of important meaning in this version is the participation of a significant group of leaders of other churches and faiths. This reflects not only the king’s appreciation of the multifaith society that Britain has become since 1953; it is an appropriate development of a rite that has always been subject to the realities of the age in which it is celebrated. In 1953, the Moderator of the Church of Scotland presented the Bible to the queen, the first time that a non-Anglican church leader had participated in a coronation in such a way. It is right that such participation should be much wider today. And it has been made public that the canopy over the queen will be held not by nobility, but by members of her family — another innovation that seeks to make the rite more accessible.
Perhaps the most important question is this: What does the coronation rite accomplish? What are we doing when we consecrate a sovereign? The coronation does not make the king in the way that an ordination makes a deacon, priest, or bishop. In a hereditary monarchy such as Britain’s, the sovereign succeeds immediately on the death of the predecessor. The queen is dead. Long live the king. While individual sovereigns die, sovereignty does not. So how are we to understand the sacramental significance of a coronation?
While the rite bears some superficial resemblance to the ordination of a bishop, we are not creating a kind of semi-sacerdotal person, a layperson who has been given some aspect of quasi-priestly identity. There used to be this kind of interpretation, but the coronation and the sovereign have long since ceased to be understood in this way. There have been exaggerated opinions about this resemblance of the rites of the consecration of a bishop and the consecration of a sovereign, and so consequent confusion. The consecration of a bishop and the consecration of a sovereign are two very different actions.
Rather than the analogy of ordination, the analogy of marriage is better. The Church says that a civil marriage is a true marriage, and must be treated and respected as such. But the Church also proclaims that, for a couple to live the vocation of marriage in its deepest possible reality, the sacramental reality of marriage, and the grace that is poured out on the couple in the rite, is necessary.
The same can be said of the accession and coronation of the sovereign. The accession of the sovereign is both a moment and a process. The king became fully the sovereign according to law upon the death of his mother, and the Accession Council and Proclamations in the days immediately following the death of the late queen were the legal recognition of this reality. But the Christian tradition has always said that any Christian to whom the responsibilities of leadership have been entrusted needs the grace of God for the true fulfilment of any vocation. The Christian king has been among those for whom such a sensibility has long been particularly important.
And so to church the sovereign properly goes, as soon as it may be convenient, to receive the Church’s blessing and, by the acts of anointing and receiving Holy Communion, to be united to Christ in the ministry of the servant king. And while this was once a universal practice among the kingdoms of Europe, only the British sovereign now has a coronation. Other European sovereigns have parliamentary ceremonies at which they take the oaths of their office, and while there may still be a religious service associated with an accession in some cases, it is not a coronation.
So the coronation liturgy of the British sovereign is best understood as bestowing upon the sovereign the Church’s blessing and the gift of God’s grace for the life and work of sacrificial service. Queen Elizabeth II once remarked that the coronation is “the beginning of one’s life as a sovereign,” and there was a time, when the coronation followed more closely in time to the accession, when reigns were dated from the coronation for precisely this reason. This makes emotional as well as liturgical sense: the accession is shrouded in grief at the death of the previous sovereign, whereas the coronation is a more joyful celebration.
There is a further important meaning in this rite, which is also present in various ways in other rites of the church. The coronation rite is a reminder that, in the understanding of the Church, all true and authentic authority comes from God, just as all true and authentic love comes from God. The exercise of power, whether by a benevolent authority or a dictator, is a human venture, and often a human failure. But it is authority, authentic and grounded, that lies at the heart of all true leadership, even for a constitutional monarch.
In the ordination rites, ordinands are reminded that their authority is grounded in the one who came not to be served, but to serve. In the marriage rite, spouses are reminded that the love they share flows from the very heart of God. And in the coronation rite, the sovereign, the elected leadership, and the nation are reminded that there is more to reigning and governing and being governed than the exercise of power. Indeed in this rite, at the beginning, the king recalls that he follows the one who came not to be served, but to serve.
Throughout the coronation rite we reaffirm that all true authority for leadership is of divine origin and requires divine sustenance for its proper exercise. The coronation rite, like the ordination rite and the marriage rite, seeks to remind and strengthen both the individual and the community in this understanding of the right relationship of God with the human community and the manner in which we seek to construct our common life.
The coronation rite is not just a service for the new sovereign’s British subjects; it is an Anglican liturgy that is the possession of all Anglicans, and it is full of meaning and symbolism that can enrich everyone’s spiritual life. It is a liturgy of commitment to Christian service, and as we see the king and queen anointed and receiving Holy Communion, we may recall our own baptismal anointing and the life of service to which that dedicated each one of us.
We need not feel self-conscious about a distinctively Anglican rite in a multicultural, multifaith environment. Queen Elizabeth II once said that the role of the Church of England as the established church was “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.” By celebrating an Anglican rite in all its fulness, the church embodies this vocation. And faithful leaders and members of other churches and faiths understand the integrity of this action.
The coronation rite is a rich liturgy full of meaning that extends beyond the sovereign and even beyond Great Britain. There will be an attempt to send various messages of inclusion and embrace on this occasion, and to make the liturgy as much about the wider community as it is about the king and the queen. In all that happens, let us not forget that we shall be watching two individuals giving themselves to a life of service that is impossible without God’s grace and blessing.
The Rt. Rev. Peter Eaton is Bishop of Southeast Florida and is writing a book about the coronation.