The night before the new sovereign was anointed, I joined a “Mass for the Coronation of King Charles III & Queen Consort Camilla” held in every parish in England and Wales at the request of the Catholic bishops. We prayed for the newly minted if aging monarch—that he “may continue to grow in every virtue…be preserved from every harm”—and learned that through this eucharistic celebration we pledged our loyalty to him. This was not so unusual, our parish priest reminded us in his homily, for “Catholics have a very strong loyalty to the Crown.” Even in the dark days between 1534 and 1680, he added, the Catholic martyrs of the Reformation period went to the gallows expressing their affection for, and loyalty to, the monarchs who had put them to death.
True, of course; but the fact that this had to be pointed out showed how unusual this was. The post-Communion hymn was weirdest of all. Not everyone was happy to sing “God save our gracious King.” “Never once heard the national anthem sung in a Catholic church, in a lifetime of going to Catholic churches in every part of the UK,” tweeted Raymond Friel OBE, who runs Caritas, the official national body coordinating Catholic charities. It wasn’t personal; Friel had been awarded the OBE by King Charles. But he spoke for many Catholics when he said he was “uneasy at the prospect.”
These feelings never arose at the last coronation seventy years ago, when Catholics were offside spectators. In those days, a Catholic could not step into a Protestant church, let alone join a coronation service. The only non-Anglican minister in Westminster Abbey in 1953 was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland, who gave Elizabeth II the Bible on which she swore her oaths. Now the Catholic Church in England and Wales is one of the twenty-seven “privileged bodies” allowed to offer a “loyal address” to the monarch, as Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, did at King Charles’s accession last year. And he was in the Abbey on May 6, startling in scarlet, alongside various ecumenical representatives—Greek Orthodox, Free Churches, and so on—to pray over the newly anointed and crowned monarch, that God pour on him “the riches of his grace” and “keep you in his holy fear.” Nichols was the first Catholic cardinal at the coronation of a monarch in these islands since Cardinal David Beaton presided at that of the infant Queen Mary of Scots in 1543. And Nichols wasn’t the only one. The Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, was representing Pope Francis, who had earlier gifted fragments of the True Cross for a “Cross of Wales” commissioned by King Charles for the Coronation.
It is hard to understand all this without the Queen’s 2012 address to faith leaders at the start of her Diamond Jubilee. The enlargement of the established church’s tent took place gradually during her reign, but this was the moment establishment itself was redefined. Standing in Lambeth Palace alongside the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, she told leaders of all the faiths and denominations that the point of this church recognized by the law as official “is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but “to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.” The Church of England, she said, “has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely,” and added: “Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society—more and more in active cooperation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
The significance of the remarks was mostly missed, but the faith leaders there took note, and the coronation service on May 6 was its fruit. Given that the 1688 Oath of Succession and 1701 Act of Settlement were intended precisely “to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions,” this was an ingenious reframing, one that allowed both church and monarchy to find a raison d’être and shared mission at a time when both institutions look ever more anomalous.