By Zachary Guiliano
As soon as the liturgy for the Coronation of King Charles III appeared online, the usual Twitter debate took off. I was surprised to see how many English clerics objected to the introduction of “the Vow of the People.” It invites all those attending the service or watching online to make an oath to the Sovereign, and it appears to have replaced the traditional act of homage by Peers.
The objections of my co-religionists appear to be twofold: (1) that the oath is normally only required of officeholders in the United Kingdom, such as the military, the judiciary, parliamentarians, many civil servants, and ministers of the Church of England; (2) that this makes the Coronation a “participatory” event, instead of a spectacle to be watched and enjoyed.
The first objection is the weakest, and probably arises from ignorance. For example, it takes no notice of the fact that an oath to the sovereign is required at most naturalization ceremonies in the United Kingdom. When one becomes a “citizen” in this country, one becomes a royal subject. This act takes place alongside other things, including the submission of rather large fees and engagement in some admittedly dodgy preparation for acclimating to British society by preparing for the “Life in the UK Test.”
But the implication is clear: every British citizen is already by birth a subject of the monarch, who embodies the constitutional order of law and custom in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The oath may not have been formally taken by all citizens, but it is broadly assumed to be in play. Citizens have “paid in” to this society by their economic contributions; they are a reflection of its history and culture; the vast majority have given their assent to its overall order, even when they object vehemently to certain aspects of it. Hence, the foreigner (like me) must be formally brought into the bonds of affection and loyalty that sustain this Kingdom through an oath, a test, and a fee.
The oath is also required of officeholders, not because its substance was presumed absent in the past, but because of their unique public responsibilities, in which they too come to represent and concentrate visibly the overall political and spiritual settlement. Because their obedience is often more direct, and their behavior more bound by law and custom, the oath takes on a particular prominence. They are constrained in ways the public is not, just as the King is constrained in ways the average citizen is not. The oath of officeholders also arises out of the peculiar problem of the British settlement, in which the disruption of its monarchical order is far more prevalent in its history than many realize. (But that is a topic for another day, as is the general renewal of vows to monarchs that used to be required of many subjects in many countries at each new accession.)
The second objection is somewhat more complicated, and bears the traces of the peculiar state of British religion. There are a great number of uncommitted people who attend services of the Church of England, particularly on the high and holy days, on civic occasions, and at weddings, baptisms, and funerals. At least one train of thought in recent years has suggested that one reason “they” come is that relatively few demands are made of them. They may slip into a large cathedral, sit in the shadows, and engage as much or as little as they like.
This clearly is a significant constituency for the C of E — how large is a rather different question, and what its opinions might be is another. They’re not all at Evensong: some of them are coming as godparents to baptisms and suddenly find themselves renouncing the devil and submitting to Christ; others are promising to uphold couples in their marital vows; still others are receiving the Eucharist in large cathedrals or minister churches where it is simply impossible to know who they are. But they have had, among other things, opportunity to confess their sins, say the creed, and sing to God, as well as hear the Word. They’re not all passive spectators.
Mostly, though, I think that the participatory character of the Coronation is a reflection of our new times.
There is the change in format. Relatively few people saw the Coronation service in most past generations. The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was televised, but took place so long ago that most of its spectators are dead. And that was a time in which the idea of representation was rather different. We are more apt to speak for ourselves these days than to accept the idea that a small number of Lords and Ladies can speak for us. We have also experienced forms of participatory entertainment and public worship for ages: everything from reality TV and televised contests to livestreamed services.
There’s probably a deeper reason. No one observing the United Kingdom closely these days can ignore the near apocalyptic state of things. Food shortages, growing inequality, widespread discontent, ecological breakdown, dissatisfaction with nearly all governmental and public institutions — these are just some salient facts. We need to do something. And if we are going to reweave the bonds of society, we have to start somewhere, rather than just letting things drift.
That reweaving must be clear and conscious. It must take account of the past and offer a vision for the future. So, as you might expect in a kingdom, a Coronation offers a few opportunities for addressing such societal problems in a principled way. We may “forget all this as done for ever,” as the poet laureate John Masefield wrote in 1958 in “A Prayer for a Beginning Reign.” We may commit to changing things, not in defiance of all that is, but in a deeper hope for all that might be.
I, for one, will rejoice in the renewal of vows at the Coronation service on May 6, not least because I wrote a similar liturgy into the celebration service that will be held at Christ Church in Oxford the night before.
It won’t be because I’m ignorant of the problems plaguing Britain. It won’t be because I hold no critiques for the order of things. It won’t be because of an ignorance about how things were done in the past. It’s not even because I wake up every morning to think of myself as a monarchist — though like a good little cleric, I pray for the King daily.
It will be because of a hope that things really can be different.
The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is Interim Precentor at Christ Church Cathedral, and fellow and chaplain at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. He is the author of The Homiliary of Paul the Deacon: Religious and Cultural Reform in Carolingian Europe, which won the 2023 book prize of the Ecclesiastical History Society.
Please read Romans 8 KJV.