Sermon, Easter II, (Coronation Series I) Low Sunday 16 April 2023 – the Vicar

“Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, which according to his abundant mercy hath begotten us again unto a lively hope by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, To an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that fadeth not away, reserved in heaven for you.” I Peter 1: 3.

This promise encapsulates rather beautifully the hope of Easter.

St Peter continues:

Now for a season, if need be, ye are in heaviness through manifold temptations: That the trial of your faith, being much more precious than of gold that perisheth, though it be tried with fire, might be found unto praise and honour and glory at the appearing of Jesus Christ.

On the one hand the suffering in imitation of Christ of the Christian martyrs – who have been purged like gold in the fire, is brought to mind in this reading, and in today’s Gospel, with the various greetings of Peace by the risen Christ, we are called to think about the gift of Peace.

The references to both gold and peace are springboards to discussion of the Coronation.

I thought over the next four Sundays, the three before and the one after the Coronation, we might look at the Coronation Rite. It is quite long, in some ways quite dense, but very special.

The service has 17 episodes, and within each one we find various processions, gestures and actions.

I hope it will be helpful to go through each to make Christian sense of what could be a right Royal pageant, but in fact is something far richer and more mysterious. I use that word with care because the Greek word mysterion is translated as sacrament, and for several hundred years from about 1000 AD there was those that viewed the Coronation rite as the 8th sacrament.

Just very briefly, this will be the shape of the four studies we shall do:

  1. The first part of the service which includes the Introit, Recognition, Oath and gift of the Bible. I will also look at the architectural context of the service, in the Abbey, and the design of the building.
  2. The beginning of the Eucharist proper, and the readings used. We will also begin to look at issues of anointing and coronation and the vesture worn.
  3. The Sunday before the service is our Patronal festival and our preacher will make reference to St Mark our Patron, and explore issues of Kingship and the regalia in terms in which we find them in his Gospel. We will use extended prayers of blessing, which were commended in 1953 and which tell of the symbolism of the regalia – this reminds us that material things speak of spiritual realities.
  4. The day after the Coronation, as we celebrate this rite, there will be an overview of what has taken place and what it might mean for our generation.

Henry III redesigned the Abbey, which sat more or less on the foundations of the Edward the Confessor’s church, which was finished in 1065. By then the Confessor had been canonised, and his royal tomb was rebuilt as an ornate shrine of a saint. The High Altar of the Abbey, the Tomb which sat behind it, the pavement before it and even Henry III’s tomb, were covered in 1268 in the most ornate and beautiful Cosmatesque mosaic.

The intricacy of the work and the quality and variety of the stones and materials used, all combine to suggest the connection between Westminster Abbey, Rome (the Abbey Church’s dedication to St Peter is part of this), and the place of Coronation, before the Shrine of St Edward. The central roundel of the swirling design is central point of the cosmos – here it is the King is anointed and crowned. Allusions to the Temple in Jerusalem compound intensify the symbolism further, and are designed to leave the faithful speechless before this work of wonder.

In the Abbey, the sovereign takes his place successively on three chairs in order. Their chair of estate, their place for the beginning of the rite. The Coronation Chair, which while grand is not really a throne, its origins are that of a bench, where now the anointing and crowning take place. This sits right in the middle of the pavement – where in the design heaven and earth meet. The final chair is the actual throne which sits between the transepts in what has always been called “The Theatre”. Theatre – less in the sense of drama and more a place to be seen, where actions happen. Henry III designed the abbey to have tiered seating, and the throne itself to be as high as 13 feet, so the lower tiers and the throne itself were almost at the same level. There is something of heaven and earth meeting once again at the enthronisation, about which I will say more on another occasion.

So much for the context of the Coronation rite.

What about the first three key episodes.

Just before the King arrives the choir will sing the Litany, which we sing here on the first Sundays of Advent and Lent. This long prayer of is a reminiscent of early Christian invocatory prayers. The one we use by Tallis is the composition of a life-long Catholic whose career in the Chapel Royal spanned the reigns of Henry VIII to Elizabeth I. It is hard to avoid hyperbole in relation to Tallis but he was a musical great, alongside whom the younger William Byrd would also excel. To some extent they are grandparents of the English choral tradition. They effect the transition of choral singing from its Latin pre-Reformation origins to the modern age. Arguably the Cathedral tradition of music making was one of the keenest brakes on whole-sale Reform in England, and thank God for that.

This is a nice segway into what comes next, the actual Introit, words from Psalm 122 I was glad when they said unto me. The words have been used as the Introit from 973 AD. They are the words of any pilgrim travelling up to Jerusalem. Parry set them to music in 1902 for Edward VII and they have been used ever after. The service begins with a crescendo, which seems hard to beat, and within that are the shouts of the scholars of Westminster School Vivat Rex Carolus. A blend of old and new, singing and shouting, praise and acclamation.

