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).