King Charles III: Protestant or Byzantine Emperor-Priest?

Saturday, May 6, 2023 was a big day for England, for the Church of England, for at least some Anglicans throughout the world, for royalists, and for those who believe in the Divine Right of Kings. The tension that stayed with me as I watched the liturgy with some friends early that morning was between two promises the King made early on and basically everything that followed. First, near the very beginning of the rite (the full text can be accessed here), the King makes the Coronation Oath. The third section of this includes the following question:

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?

Right after this, the King then makes the statutory Accession Declaration Oath:

I Charles 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, uphold and maintain the said enactments to the best of my powers according to law.

There is much that could be said about this, but I will leave that to others. What struck me, however, was the way that the rest of the rite contextualized what “Protestant” could mean in these oaths. There are at least two main ways in which what many people would assume the term “Protestantism” is brought into question. First, there are the choices of what variable items were included, and second, the actual content of the coronation ritual itself.

One variable parts of the rite is music. Immediately following the vow listed above, William Byrd’s setting of the Cranmerian collect, “Prevent us, O Lord in all our doings,” was sung, followed by one of Byrd’s settings of the Gloria in excelsis (from the ‘Mass for Four Voices’) and in Latin. As the official commentary notes, Byrd was a Catholic who continued to composes mass settings during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, and this is one of them. Byrd, of course, is one of the giants of the English polyphonic choral tradition. But he was writing music that was also an expression of non-conformity to the established liturgy. Thus, the choice of two Byrd pieces for the liturgy is noteworthy. To this, many other things could be noted: the use of the Augustine Gospel book at Gospel Procession, brought by St. Augustine when sent by St. Gregory the Great to English in 597; the profound reverence for the Altar such that the King and Queen never turn their back on it, including all three thrones being placed so that they face it.

The number of very un-Protestant features of the coronation rite itself are too many to discuss, but here’s just a few. First, the King venerated the Bible presented to him at the very opening of the liturgy with a kiss. This is actually listed in the rubrics, and yet strikes one as quite a catholic ritual action (I recall being told by a youth pastor that one should never confuse the content of the Bible with its physical instantiation and that there was nothing wrong with stepping on or tearing its pages). The singing of the Veni Creator Spiritus (in John Cosin’s beautiful translation which replaced the much inferior version by Cranmer in the 1662 revision of the Book of Common Prayer) just before the coronation rituals after the sermon, in an intention parallel to its use at ordinations, thus deepening the clear belief that the coronation is a sacral event.

Another feature was the consecration of the chrism used to anoint the king. There are a number of features about this that are noteworthy. First, the use of holy oils was removed from the English Prayer Books starting in 1552: it is not used in baptism, confirmations, or ordinations. Second, the blessing of material objects was extremely limited in the Prayer Book tradition, limited basically to just baptismal water. Often, prayers termed “blessings” are often just requests that this or that item would “be for us a sign” without ever requesting that the object be divinely blessed. And yet here, the traditional Western construction of formal blessings is utilized: “By the power of the same Spirit, bless and sanctify this oil…” Furthermore, the anointing itself is treated as so sacred that it is done behind a screen, hidden from view with the prayers said sotto voce by the Archbishop of Canterbury. The anointing prayer makes a direct connection between this anointing and that of Solomon by Zadok the Priest, thus making a clear claim that Charles III is king by divine appointment and is in a sacral line of all kings who have served by divine right, all the way back to David and Solomon.

    Maybe most significant, however, is that the anointing is followed by vestiture in obviously sacral clothing: first, the Colobium Sindonis, a monarch’s version of a priestly alb; then the Supertunica, which resembles a western tunicle or dalmatic, or an Orthodox deacon or subdeacon’s sticharion and fastened with a girdle; then, after more secular symbols are presented to the sovereign, a stole is given him and placed on him by the Bishop of Durham, after which a robe, which looks more like a western cope (less like an Orthodox phelonion), is placed over this all. Once this all took place, Charles was standing there looking for all the world like a Byzantine emperor-priest and make me think of an image in the ninth-century MS Vaticanus gr. 699 (fol. 58r) of Melchizedek, who (in Gilbert Dagron’s words) is “given given all the attributes characteristic of the Byzantine emperor: crown (stemma) with pendants (prependoulia), loros, tablion and boots which were surely purple in color. His pose in prayer attaches him to the lineage of the patriarchs or the saints” (Emperor and Priest, 179).

All of these are traditional features of ordination rites. But in the Prayer Book tradition, these features were excised: the giving of priestly items, save for the Bible; the anointing of the hands of the priest was removed; and the vesting of the priest in sacral clothing was removed (though some newer ordinals restored some of these items, or at least make them optional). And yet all of these items are retained in the coronation of the English monarch, who is the Head of the Church of England.

How are these circles squared? What are me to make of this? This is a great mystery (though it may go down easier with a spot of Yorkshire Gold).






15 responses to “King Charles III: Protestant or Byzantine Emperor-Priest?”

  1. Tom Cademartrie Avatar
    Tom Cademartrie

    “Profound reverence for the Altar such that the King and Queen never turn their back on it, including all three thrones being placed so that they face it” — was a profound reverence for the Altar manifest with the proliferation of things on it? The gifts of bread and wine faced some stiff competition.

