THE CENTRAL ROLE of the Church of England in today’s Coronation at Westminster Abbey is a vivid reminder of the extent to which a Church established by law under the Crown can still be relied upon to bless, sacralise, mystify and exalt a status quo rooted in wealth, power, patronage and massive inequality.
The secular estates play their loyal part in this process too, naturally. In the course of saturation levels of media coverage, it will never explicitly be mentioned that the very fabric of monarchy is knitted together through explicitly eugenic – and until fairly recently exclusively patriarchal – privilege. This is what is being endorsed and sanctified through this ceremony, however lovely some of its music and pageantry may be.
For the monarchy is an institution whose enormous riches are derived in large part from theft, plunder, enslavement, expropriation, organised violence, colonialism, racism and empire. Whose culture is one of inherent deference to a ruling class. Whose symbolism and ritual is ultimately exclusive and militaristic. Whose present familial form (created in the Victorian era, and latterly airbrushed with celebrity) has often evidenced itself to be repressive, dysfunctional and emotionally stunted. Whose existence requires people to accept the status of devoted subjects rather than demanding citizens. And whose perpetuation depends upon a continual suspension and abrogation of popular sovereignty, democratic accountability and transparency at the very heart of a kingdom which proclaims itself united, but is in fact increasingly and damagingly divided – economically, politically, socially and culturally.
Is it not to this brokenness that we should be attending, rather than the frippery and distraction of royalty? In fact, the opposite is the case, and not unintentional. The elaborate, colourful, arcane and often bizarre ceremonial surrounding the enthronement of – in this case – Charles Windsor as King, has been created in large part to disguise or ignore these disturbing truths, and to quell overt attempts to interrogate them. Instead, the Coronation spectacle fabricates and mythologises a very particular sense of history, continuity, unity and order (one that sustains an essentially hierarchical, unequal and tribal kind of belonging), while at the same time seeking to appear sufficiently popular and ‘inclusive’ in appealing to a more modern sensibility, beyond the inherited mists of time.
Even in a mixed-belief country, where large numbers of people are effectively disaffiliated from ‘organised religion’, a comforting, pacifying, unthreatening and politely grandiose form of civic Christianity (with the occasional gesture of hospitality towards other denominations and faiths) is nevertheless required to bind all this together. Even if most people now only believe them in an attenuated way, richly symbolic signifiers of the eternal and the sacred lend a seeming importance and permanence to a monarchical system which might otherwise appear anachronistic, unnecessary, disconnected or even downright offensive. The ‘divine right of kings’ (in which error had no right, remember) may be a thing of the past, but the appeal to earthly perpetuity in the confected guise of transcendence remains. Its overall effect is suffocating rather than liberating, and exposing it as such can cause immense anger.
The particular type of religion that fits the purpose of sanctifying monarchy, embodied in the figure and role of the Archbishop of Canterbury in this particular Coronation drama, is one derived from a lengthy Christendom settlement by which the Church (with a capital ‘C’) maintains its own privilege and position in exchange for baptising governing authority, albeit – in recent times – with the odd bit of finger-wagging about the plight of those at the bottom of the settled, unequal system it nevertheless helps to keep in place.
By contrast, the origins of pre- or non-Christendom patterns of Christian conviction are to be found in a wandering prophet, teacher, healer and movement leader who favoured the poor, chastised the rich, sought the company of the unclean and impure, called the emperor’s delegate an “old fox”, and announced Jubilee (a systemic, periodic rectification of inequalities) as the harbinger of a new order in which the first would be last and the last first at table. Jesus also refused shortcuts to power through politics, economics and magic (the Temptations), taught enemy-love (the Sermon on the Mount), washed the feet of others, challenged oppressive religious leaders, overturned the tables of the Temple money-changers, told his followers to give their possessions away and put aside the sword, and ended up being executed for subversion.
In the same spirit, his mother had sung of God “putting down the mighty from their thrones, and raising up the humble and weak” (the Magnificat); some of his early, succeeding followers initiated a community of common goods (Acts 2), and others practiced his downside-up ethic of freely-given life to such an extent that they were accused of “defying Caesar’s decrees” and questioning the earthly potentate’s presumed exclusive status (Acts 17.7).
In the Hebrew Scriptures, too, a strong prophetic tradition, to which Jesus subsequently affiliated himself, had robustly challenged a centralising, monarchical system – a form of rule which, in the Davidic line, was established in defiance of the divine will, and against a backdrop of warnings that anointing a king “like the other nations” would lead towards further division, a standing army, and a huge and accumulated economic burden for ordinary people… as so it proved.
How we got from this explicit divine defiance and reversal of monarchical rule to the Church enthroning monarchs and justifying their often murderous and plundering ways is a long and complex story, with valleys of deep darkness and ambiguity punctuated by brave attempts to cultivate light and hope. Anabaptists, Quakers, religious dissenters and nonconformists, and (more recently) proponents of liberation theologies of various kinds are among the examples of the latter.
So for those of us who reject ‘the religion of power’, today is indeed “a day of contradictions and clashing symbols” (Tina Beattie) in which ‘the sacred’ is cunningly invoked to bless things which a Christianity worthy of the name should surely be setting aside, rejecting, or at the very least solidly questioning. For example, a Coronation Church that facilitates people mouthing an oath of allegiance to an earthly king appears to be enacting the opposite of what the Christian gospel was once about. The binding of Crown and altar in the popular imagination and in the constitution of the state (which is what a religious Coronation represents) is not the way, life and truth declared in the example of Jesus of Nazareth, his execution through a fatal alliance of religious and political power, and his defiant risen life manifested in all those who have refused to bow the knee to empire (Christian and otherwise) throughout the ages.
Nor should we be assuaged by seductive claims from prelates and politicians about ‘bringing the nation together’ (by ignoring those realities of inequality and privilege out of which the whole system of monarchy is built), or about ‘sacrificial duty and service’ (Charles Windsor alone is estimated to hold assets worth around £1.8 billion during a huge cost-of-living crisis).
Public ritual, art and symbolism are undoubtedly important — far more so than some dissenters from today’s ceremonial may realise. But they need to be about breaking down the walls that divide us, inspiring communal hope, and honouring difference and ordinary beauty, not obscuring the truth about our actual divisions by engineering a partial type of ‘national unity’ which mythically entrenches distortions of power (both personal and political) and enshrines the sovereignty of wealth. That is what the manufactured cultures of royalty and celebrity are all about.
This, in essence, is why I will be among those politely but firmly declining to make a public oath of allegiance to any kings or rulers, today or on any other day. Indeed, the dissenting gospel tradition, honoured by Quakers and others, includes an overt refusal of religious oaths of any kind (Matthew 5. 33-35). Instead, alongside friends within and outwith the fraternity of Christian believers, we may take the opportunity to commit ourselves afresh to the struggle for peace with justice, healing for the planet and its peoples, and a changed relationship to power that generates an economy and politics of sharing instead of hoarding, and mutuality in place of deference.
© Simon Barrow is director of Ekklesia. His new book, Against the Religion of Power: Telling a Different Christian Story, is due for publication in the summer of 2023. His columns can be found here (and archived ones here). Twitter: @simonbarrow