7 Liturgical Lessons From King Charles’ Coronation

COMMENTARY: Although an Anglican liturgy, the solemn service May 6 featured facets Catholics can pay attention to.

An anointing screen is erected for Britain's King Charles III during the Coronation Ceremony inside Westminster Abbey in central London on May 6, 2023.
An anointing screen is erected for Britain's King Charles III during the Coronation Ceremony inside Westminster Abbey in central London on May 6, 2023. (photo: Yui Mok / AFP/Getty)

The coronation of King Charles will likely be the most watched Christian liturgy of 2023, so it is good to understand it first on its own terms — the anointing of a priestly king, as King Solomon was anointed.

Yet there are also lessons to be learned for those who are not Anglican, nor citizens of those countries where Charles is the head of state. Herewith are seven lessons applicable to Catholics.

Primacy of the Word of God

A stirring moment occurred early in the coronation when the Right Rev. Iain Greenshields, moderator of the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, presented an ancient Bible to the king, saying, “Receive this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords.”

Given the value of many of the other things present at the coronation, it was a bold claim. The coronation ceremony gave due honor to the word of God, with many of the prayers explicitly biblical in their inspiration. An important part of the Anglican tradition is that its great anthems are usually settings of direct biblical texts, rather than hymn lyrics.

Catholics in recent decades have given greater attention and honor to the word of God; it was one of the lifetime legacies of the late Pope Benedict XVI. Yet the coronation can lead us to think whether the Bible appears in our churches as the “most valuable thing this world affords.”

The coronation service did stumble in regard to the biblical word by having Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, a practicing Hindu, read the Epistle from Colossians, which proclaims that Jesus is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of every creature: For by him were all things created, that are in heaven, and that are in earth, visible and invisible.”

Sunak should have been given another esteemed role. Sacred Scripture is not to be read like other literature; it requires assent, which is what is meant when Sunak said, “This is the word of the Lord.” It was not right to ask someone to proclaim what he does not believe.

Let the Ritual Speak

American civic religion is heavy on speech-making. Consider a presidential funeral, which is largely a series of eulogies; around that are wrapped a few prayers and hymns. There were no speeches at the coronation; King Charles said nothing aside from the ritual words. The archbishop of Canterbury did not extemporize words of welcome to Westminster Abbey, nor did he conduct a litany of gratitude at the end, thanking all those who worked so hard, from the florists to the flautists.

Catholic liturgical practice permits some latitude in this regard, which can be sagaciously employed, but chattiness can detract from the power of ritual. Some of the coronation prayers are centuries old; better to let them speak with their own power.

Hidden Mystery

The solemn moment of the king’s anointing was not only not televised, but was not even visible to those in the abbey, as decorative screens were deployed to reserve that moment for king, archbishop and God alone. It was remarkable that no one at all objected in the cataract of commentary on the coronation. To the contrary, the screening of the anointing struck all as heightening the experience.

Almost everything written about the British crown includes, at some point, the quotation from 19th-century constitutional scholar Walter Bagehot, that “its mystery is its life. We must not let in daylight upon magic.”

Daylight — or at least digital cameras — can go everywhere. That daylight was kept out of the anointing preserved its mystery. That is not only a constitutional lesson, but a liturgical one. The mystery is sometimes preserved by being hidden, as Eastern Catholics and the Orthodox do when they consecrate the Eucharist behind the iconostasis.

Precious Vessels

As between the simplicity of the young David, the shepherd king, and the glory of Solomon, the coronation opted unabashedly for the latter. Everything was ornate, even opulent, with bejeweled spurs and swords, vestments and vessels.

Balance is necessary in ordinary worship, but a coronation is not ordinary, and so balance was not sought. There is a lesson, though, for the vestments and vessels we use on more solemn occasions and in our great shrines and cathedrals. Simplicity has its place, but never shabbiness, and things that are too plain are simply that.

St. Francis of Assisi, who observed the most severe ascetical poverty, nevertheless demanded that his friars furnish vessels of gold and silver for the sacred liturgy.

At one point in the preparations for the coronation, Buckingham Palace suggested that members of the House of Lords would wear business suits instead of robes for the coronation. That went over poorly and was quickly dropped. Proper clothing is essential for public events, and suitable vesture is essential for liturgy.

Ad Orientem

The coronation was an ad orientem ceremony, with the king facing the high altar at the anointing and, afterward, during the liturgy of the Eucharist. No one nattered about Charles having his “back to the people”; it was evident that he was being anointed precisely so that he could lead his people toward God.

The Catholic Mass has been an ad orientem liturgy until the most recent reforms. It still remains the default of the Roman Missal. Eastern Catholics and Orthodox also preserve that practice. Our contemporary confusions and conflicts about ad orientem will eventually pass. The coronation showed that vast numbers of ordinary people take no offense at it.

The High Altar

Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby offered the Anglican Eucharist ad orientem at the high altar, but the coronation taught a poor lesson about the sacredness of the altar. Archbishop Welby made just a little space among all the various regalia to pray over the bread and wine.

Liturgies involving the British royal family do not usually include the Eucharist — the funerals for the late Queen Elizabeth and Duke of Edinburgh did not. The coronation includes the Eucharist as a holdover from its Catholic roots, but even then, communion was only received this time by the bishops and the king and queen.

The abandonment of the altar for the pulpit — when properly the latter finds its fulfilment in the former — means that the great Anglican high altars have become something of a grand shelf for decorations and regalia. That’s a pity and should be a reminder to Catholics that the altar is not a useful surface for various items, but a sacred place reserved for the Eucharist alone. Humble parish altars, and great cathedral altars alike, are no place for clutter.

Sacred Music

Finally, little need be said about the coronation music. It was sublime and glorious, both the great coronation anthems of Handel and the new commissions. The music was animated by the twin principles of beauty for ear and uplift for the soul. Sacred music, whatever form it takes, must inspire, not amuse. Anglicans tend be very good at that, a gift from the coronation to the entire Christian world.