It is followed by an echo from Saxon precedent. The King stands forward of the altar on the Gospel candle side, as the Archbishop and the Great Officers of State go to the four corners of the compass in the Coronation Theatre to acclaim “Your undoubted King.” The onlookers reply “God save the King!” Saxon dynasties which had no primogeniture, this was the Accession Council, here that precedent is remembered. The King is reminded that his rule is of the people. The English tradition has always been wary of notions of divine right.

This is then underlined as the King takes his place in his Chair of Estate to have administered (once again by the Archbishop) the oath.

There are those who compare coronations to weddings, there is certainly a ring to be worn in due course, but like any solemn undertaking, and this is really more parallel to an ordination, the candidate must make that undertaking.

Sir, is your Majesty willing to take the Oath?

I am willing.

The Archbishop shall minister these questions; and The King, having a book in his hands, shall answer each question severally as follows:

Archbishop. Will you solemnly promise and swear to govern the Peoples of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of your Possessions and the other Territories to any of them belonging or pertaining, according to their respective laws and customs?

King. I solemnly promise so to do.

Archbishop. Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?

King. I will.

Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?

King. All this I promise to do.

Then the King arising out of his Chair, supported as before, the Sword of State being carried before him, shall go to the Altar, and make his solemn Oath in the sight of all the people to observe the premisses: laying his right hand upon the Holy Gospel in the great Bible (which was before carried in the procession and is now brought from the Altar by the Arch-bishop, and tendered to him as he kneels upon the steps), and saying these words:

The things which I have here before promised, I will perform and keep. So help me God.

Then the King shall kiss the Book and sign the Oath.

Politically, the wording of the Coronation Oath dates from the Coronation Oath Act of 1688, following the so-called Glorious Revolution at the end of the reign of James II.

The Coronation Oath was supplemented by the Accession Oath under the 1689 Bill of Rights Act, whose tone underlined the principles of the new regime. The 1689 Bill of Rights Act required the sovereign, to begin with at the Coronation and then later on accession, to swear that:

[I] do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God, profess, testify, and declare, that I do believe that in the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper there is not any Transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever…..

In 1910 this Oath was amended. King George V, and his father before him, felt very strongly that such incendiary anti-Catholic rhetoric risked utterly alienating their Roman Catholic subjects, at a time of heightened unrest in Ireland.

The amendment was considerably tempered and now reads:

I [here insert the name of the Sovereign] do solemnly and sincerely in the presence of God profess, testify, and declare that I am a faithful Protestant, and that I will, according to the true intent of the enactments which secure the Protestant succession to the Throne of my Realm, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

The Coronation Oath, therefore, has been a loaded text. Behind it is a history of vehement opposition to Kingship beholden to external power and Roman Catholic doctrine. This ecumenical age sees the coming together of peoples of faith, and a mutuality amongst Christians, in social action and witness, which the King’s role as Defensor Fidei stands for in a unique way.

Queen Elizabeth II said of the Church of England, in a speech in February 2012 at Lambeth Palace:

Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.

In 1953, there was then (shock-horror) an innovation at the Coronation.

For the first time, someone who was not a prelate of the Church of England got a solo-speaking part. The Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, got to hand the Bible to the Queen. Previously the Bible was presented after the Coronation and before the Coronation blessing. In 1953 it was decided, logically, it would be presented before the collect and readings.

There was a considerable discussion about this, and even a fair amount of hoity-toitiness. Archbishop Fisher began by saying the Moderator could hand the Bible, while remaining mute. Fisher perhaps afraid Celtic tones might spoil the uniformity of voice began obdurately to refuse the Moderator a speaking part, but he eventually stood down, and actually allowed the Moderator the simple and wonderful words, distilled from Bishop Compton’s rather longer original in 1689:

Here is Wisdom; (Rev 13: 8; Proverbs, constant search after Wisdom)
This is the royal Law; (James 2:8)
These are the lively Oracles of God. (I Peter 4: 11)

This innovation in 1953 was quite something then. It was clear it was only because of the monarch’s particular direct relationship with the Kirk, as we all saw at the Accession Council. There was firmness on the part of Fisher there was no warrant for other Church leaders either to be present or have any sort of role – it was not their service!

But the memory of that innovation has spelt a desire, openness and active interest in giving space not only to other Church leaders, but other faith communities and their clergy at this Coronation in 2023. So, something so distinctively Christian as the gift of our Scriptures has spelt the opportunity in a very different society now, for leaders of other faiths to be present at this Coronation.

The King’s particular interest in the related questions of Freedom of Religion, Interfaith Dialogue, and support for all people of faith, mean, it is clear he celebrates other faiths being represented, while not diluting his own very strong and deep faith. The day the date was announced, an invitation was issued to the Chief Rabbi to stay at Clarence House so he would be able to walk to the Abbey to be able to attend the Coronation.

Come back next week for the next thrilling instalment.

As we ponder the purging of the Church as gold is tested in the fire, spare prayers for the King and Queen in their self-offering. This is no easy task to which they are called and about which they have so little choice, other than to renounce, not easy either. Let us pray that we may know the gift of ultimate peace, shalom, the peace of the age and kingdom to come, which the risen Christ offers to those who follow him in faith.


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