Coronations will always be a time to rededicate the nation
By Ian Bradley
When Geoffrey Fisher, having presided as Archbishop of Canterbury over the last coronation, solemnly announced that, on June 2, 1953, England had been brought closer to the kingdom of heaven, he was expressing a widely held view.
For two Left-leaning sociologists, Edward Shils and Michael Young, the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was nothing less than "an act of national communion".
More than any other national institution or event, the coronation service underlines the divinity that, as Shakespeare so rightly observed, hedges around the monarchy. Packed with religious symbolism and imagery, it provides a particularly intense experience of communal sacred ritual.
In the absence of a written constitution, the coronation service carries another very important layer of meaning, providing the nearest that we have to an assertion of national values and ruling principles – the kind of statement that, in other countries, lies in the preamble to the constitution. This is especially true of the coronation oath, in which the monarch promises to govern the peoples of his or her realms according to their laws and customs and to cause law and justice, in mercy, to be executed in all his or her judgments.
At their coronations, kings and queens are not simply crowned and enthroned, but consecrated, set apart and anointed, dedicated to God and invested with sacerdotal garb and symbolic insignia. At the heart of every coronation in England for more than 1,000 years has been the act of anointing the new monarch with holy oil, a ritual directly based on the anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet.
Not all monarchs have taken their coronations as seriously as they should. Dunstan, abbot of Glastonbury, was appalled that after the anointing of King Edwy in 955 "the lustful man suddenly jumped up and left the fitting company of his nobles for the caresses of loose women". Dunstan and another cleric had to drag the king back and replace the crown which he had thrown on the floor. King John apparently laughed throughout his coronation, Richard II fell asleep (excusable, since he was only 10) and George IV periodically winked to his mistress, Lady Conyngham.
Several coronations have been marred by disasters and mishaps. During the crowning of William I, the Norman cavalry outside Westminster Abbey mistook the shout of acclamation inside for a riot and proceeded to massacre a group of Saxons. The oil used to anoint Elizabeth I was rancid and during James II's coronation the royal standard flying over the Tower of London tore in two.
Victoria was left in considerable pain after the Archbishop of Canterbury shoved her coronation ring on to the wrong finger, and was shocked to find the altar of St Edward's Chapel covered in bottles and sandwiches when she withdrew there after the anthem.
In general, however, British coronations have enhanced both the spiritual aura surrounding the monarchy and the nation's sense of its identity. Shils and Young observed that the 1953 coronation was frequently spoken of as an "inspiration" and a "re-dedication of the nation". The ceremony had ``touched the sense of the sacred" in people, heightening a sense of solidarity, and encouraging the affirmation of common moral values such as generosity, charity, loyalty and justice.
Fifty years on, academic sociologists are more likely to extol the benefits of secular republicanism than sacred monarchy. Is it possible that future coronations will carry anything like the level of metaphysical meaning or constitute the great national act of communion witnessed in 1953? We are a much more secular society now and significantly less touched by a sense of the sacred. We are also much more pluralistic. Can the country as a whole still collectively be touched by an intensive contact with the sacred such as Shils and Young argued was achieved by the coronation of 1953, and can a future coronation be left to the Church of England to stage-manage?
Two significant royal events in recent years encourage a positive answer to both these questions. In their very different ways, the funerals of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother last year touched the nation deeply. Both had at their centres the traditional ritual and liturgy of the Church of England. It is true that the public mourning for Diana in particular also inspired the piling up of flowers, candles and other votive offerings around the London palaces and parks.
Even in this respect, however, the mourning rituals being acted out were essentially medieval rather than modern in character. The Queen Mother's lying-in-state in Westminster Hall evoked an even more medieval atmosphere, with the officers of the Life Guards standing at each corner of the catafalque.
Can an essentially medieval coronation service still speak meaningfully to people? Is there any room in a modernised, 21st-century monarchy for anointing with sacred oil and investiture with bracelets, spurs, orb and sceptre? In fact, the symbols and language of medieval chivalry that pervade the coronation may speak particularly powerfully to the up-coming generation.
Those brought up on Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings are well aware of the potency of magic and the epic quality of the quest for justice, truth, service and sacrifice symbolised in precious objects. Let us not throw out the wonderful pageantry and imagery of the coronation at a time when we are re-discovering the value of the iconic and the symbolic.
The acts of anointing, investing and crowning the new monarch should continue to lie at the heart of future coronations, which should take place in Westminster Abbey, although with much more ecumenical participation. But there are other elements that we should consider detaching from future coronation services. The enthronement of, and act of homage to, the next monarch could be made the central features of a new inauguration ceremony held outside London.
Somewhere with a notably diverse population, substantial minority faith communities and strong Commonwealth links, such as Bradford, would be particularly suitable as the venue for such a ceremony, celebrating the unifying presence of the monarchy and its role as defender of faith and guardian of the traditions of tolerance and openness which are fundamental to the British character.
As we celebrate the Queen's coronation today, it is surely not too early to be thinking how the next coronation, whenever it comes, can best retain its spiritual character and sacramental heart, speak symbolically and relevantly of the deepest values of our nation and act as a healing and unifying force.
Ian Bradley is Reader in Practical Theology and Church History at the University of St Andrews. His book God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy is published in paperback next week by Darton, Longman & Todd