The combination of religion with politics can be a volatile mixture, and we Americans have a history of keeping them in separate spheres for fear of an explosion. But there are no such worries across the pond where this Saturday, Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor will be crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
After the act of coronation, the archbishop will, on behalf of the Church of England, swear his fealty to the king. Then all in Westminster Abbey, as well as the entire population under the jurisdiction of King Charles III, will be invited to speak aloud or silently the same statement of fealty.
The Anglican Church, the mother church of the Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopalian Church in America), is officially under the rule of the King of England and not the Archbishop of Canterbury. This has been the case ever since King Henry VIII created the Church of England out of the ancient Church in England.
Those of us looking at the coronation from the outside, both ethnically and religiously, may have an easier time seeing the irony of this weekend’s events, especially as they relate to the checkered history of English monarchs and their ecclesiastical standing over the past five centuries.
Once he is crowned, Charles…Mountbatten-Windsor will be granted the following title: Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of His other Realms and Territories King, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.
It is that last bit that stands apart from the rest. The association of a British monarch with the title Defender of the Faith has a long history going all the way back to 1507 when Pope Julius II conferred the title upon the King of Scotland, James IV. For an English ruler, the title dates from the reign of Henry VIII who, nine years before his break with Rome, was honored by Pope Leo X as Defender of the Faith in recognition of his theological treatise In Defense of the Seven Sacraments.
Despite breaking away from the Catholic Church, Henry decided to keep the title bestowed upon him by the pope. This decision seems a bit odd, especially considering that upon making himself the head of the Anglican Church, Henry divorced Queen Catherine and then married Anne Boleyn five days later. One might want to ask Henry how this series of events would be seen within the context of his book’s chapter on the Sacrament of Matrimony, but maybe only if one wanted to end up like Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher: having their heads separated from their shoulders at the request of the Defender of the Faith.
The fact that Bishop Fisher was the only English ecclesiastic to stand up to the king and proclaim the illicit nature of both the break with Rome and the divorce and remarriage says volumes about how much Faith there was to defend in the hearts of the other bishops.
Thomas Cranmer was installed by Henry as the first Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury and thus began the fealty that will be on display at Westminster this Saturday.
But there will be a new wrinkle in the ceremony, and it will include members of other religious traditions besides those in the Anglican Church. Charles has not only a personal preference for what is called High Church Anglicanism or an Anglicanism that has maintained many of the liturgical traditions of its Catholic heritage but also has an interest in other faiths, especially in Eastern Orthodoxy. For that reason, he considered changing his title to Defender of Faith, losing the definite article in deference to a more inclusive vision of his role.
The “the” remained, but clergy from other religions were invited to lend their voice and support to their king during the blessing after the coronation. The list of prelates includes a Greek Orthodox Archbishop and representatives of the Protestant “free churches” (those other than the official Anglican Church) and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.
The Cardinal Archbishop will pronounce these words just prior to the closing benediction by the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury:
“May God pour upon you the riches of His grace, keep you in His holy fear, prepare you for a happy eternity, and receive you at the last into immortal glory.”
Any person of goodwill, including a Catholic of Irish lineage, should be able to - without any irony - pray those same words for the newly crowned King of England. Let us also pray that Charles and all world leaders will come to see, with the grace of God, that recourse to holy fear is our only hope for peace in a world drenched in the blood of endless wars.