WHILE the Coronation of Charles Windsor as the new monarch will be an occasion of rejoicing and fascination for many people, it is fair to say that those closest to Ekklesia and its work are more likely to view and experience things rather differently.
I have written about the distortions of monarchy from a dissenting Christian perspective here. Our former associate director, Symon Hill, who was arrested for a nonviolent, verbal protest against the Proclamation of the King in Oxford on 11 September 2022, has also been in the news again lately, via a sympathetic interview by Simon Hattenstone in The Guardian.
Today (6 May) I will join others on Carlton Hill, in Edinburgh, to read a republican declaration to which I am a signatory, and which I played a minor part in helping to re-write recently — though the vast amount of credit should go to others. Like all such attempted statements of common purpose, this will not be exactly what some of its signatories (including me) would have drafted left solely to our own devices, but it captures a certain mood and energy.
In particular, it sets out, in verbal form, a vision of what, in this case, a Scottish republic could be about. That includes the quest for economic and social equality, participative democracy, environmental justice, and the renunciation of nuclear weapons.
In other words, it is not about simply being against something (in this case a monarchy which embodies the inequality, privilege and unaccountability many of us wish to oppose and forego). Instead, it concerns what needs to be creatively developed and put in its place.
Equally, today and moving forward, we will need to find ways of handling widely divergent understandings, interpretations and experiences of this undeniably historic moment (the first Coronation of a monarch in Britain since 1953), as well as the clashing symbols and contradictions of the event and all that flows from it.
With the UK suffering huge ruptures at the moment (economically, politically, culturally and constitutionally), it is more than understandable that people should reach for the symbolism embodied in the creation of a new monarch to seek the security, stability and unity many crave in challenging times. Where else are they liable to look right now?
But the question of the substance behind these particular words, and what benefit can possibly be derived from them when they are defined through the lens of a ceremony which explicitly reinforces an order of wealth, power and hierarchy, cannot be avoided.
Similarly, as a I tried to say at one point in my article on Coronations, sanctifying eugenic privilege, and beyond, the need for public ritual, art and symbolism within any community or society needs to be recognised much more than it is by those opposed to a monarchy.
This suggests two intertwined conversations — one about what security, stability and unity can look like beyond the distortions of power, the comforts of an order rooted in privilege, and fear of ‘the other’; the other about how we develop aesthetic and dramatic sensibilities and accomplishments to feed, expand and enrich the vision that “another world is possible”.
Such concerns will not feature within the overarching imaginary of the Coronation, because, in certain sense, its formation is precisely about rejecting a different, egalitarian vision, and instead is seeking to inject mystery, drama and colour into the status quo in order to keep it in place.
However, the task of how to imagine and build a qualitatively better future for all cannot simply be left to one side while we object, or are subsumed in protest, frustration and righteous indignation about what we are against.
That is why setting free the minds of poets, dreamers, writers, artists, musicians and mystics is vital, along with finding resources to enable that to happen. Right now, however, many of our inherited artistic institutions (choirs, theatres, orchestras) are under immense pressure from a funding climate which makes commercial determinism the be-all and end-all, and which surpresses or starves innovation.
This is immensely destructive. But what has it got to do with the Coronation? Well, while some of us gather amidst the natural beauty of Calton Hill and elsewhere, others will no doubt be talking about the splendour and colour and ‘otherness’ of the proceedings at Westminster Abbey.
While we may not share the ideology of these proceedings, the fact that it is possible to stage public events to capture (better, unleash) the public imagination should not be ignored or dismissed. The issue is how to do so in a way that is not simply captive to monarchism, commercialism, or some other deformed imaginary such as the kind of dull and oppressive realism which obtained during the Soviet era.
With all its shortcomings, perhaps the 2012 London Olympic Ceremony, much vaunted at the time, opened a window on other opportunities on the grander scale. Yes, there is a danger that professionalised spectacle overcomes more intimate sensibilities, or proves deceptively ephemeral in its actual effect. But it can also capture a mood and project a possibility.
Academy Award-winning film director Danny Boyle’s ‘vision of Britain’ was so much larger and more hospitable than the Brexit drama that seemed to overcome it four years later. But it was also nostalgic and trapped in the past in a certain way, which is perhaps part of why its influence was limited.
Maybe reachability, more human scale, and the chance to participate rather than simply ‘watch’ matter in a way that “the society of the spectacle” (Guy Debord) fails to understand? If that is so, what we need more than ‘big events’ are those local expressions of creativity and imagination which bring people together in much more effective ways.
In the past, churches have been among the important community spaces for this kind of thing. Some still are. A few years ago Ekklesia was thinking practically about the possibility of creating a “theatre of ideas” — a physical space in which to use art and performance to generate ways of conceiving a better world and linking them to both spirituality and politics.
That experiment never came to fruition, but it will hopefully be shared in a future book on our 21 years of thinking and acting for change. The continual demise of Christendom opens up the possibility of rethinking the cultural role of ground-up moral communities interested in, say, public ceremony beyond the ideological confines of monarchy and commercialism (and the type of religion that challenges neither)
So aside from debates about republicanism and other ways of framing of our collective ethos within shared political spaces, perhaps this question about sparking and resourcing public imagination through ritual, art, space and ceremony — locally, as well as nationally — needs more time and thought? Ambitiously, that might touch on urban (and rural) planning and architecture, too.
Declarations of political intent are important, but without tangible, touchable, appealing vision (alongside vehicles for civic and political agency) they tend to wither.
© 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