By Philip Corbett
As I stood in the Mall in London on Coronation Day in what was becoming a downpour, I couldn’t tell whether the lady standing next to me had excitedly said, “He was born for this moment” or “We was born for this moment.” In many ways both statements seemed to be true.
Many of the people I stood with in a crowd 15 people deep had known no one on the throne but Queen Elizabeth II. Although we knew one day we would witness the coronation of her successor, until last year it seemed to be almost unthinkable. Nonetheless here we were, the rain teeming down, gathered together in love for our new king, and witnessing his promise of service to his people around the world.
The crowds had begun to gather on the Mall early. Some people had been camping out since Monday, and by Friday evening there was a real buzz, with people preparing to sleep out overnight to secure the best spots. When I arrived on the Mall at just after 2:30 a.m., it was a sea of tents and chairs, with quite a few people bedded down on the ground.
It was to be another eight hours before the ceremonies began. As ever on these occasions, you fall into conversation with those around you. I was with people from Ireland, Scotland, Kent, and the United States (Atlanta), all gathered to celebrate this momentous day. There was something about the unity of purpose and joy that helped the time pass as we discussed who we thought would be in which procession, what they would wear, and so forth. There was much speculation over the Royal Standard flying on multiple buildings. It usually only flies when the sovereign is in residence, but the standard was flown over all royal residences in celebration of the coronation.
I experienced the day in four acts, if you like: the procession to Westminster Abbey, the coronation in the abbey, the procession from the abbey, and the appearance on the balcony. After the hours of waiting, there came the inevitable requests for people to make sure they had packed away their tents and their chairs, and the crowds edged forward.
By 10:20 a.m., the procession had begun. This first procession to the abbey was rather simple. The king and queen in the Australian State Coach looked happy as they passed by. The crowds cheered the royals on their way. They went to the abbey unanointed, prepared for the solemn ceremony that was to come. They would return our anointed king and queen, who had made their solemn promise of service to their people.
The service was broadcast for those of us on the Mall and standing along the processional route. I had printed off copies of the service, so we were able to follow along. Our friend from Atlanta was also keen to follow the service. She relayed the rubrics to those standing around us, which I felt helped people experience more deeply a profound spiritual moment. Each part of the liturgy offered Christians an opportunity to reflect on their calling and vocation. By this stage, the rain was pouring down. We knew we had at least two hours to go before the return procession.
The king and queen entered the Abbey to the strains of Parry’s “I Was Glad.” This setting included “Vivats” proclaimed by the scholars of Westminster School. They shouted first “Vivat Regina Camilla” and then “Vivat Rex Carolus,” heralding the entrance of the monarch and his consort for the coronation ceremony.
It has been said that in the United Kingdom we don’t have a constitution, we have a coronation, and so the early part of the ceremony was very much a focus of state. But after a boy welcomed King Charles to the service, the king’s first words were, “In his name and after his example I come not to be served but to serve.” This set the tone for the whole ceremony, and may set the tone for the king’s reign.
The coronation is a covenant between God and king, and king and people. In a profound statement of Christian vocation and service, the king was presented to the four corners (compass points) of the abbey and acclaimed by those present as their rightful king. He then made the oaths, including one to uphold the Protestant religion and settlement of the Church of England. The king received a Bible as a reminder that all he does and says is to be based on the teachings of Jesus Christ and the truth to be found in Holy Scripture.
Then came another new aspect to the service: the king prayed aloud for himself and for his reign. This had never happened at a coronation before, and was truly moving, especially in the Mall, where we heard the king’s voice clearly and calmly offering his life in service: “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 Gloria was sung to a setting by William Byrd, a nod perhaps to his 400th anniversary this year. In the anointing, this king was divested of his robes and finery and stood before God in a simple white shirt and pair of black trousers. I felt watching the ceremony that this was a moment of great humility, a real sense of accepting a weighty call from God. The choir sang the “Veni Creator” in different British languages, calling down the Holy Spirit to prepare the king for what was to come.
I had never really understood the role of the Bishop Supporters (the bishops of Durham and of Bath and Wells for the king, and the Bishops of Norwich and Hereford for the queen), but they do really support and guide the king and queen. It is a real sign of the way in which the Church helps Christians along in the journey of faith, there to guide and strengthen them and to hold their hand in times of need.
The anointing took place behind a screen that featured a colorful vine with the names of Commonwealth countries, as well as angels and symbols of the Trinity. The king was anointed as the choir sang the anthem “Zadok the Priest” by Handel. This anointing would be to strengthen him in God’s service and in love and service of his people. It was clear that the king was deeply moved by this, and that he takes it seriously.
Out in the Mall we could see none of this, but the rubrics were being read and we prepared ourselves for the crowning. After the anointing, the king moved to the coronation chair, containing within it the Stone of Destiny, vested with regalia. It is said to be the stone on which Jacob rested at Bethel when he saw angels ascending and descending from heaven. At noon the Archbishop of Canterbury placed St. Edward’s Crown on the king’s head. A gun salute was fired, bells rang, and a fanfare sounded.
On the Mall we cheered and acclaimed “God Save the King!” I will admit that there were tears in my eyes. The king had been crowned, our anointed sovereign. The king then received a blessing from Christians of different denominations. Just as he would greet faith leaders of different faiths at the end of the service, this was a sign of the king’s commitment to assuring that all people and all faiths are respected.
What fascinated me was that people in the crowd were insistent that they should take part in the next section of the ceremony. The Archbishop of Canterbury made his homage and he was followed by the Prince of Wales. Prince William ended his homage by touching the crown and kissing his father, and his king, on the cheek. In the Mall, mobile phones were passed round as we all accessed the words for the homage of the people. The archbishop invited any who wished to make the homage, and so we did, loudly: “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.” The focus then moved to the queen, who was to help her prepare for service and her work of supporting the king. She was then crowned and moved to the throne beside the king.
Another moment was only fleetingly captured on television screens. As he made his way to St. Edward’s Chapel, the king touched the paten and the flagon of wine, a sign that his first act as king was to make an offering at the altar of God. He presented the gifts that when consecrated he and the queen would receive to strengthen them in the service they had pledged to undertake.
Out in the Mall, people responded to the prayers. I was particularly struck how nearly everyone joined in the Lord’s Prayer. In what is so often called a secular age, here was faith expressed publicly. It was for us all a spiritual gift. As the service drew to a close, we all joined in a lusty and heartfelt rendition of the National Anthem and prepared for what for many would be the highlight of the day.
The return procession was truly spectacular. Armed forces from around the realms and Commonwealth processing down the Mall through the rain, the bands playing and the people cheering, was so uplifting. You knew the Gold State Coach was coming by the roar of the crowds. The king who had traveled nervously to the abbey returned resplendent in his crown, now our anointed king. As it passed, people shouted, “God save the king.” There has been an increase in people shouting this acclamation, which is a sign of loyalty and, I think, touches and moves the king.
The day drew to a close with the king and queen, joined by members of the Royal Family, on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. The crowd surged forward, and we cheered our new king with joy and thanksgiving. I was lucky enough on Sunday to attend the Coronation Concert at Windsor Castle, and there the Prince of Wales spoke for so many: “Pa, we are all so proud of you.”
The Rev. Philip Corbett, SSC, is parish priest at All Saints’ Notting Hill and St. Michael’s Ladbroke Grove, London.