    1. Matthew S. C. Olver Avatar

      True! But I do think it’s also fair to say that all of those items are given to the new sovereign with language that gives them a specifically Christian reading and symbolism plus historic communion vessels (i.e. the very large plates). Thus, it was not as if the altar was functioning as a “table to hold stuff” but as a sacral place upon which sacred items were placed to be given to the priest-king. Setting aside whatever one thinks about all of this, I don’t think the altar was being disrespected; but it would have been prudent to arrange things such that the central act for which it is there it not literally crowded by these other items (and room for a missal stand, anyone?).

      1. Ronald Franco Avatar
        Ronald Franco

        I believe the ritual regards the regalia as sacred objects. Indeed, the original (pre-1649) regalia would have been considered sacred relics of Saint Edward the Confessor. As sacred objects, they are rightly placed on the altar, from which they are given to the king (and to which they will be returned at the king’s interment). That is really very different from the 19th-century disrespect for the altar in St. Edward’s Chapel which Queen Victoria at her coronation said she found covered with sandwiches and bottles of wine!

  2. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
    Karl Liam Saur

    For people who forewent watching the service but might appreciate a view of the anointing segment of it, the ABC offers the segment in full, blissfully free of the anchor prattle than American networks feel compelled to add over any music:

    1. Scott Knitter Avatar
      Scott Knitter

      Thank you. And I was blessed to find the Royal Family’s YouTube channel, which has the full service with zero commentary as well.

  3. Ronald Franco Avatar
    Ronald Franco

    I think it is important to recognize the different origins of the coronation rite (including the anointings and the royal vestments) and the statutory Accession Declaration. The former derives from early medieval (obviously Catholic) religious rites which, because of their only occasional character and their connection with the sacral status of the king, largely survived the Reformation unchanged (albeit translated into English). The latter Declaration was only done at this coronation because there has not yet been a State Opening of Parliament by the new King. Had that occurred, he would have made his Accession Declaration then. The current formula, “I 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,” derives from an act of Parliament in 1910, in response to Edward VII’s and George V’s complaints about the older version which dated from the 1689 Glorious Revolution and required the King explicitly to repudiate certain Catholic doctrines and the Pope. The 20th-century version simply states that the King belongs to the religion required by law and will maintain the Protestant succession as required by law. This was explicitly written to remove the offense to Catholics (and, by extension, others).

    1. Fr Richard Duncan Avatar
      Fr Richard Duncan

      Edward VII was certainly sympathetic to Catholicism. There is even the suggestion that he converted on his deathbed.

  4. Edward Hamer Avatar
    Edward Hamer

    As I understand it the Accession Declaration Oath is laid down by an Act of Parliament – the King and the Anglican bishops were all reportedly a bit uncomfortable with it but they could not have changed it without new legislation. The passing of that legislation and the framing of a new oath might have raised a range of new problems, so they seem to have decided the stick with the current version but place it in such a decidedly un-Protestant context that its strict meaning was softened.

    I think the King gave Welby a bit of a look after making the oath, but alas the camera did not linger.

    1. Peter Haydon Avatar
      Peter Haydon

      The Catholic contribution included that of former students of Worth School, a Benedictine school in Sussex. You may have spotted General Sir Patrick Sanders as head of the British Army proudly carrying the Queen Consort’s sceptre down the aisle of Westminster Abbey at the Coronation, as well as calligrapher Ewan Clayton’s cypher design for Queen Camilla adorning her throne, but another OW also played an important role in Coronation preparations. Tim Maile, as Master of the Worshipful Company of Wax Chandlers, presented the Dean of Westminster’s Verger with the candles for the chandeliers above the High Altar which burned brightly above the new King.

  5. Paul R. Schwankl Avatar
    Paul R. Schwankl

    In other words: Anglicanism–Protestant or Catholic?

    1. Karl Liam Saur Avatar
      Karl Liam Saur

      Well, if there’s one thing that the coronation service evinces, it that the answer to that question is: Protestant.

      1. Paul R. Schwankl Avatar
        Paul R. Schwankl

        Plainly that’s so for the Church of England, the historic center of the Anglican Communion. Its best-known attributes—having bishops and relying on Scripture and on the ecumenical creeds, but without subjection to any foreign bishop or patriarch—were established not by church synods but through acts of the British Parliament, as was very much on display when Charles took his oath. But since no other part of the Anglican Communion is constituted that way (right?), Anglicanism as a whole still seems pretty paradoxical.

    2. Anthony Hawkins Avatar
      Anthony Hawkins

      The CofE claims to be both Catholic and Reformed, does it not? I have never been to Evensong without being invited to profess belief in ‘ the holy catholic church’

      1. Jeff Armbruster Avatar
        Jeff Armbruster

        “I have never been to Evensong without being invited to profess belief in ‘ the holy catholic church’”

        I’ve always taken this to mean the ‘catholic’ Church in the expansive sense. There are believers in all denominations, as well as those who fall short. Even among Methodists there are some few who will qualify when the time comes! ***

        ***kidding of course with this last.
        edit: wait I mean Methodists are loved by God, not that no Methodists are part of the true Church

        double edit: Anthony may have been speaking with his tongue in his cheek.

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