A view of the flowers to be used at Westminster Abbey for King Charles' coronation A view of the flowers to be used at Westminster Abbey for King Charles' coronation  (PA)

Cardinal Nichols: Coronation of King Charles III is ‘profoundly Christian’

The Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster reflects on the significance of the coronation of King Charles III of the United Kingdom and the various Christian and ecumenical elements of the ancient liturgical ceremony.

By Cardinal Vincent Nichols – London

The opening words of the Coronation of King Charles III on Saturday, 6 May, in Westminster Abbey, are most revealing. A chorister speaks first, saying: “Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings” and King Charles replies: “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.”

The ceremony that then follows is profoundly Christian in every sentiment and action, combining history with innovation, action with word, music with silent prayer.

I am told that in the archives of Lambeth Palace there are records of the coronations of kings and queens reaching back to the eleventh century.

There are four consistent elements to these coronations: the anointing of the monarch, the crowning, the giving of the sword of justice and the reception of Communion. All these elements are present at this Coronation, embellished by many other traditional actions including the handing over of the Orb and Sceptre and other items of regalia. This is a ceremony expressive of the richness of tradition and therefore of continuity and stability.

But it is also full of innovations, complementing the traditional with elements expressive of the changes in British society today.

Representatives of other religions have a part to play, handing over the items of regalia. Newly composed choral music is to be heard, sung in the different languages of these islands. People from all walks of life have been invited together with leaders from so many different nations. The full range of Christian denominations are present and some have a speaking part to contribute.

At the end of the proceedings, just before leaving the Abbey, the King will be greeted by the religious leaders of other religions who address him “as neighbours in faith” and receive his acknowledgement in return.

The history of these lands is profoundly marked by our religious history. Until the sixteenth century, the coronation was Catholic. For the last four hundred years it has been a service of the Church of England and it remains so.

But this time many aspects of the event reflect and strengthen the utterly changed relationships between our two churches.

As it is known, Pope Francis presented to King Charles a relic of the true cross of Christ. This relic has been fashioned into a silver cross which will be carried at the head of the first procession on Coronation day.

The Pope will be represented at the Coronation by His Eminence Cardinal Parolin, [Vatican Secretary of State] accompanied by the newly appointed Papal Nuncio to the United Kingdom, His Excellency Archbishop Maury Buendia.

The ceremony itself contains many indications of its Catholic origins: the singing of the Kyrie, the Veni Sancte Spiritus, the Te Deum and the Gloria, in a setting written by William Byrd for recusing Catholics in the sixteenth century.

As Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, I have been invited to contribute to the blessing of the newly crowned King, an innovation which is a further step towards the healing of our common ancient wounds.

Our history is indeed one of division and this too is evident in this Coronation. Central to its tradition is the taking of an oath by the King, before he is anointed and crowned. He does so in response to the questions: “Will you do the utmost of your power to maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion, established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolable the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England?”

Then the king takes what is called “the statutory Accession Declaration Oath”. King Charles has recently said that he takes this oath as a fully committed and devout member of the Church of England.

He also said that while this solemn duty is his constitutional obligation, there were other duties he has, less solemnly expressed but also sincerely fulfilled. He explained that these are his duty to maintain the practice of religious freedom in the United Kingdom and its welcome to people of other and all religious faiths.

In one of the most important innovations of this Coronation, the King prays publicly, for all to hear. This prayer follows immediately the taking of the Oath. The King prays: “Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and conviction, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

During this Coronation, then, the complexities of British life, in its history, its traditions, its modern changes and transformation will be clearly expressed. But this is thoroughly and faithfully an expression of Christian faith and hope.

Prayer is at its very heart, from the silent prayer offered by the King before the high altar at its opening, a prayer placed there so as to express King Charles' wish to make it clear that his first allegiance is to God, through the public prayer he will proclaim, then the anointing with Chrism, the blessings and the celebration of the Holy Communion.

Anyone watching will be in no doubt that Christian faith and hope are in the foundations of our life.

I am told that, excluding the Vatican City State, there is only one other state in the world that installs its Head of State with a religious ceremony.

Here it is our long-standing tradition, and it contributes solidly to the sense of identity and continuity of this complex modern society and to all that we bring to the wider world.

May God bless King Charles.

File photo of Cardinal Nichols
File photo of Cardinal Nichols

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05 May 2023, 15:00