By Megan Manson
Megan is head of campaigns at the National Secular Society in London. She previously worked for the Japanese government promoting cultural exchange and language learning. She has long been active in local interfaith initiatives. She very kindly agreed to write this article for us, pointing out very clearly the absurdity that is the King's Coronation.
In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a peasant asks King Arthur how he became king. Arthur replies: 'The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.' To which another peasant says: 'Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.'
Monty Python are comedy legends not just because they lampoon the mythology which is central to British culture. They also brilliantly parody our existing affairs of state – which are no less bizarre than Arthur’s 'farcical aquatic ceremony'.
On May 6th , our head of state King Charles III will enter Westminster Abbey adorned with priceless robes and jewellery for his coronation ceremony. During the elaborate Anglican ritual, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby will instruct Charles to swear an oath before the Bible to uphold the Church of England’s privileges as the established church. Welby will lead prayers asking God to bless Charles with wisdom. Christian hymns will be sung throughout the proceedings.
At the most sacred part of the ceremony, Charles will partially disrobe and be seated on an ancient wooden chair housing the holy ‘Stone of Destiny’. At this point, a canopy will be placed over him and Welby will anoint him with consecrated oil from Jerusalem. The rite hearkens back to ancient magic spells when people were smeared in fat from sacrificed animals in the hope it would imbue them with power. When Queen Elizabeth was crowned in 1953, her anointing was considered so sacred that it was not broadcast on TV for the commoners to see.
Following the anointing, Welby will present Charles with his regalia – which indeed includes a sword.
No other European monarch has a coronation. Charles’ coronation will be exotic not only for the millions overseas who will watch it. It will be just as inscrutable for millions of Brits, not least because most aren’t Christian, let alone Anglican, as confirmed by the 2021 Census for England and Wales and recent surveys in Scotland. As fascinating as the spectacle of the Coronation may be, is it healthy for a nation to view its leader as an otherworldly and outlandish religious figure with little to nothing in common with the people he leads?
There is a more sinister aspect to the coronation: its reinforcement of the Church of England’s supremacy. In the Coronation, it is the monarch who is subservient to the Church, not the other way round. The Church is the stage, and the archbishops are the directors and scriptwriters. The King is an actor in what’s largely an Anglican PR exercise and display of power. He even swears an oath to the Church’s leader that he will maintain and uphold the Church of England and 'all such rights and privileges' of its bishops and clergy. Because of his duties to the church, the monarch is the only citizen in this country who has no religious freedom. He must be a confirmed Anglican; Catholics are specifically barred from the throne.
To add insult to injury, it is largely taxpayers, not the Church of England, who pay for the Coronation. It will cost us millions.
The Coronation isn’t even a constitutional necessity. Geoffrey Robertson KC called it 'a legal irrelevance'. Under the Act of Settlement 1701, Charles automatically became King as soon as Queen Elizabeth died. Not to mention that he already had an Accession Ceremony confirming his new status as King two days after his mother’s death. The purpose of that ceremony was largely for the King to make an oath to preserve the Church of Scotland and the 'true Protestant Religion'. Looming behind Charles as he signed his pledges were the archbishops of Canterbury and York – perhaps the Church of England’s not so subtle way of reminding Charles who’s the power behind the throne.
We have a word for a system of government where the state is subservient to religion: theocracy.
Many will balk at calling the UK a ‘theocracy’, a term we freely use for oppressive regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia. It’s certainly true that the UK has little in common with such nations. We are a democracy which cherishes human rights, equality and individual liberty, including the freedom to hold whatever religion or belief you wish. Indeed, that’s why the census reveals our population to have such a diverse range of religions and beliefs.
Yet it cannot be denied that the Church of England’s privileges as the established church sit very uneasily with democracy. And these privileges extend far beyond their sway over the head of state.
The Church of England is given 26 seats as of right in the House of Lords for its bishops. The bishops can, and do, use this position to further their agenda: opposing same-sex marriage, resisting greater access to reproductive healthcare, retaining the criminalisation of assisted dying, and making sure all state schools continue to be legally obliged to hold daily acts of Christian collective worship. Sittings in both houses of parliament even open with Anglican prayers.
No other religion or belief group can boast such privileges in parliament. And only one other country has clerics in its legislature: Iran.
Then there are the thousands of schools under the Church’s control. One third of England’s state-funded schools are faith schools, and the vast majority of these are Church of England. All are charged with the mission to make children into loyal little Anglicans – a mission they’re increasingly failing.
While we largely heathen masses will have to foot the bill for the Coronation, we should be under no illusion that this spectacle is for our benefit. Arguably, it’s not primarily for the monarch’s benefit either. It’s all about the Church of England – a minority religion within a minority. The Church’s own attendance figures last year revealed just 0.9% of England's population attend Sunday services; considerably smaller than the 46% of people who said they were Christian in the census.
Just as strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government, neither is strange men invoking a god which only a minority believe in to crown and anoint the head of state. If we want to be a grown-up, proper democracy in the 21st century, we must stop letting the Church using our state affairs to promote itself. You know something’s wrong when the surreal world of Monty Python looks rather like the world we’re actually in.