Magnificent is not a word to be used lightly, but if any occasion was magnificent, it was the coronation of King Charles III on Saturday. The jewels, the costumes, the pageantry, the ceremonial, the music, the choreography, the traditions, the attention to detail – it was all magnificent.
And expensive. One can question whether it was worthwhile spending hundreds of millions of pounds – how much exactly has not been disclosed – on this “flummery and mumbo-jumbo” for a septuagenarian couple .
I expected no less, given the legendary British prowess at organising such events. For the Royal family, the splendid ritual helps to protect its status as an endangered species; for the United Kingdom, it is global marketing for its traditions and prestige.
But what impressed me most was not the magnificence, but the deep Christianity of the event. The coronation took place within an Anglican liturgy which can be traced back to the early centuries of Christianity. Its ancient roots were underscored when the King kissed the precious copy of the St Augustine Gospels, one of the oldest books in existence. It was brought to England by St Augustine of Canterbury from Rome in 597, where Pope Gregory the Great had presented them to him. The doctrine of the divine right of kings to rule vanished long ago, but in Westminster Abbey there persists the conviction that kings have a divine duty to serve.
In my ignorance, I had always thought of Prince Charles as a woke tree-hugger. But to my surprise, it was he who made some pious additions to the coronation liturgy. He introduced a declaration that he is the servant of his people. The order of service notes that “behind the pageantry lies another message … our King commits himself, through prayers and oaths, to follow the Lord he serves in a life of loving service in his role as Monarch.”
Charles was greeted to Westminster Abbey by a young chorister who said: “Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings.” To which Charles replied: “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve.”
And then, after promising to be a “faithful Protestant” and “to maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof”, the King offered his own prayer, possibly the first time, according to the official commentary, “that such a personal prayer has been voiced so publicly by the Sovereign”.
God of compassion and mercy
whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve,
give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth.
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.
“Servant leadership” is a buzzword in contemporary management theory. The idea is that executives should see their position as a way to look after and nurture their employees and colleagues, rather than merely to seek more profit, power and prestige for themselves. Its fans claim that it leads to more profit, power and prestige for the organisation.
Groucho Marx is reputed to have said: “In politics, sincerity is everything. Once you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” No doubt the same could be said of “servant leadership”. But I think that Charles was being sincere. Inspired by the example of Christ, this faithful Protestant believes that “to serve is to reign”.
Not all the Royals live by that philosophy, as the dreary adventures of Prince Harry and Prince Andrew have demonstrated. Will Charles? Who knows? But it is a noble aspiration.
And an aspiration which is probably peculiar to Christian monarchs. “I come not to be served but to serve” is not the polestar of most leaders, especially not most politicians.
According to the 2021 census, Christianity has become a minority religion in England and Wales. Fewer than half of the population, only 46 percent, described themselves as “Christian”, down from 59 percent in 2011. Militant secularists were cock-a-hoop at the prospect of casting off the fetters of Christian culture.
The coronation is a warning that when Christianity evaporates, so will those noble aspirations. A post-Christian world in which kings, presidents, prime ministers, CEOs no longer aspire to be servant leaders will be even harsher and less forgiving than the one we now live in.