The King’s Coronation, the first in 70 years, is due to take place in Westminster Abbey on 6 May. But so far, we don’t really know very much about what’s going to happen.
We do know that it won’t be on the same scale as the 1953 Coronation, not least because Westminster Abbey hasn’t been shut in order to build the galleries needed to hold the 8,000 attendees of that year. And it has been evident for a long time that simply repeating what happened then would hardly fit the changed circumstances of Britain in the 21st century: for example, the prominence in 1953 of a (virtually) all male hereditary peerage, and of course the strongly colonial flavour of the Coronation Procession.
Fair enough. Coronations have changed and adapted in the past, most notably in their remarkable transformation by film and television in the 20th century into truly public events. But it is right I think to feel some misgiving that with only two months to go, although we have been fed some titbits about Andrew Lloyd Webber anthems and various crowns disappearing from display at the Tower for re-setting, those most responsible for the public presentation of the rite seem curiously reticent about it.
The Coronation ought to be one of the big contributions that the Church of England makes to our national life, and yet there is nothing about it at all on the Archbishop’s website, or that I can find in any address he has given since the late Queen’s demise. It also remains uncertain exactly how much of the traditional Coronation rite will actually be used: early hints suggested an hour-long service, which would be one quarter the length of the 1953 service, although the details we do now have about the newly commissioned music make extreme brevity look unrealistic.
But as I write there is still no published text of what is to happen, as if there is some embarrassment that once people do see that the King is anointed and crowned within an Anglican Eucharistic celebration, the country will naturally take the view expressed by the historian G M Trevelyan after the 1953 service: “Too much Church of England stuff.” Contrast this with the preparations for the Coronation in 1937, when despite the trauma of the Abdication, the principals responsible were well into full rehearsals by January, and excellent and still useful popular commentaries on the service published well in advance.
It isn’t perhaps surprising that people are apprehensive about how a rite which began as the consecration of the sacred national warlord might go down in the King’s dominions today. But here the 1937 Coronation is a good example of how in the right hands the crowning of the King can be presented as a crucial act of national unity and dedication. The first Coronation to be filmed, and so also the first to be rehearsed properly, it was also the first to be heard, as amplification was installed in the Abbey so that those outside the “Theatre” in the crossing could actually follow what the principal actors were saying.
Moreover, it took place in a political environment every bit as testing as the cultural sensitivities of modern Britain. The Dominions objected to the form of the Coronation Oath and the promise to uphold the Protestant Reformed Religion, and even when after interminable negotiation these were quite drastically altered to address their concerns, the prime ministers of South Africa and Eire vetoed a modest suggestion that they should even step forward at the Recognition and declare “God save the King.” There were also huge sensitivities as to whether once filmed the distinctly high church Anglican tone of the whole rite and its setting could hope to communicate positively to a nation in which the Protestantism of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was assertive and strong, and to an Empire of which 70% of the population lived in an ever more fractious India.
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What made the Coronations of 1937 and 1953 successful was the ambition and belief of the Archbishops who presided over them, and that of the 16th Duke of Norfolk, as Earl Marshal. Archbishop Cosmo Lang in 1937 had exactly the right gifts of public presence, theatrical flair, and a feel for the romance of the moment to carry off the ceremony with conviction and solemnity: asked if he were tired afterwards, he replied “Not in the least: once I saw things were going well, I enjoyed every moment of it.” Geoffrey Fisher was a more staid presence in 1953, but an enthusiastic communicator of the complexities of the rites to the press and public as was the Duke of Norfolk, film of whose rather grand press conferences survives. It is not clear where that same animating spirit of ambition, imagination and belief is to be found in 2023.
For all its antiquity and complexity, the Coronation has at its heart a simple four-fold movement, by which the King at the Recognition is accepted by his people, then takes the Oath to govern according to our Laws, receives consecration for his office and work at the Anointing, and then receives the visible outward signs of his dignity – spurs, sword, robe, orb, ring, sceptre and crown – at the Investing and Inthronisation. In the Middle Ages some commentators considered the Coronation to be the eighth sacrament: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace.
It is going to be very challenging to convey this to an unprepared country in such a short space of time, but a failure to do so is far more likely to expose the Coronation to incomprehension and ridicule than fussing about getting rid of the King’s traditional white underclothing or the presentation of a gold ingot. This should be the Church of England’s moment: if it is grasped, then many people will encounter perhaps for the first time a conception of the sacred that speaks to them through the person and office of their Sovereign; if it is missed, the Church will have demonstrated that it now tacitly accepts a marginal position in our national life.
The author is Reverend Canon Robin Ward, Principal of St Stephens House, Oxford.
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