By Benjamin M. Guyer
The coronation of Charles III was easily the most subversive event of my lifetime. If it is fair to say that the coronation was a political event, then the terms of its politics are fundamentally different from the agonal struggle that defines so much of democratic existence. Despite all of its pomp and circumstance, the recurrent theme of the coronation was divestment of power. We heard it in the Archbishop of Canterbury’s short sermon, which emphasized that the new king must, like Christ, seek to serve rather than be served; we saw it in the remarkable diversity of faiths, races, and languages invited to participate in this most explicitly Christian of liturgies.
But we most powerfully witnessed this holy subversion in the liturgical acts that immediately preceded the ceremonial anointing. The Church of England’s commentary on the coronation liturgy explains: “The King’s anointing sets him apart to fulfil a vocation and begin a new life as Sovereign, dedicated to the service of all.” To draw on much older lines of theology, consecration sets the consecrated object — or, in case, the consecrated subject — apart from all else, for a distinctly holy end. And yet, curiously but tellingly, the anointing did not begin with consecration.
Rather, the anointing began with disrobing. The political garments that the king wore upon entering Westminster Abbey had to be removed and set aside. The message of the liturgy here is quite clear. Unlike a secular president, a Christian king does not actually take office. Rather, he is set apart for office as a human stripped of all else. The anointing then happens to him.
It is impossible to ignore the incarnational content of this, one that goes back to the earliest strata of Christian faith. In Philippians 2:7, St. Paul writes,
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death — even death on a cross.
The technical term for Christ’s self-emptying is kenosis (hence my use of “kenotic” in the title of this essay). In the incarnation, God empties himself of divinity’s majesty by becoming human for the sake of our salvation.
Monarchy, like liturgy, makes the audacious claim that something of heavenly order may yet be mirrored on earth. It is therefore no accident in history that those who have opposed liturgy have opposed monarchy, too, for such rebellion is first and foremost metaphysical. In the act of disrobing, we are reminded of the uncomfortably Christian claim that even as divine order may be refracted by physical splendor (crowns, diadems, ceremonies), it is instantiated not in the exercise of power but in its loving abandonment.
Some readers (especially Americans, I wager) will read this and scoff. But compare the coronation with the political culture that surrounds American presidential elections. When the season of presidential debates is upon us, we witness our candidates shouting at one another like fools. Can anyone honestly claim that the American system has even an ounce of the dignity, aspiration, or depth that we just witnessed? Charles III spoke little during the coronation, but all that he said mattered immensely. So too, when election night hits, the American people collectively embark in dire, angst-driven speculation and hand-wringing. Where is heaven found on earth then? But the coronation did not leave citizens on edge; it invited them to celebrate.
Long live the king. Long live the symbolism that has made him what he now is. Like every one of his predecessors, Charles III will be judged by the profound content of his liturgically articulated promises and deeds. May we, who will also be judged, aspire to the same.
Dr. Benjamin M. Guyer is a lecturer in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Tennessee at Martin. He is the author of How the English Reformation was Named: The Politics of History, 1400-1700 (Oxford University Press, 2022).
Comparing the UK king to US politicians is offbase, to say the least. UK polticians, ach as the candidates for Prime Minister, shout, chest thump, and even lie boldly jusd as in the US. Yet often get good things done, despite getting many bad things done. According to the UK constitution the monarch is the dignified aspect of governance and the PM/Parliament is the effective aspect (getting things done, dealing with the nitty ghriity of adversarail politics). The closest the US has to the atempt at dignity in governance are the often misguided but sometimes wise Supreme Court, and most… Read more »