The William Temple Foundation is a broad church. The first of these Temple Takes by fellow trustee, Dr David Shaw, anticipated the Coronation with a pre-emptive strike against the monarchy. Now it is my turn to offer a different take.
This Foundation explores faith in the public square. Coronations have been a prime example of this in action, over a thousand years. This month’s Coronation was more inclusive than its predecessors of diverse denominations and faiths.
While conceding that the monarchy is ‘a good show’, David Shaw notes ‘that ermine and gold braid costs an awful lot of money’. He was not alone in this approach. The Coronation was dismissed as a ‘pantomime’ of ‘obscene lavishness’ by the journalist Suzanne Breen, writing in the Belfast Telegraph.
Yet the Guardian’s exhaustive investigations concluded that the Coronation cost each UK taxpayer about £1.50. If we had been saving up since the previous Coronation, that would have been just over two pence each per year or, if we think instead of creating a sinking fund for the next one, perhaps ten pence each per year.
Since the last Coronation seventy years ago, the USA has held 19 inaugurations for 13 Presidents. These too have an oath, a ceremony, a prayer, a cathedral service the next day, and there are many inauguration balls. Some of the funding in the USA comes from individual supporters, which might be welcomed here, but some of those donors become ambassadors, which would not be. I would like the Prince of Wales, when his time comes, to adopt the model of Edward VII’s Coronation instead, for which the King opened and personally contributed to an appeal which funded a free Coronation Dinner for half a million of the poorest Londoners. William V would ideally extend its reach throughout the UK, realms and territories. The meals went ahead that summer, in hundreds of locations, when the Coronation itself had to be delayed because of the King’s poor health.
William Temple attended that 1902 Coronation as a gentleman-in-waiting to his father, who was then the Archbishop of Canterbury, and played his own part as the Archbishop of York in the 1937 Coronation of George VI. Temple enjoyed three enthronements of his own at Manchester, York and Canterbury, or four if you count the double enthronement in Canterbury as bishop of that diocese and as Primate of All England. Despite it being in wartime, the Canterbury enthronements saw him in what the Church Times described as a ‘magnificent cope and mitre’. There was gold aplenty. None of this stopped him being one of the founders of the Welfare State.
The other point where I beg to differ from David Shaw is when he imagines that defenders of the monarchy would argue that it only has a ceremonial role whereas it is more than that. The second part of his claim is correct, although he only gives examples of what he sees as self-interested interference by the royal family in the political sphere. There are many positive and practical (as opposed here to ‘ceremonial’) contributions by the contemporary constitutional monarchy which celebrate our charities and the arts, which have been prophetic in warning of the climate crisis, which give voice and opportunities to some of the otherwise voiceless on the margins of society, as in the work of the Prince’s Trust, and which bring all faiths into the public square.
Nevertheless, there is nothing necessarily wrong with ceremonial roles and nor is there anything necessarily wrong with ceremonies. Ceremony itself has its place in the public square. Religious ceremonies in particular merit serious study. Yet a pillar of the British establishment, former editor of The Times, Sir Simon Jenkins, now writing for The Guardian, is more outspoken than David Shaw: ‘Is Britain completely mad? Trying to read meaning into such events is completely hopeless.’
In contrast, Juliet Samuel in The Times, writing in the week before the Coronation, had argued that critics of King Charles III miss the point: ‘What they don’t grasp is why the institution at the centre of this weird ritual, the monarchy, has lasted on and off for more than a thousand years… Where the sceptics see a fuddy-duddy infatuated by new-age nonsense, I see traditional religion informed by modern pluralism.’
Rachel Cooke, in The Observer, could see the pageantry as a ‘preposterous vision’ but considered that, ‘Only a stone-hearted person could fail to have been moved by the multifaith parts of the service, and if you felt nothing when the choir sang Handel’s Zadok the Priest at the king’s anointment, you are either an algorithm or half dead.’
She was also impressed by the military processions’ ‘precision that was unbelievable in a country where nothing works.’ A question for a faith foundation is whether the religious ceremony worked that well. Was it sacramental or quasi-sacramental? Did the anointing bring grace? The sacred music was varied, plentiful and uplifting. Does that make a difference? Was the ritual right? Was the emphasis on service authentic or was it, so to speak, lip-service? Almost nobody approved of the formula in the oath, perhaps not even the King. Nor was the attempt to inveigle us into paying homage well received. When asked if that was his idea, the Archbishop of Canterbury claimed he honestly could not remember. When asked about the gold robes and coach, he did remember that the former were borrowed and that the latter was paid for centuries earlier. He told his interviewer, Julie Etchingham, that there was no need to be miserable about all this.
In all its aspects, each Coronation needs to be reviewed in timely fashion. Meanwhile, if you cannot bring yourself to ponder the faith dimensions of what we have just witnessed, then there are secular rites of passage which have some instructive parallels, such as university graduations. When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, fewer than 4% of the UK’s school-leavers had the opportunity of university education. Nowadays, the figure is more than 50%. With their family members in attendance, this means that more than half the country experience graduation ceremonies. Some of these are in sacred spaces and others also draw on religious liturgies and forms but even the most secular have lessons in understanding the religious Coronation. Some staff might remain, or affect to be, miserable when asked to dress up or otherwise attend but nowadays almost all students, their families and friends find joy in graduations.
It does not need a degree in pageantry to understand the significance in graduations of the medieval gowns, the hoods, the headgear, the university regalia, the music, the formalities of wording, the processions, even in some cases the ermine on a hood or gown or the gold braid on a Chancellor’s gown. Students are burdened by the cost of the degree but only marginally more by any extra cost of graduation tickets for family and friends. They know that gowns and hoods are mostly recycled, as at the Coronation. Those attending can readily understand the concept of a Chancellor, a university’s equivalent to a constitutional monarch, even though they know that the executive power lies elsewhere. Families appreciate the effort to respect a university’s place in the history of education and all their students’ contributions to that community. They value the chance to meet staff, to give thanks and to be thanked for their support.
A Coronation is not just a graduation for the monarch. In a sense, we are all graduands as one era gives way to another. The Coronation was a rite of passage but it was also a leap of faith. Far from it being ‘hopeless’ to read meaning into the Coronation, the meaning was already there. A more charitable reading of our shared experience is that the Coronation extolled the virtue of hope for faith in the public square.
Simon Lee is Professor of Law & Director of Research, Aston Law School; Emeritus Professor of Jurisprudence, Queen’s University Belfast; and Chair of the Board of Trustees of the William Temple Foundation