The Daily Telegraph
In the royal ceremonies we realise our beliefs
The lying-in-state of Queen Elizabeth, her coffin covered by the royal standard upon which rested the Imperial State Crown, made an argument hard to reduce to words. It argued for a constitutional monarchy and the ancient conventions surrounding it. Millions of people this week have quietly taken part in recognising that reality.
In religion, an old saw says: lex orandi lex credendi
– the law of prayer is the law of belief. In other words, prayers and liturgy express implicit meanings behind them. Perform the rites and you learn what you believe.
Something similar operates in state ceremonial. I know that traditions are reinvented, and that the lying-in-state in Westminster Hall is little over a century old. But it incorporates remarkably old elements. In the Imperial State Crown, for example, is the sapphire of St Edward, said to have been part of the coronation ring of King Edward the Confessor, who came to the throne in 1042.
It is not too soon now, before Queen Elizabeth is even buried, to consider the coronation of King Charles. There is antiquity here too, the inheritance of which should not be thrown away. The motet Zadok the Priest,
for example, has been sung at every coronation since 973, for King Edgar. The words are based on the First Book of Kings (1:38): “Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced and said: God save the King! Long live the King! God save the King!”
The words were taken by Handel for his setting in 1727, which makes them stirring stuff indeed. But then came a rearrangement of the music in 1992 as a theme for the Champions’ League, and that is how many now recognise it. It is the same as the William Tell Overture meaning for a generation of television viewers The Lone Ranger.
That is how tradition can be subverted innocently enough. An example of convention suddenly changing is the applause that broke out in Whitehall and Horse Guards as the Queen’s coffin passed. It was meant respectfully, but it was odd. I suspect that there is no resisting it. A worse kind of subversion is the invention of a rival piece of ritual. We saw it at the opening of the London Olympics in 2012. In a way it was a sort of pageant, but I didn’t care for it. It seemed to make Britain an avatar of the National Health Service. A sequence was performed on a giant hospital bed. Was that the deepest expression of the country’s identity? It wasn’t even as if the NHS was doing terribly well, and it has done worse since.
It is that sort of freewheeling invention that I had feared for the next Coronation. Some of my fears have been assuaged by the words of King Charles. He had once spoken of being the defender of faiths, rather than the faith of the Church of England implied by the abbreviations found on our coinage: FID DEF – fidei defensor. In his first address on coming to the throne, King Charles called the Church of England “the church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted”.
The Coronation takes place within the service of Holy Communion (even if films from 1953 omit images of Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh receiving the Sacrament, as they did).
Sometimes I find the Church of England annoying. Who doesn’t? But I’d rather have it as the Established Church than not. Just as Muslims and atheists came to the coronation in 1953, so should citizens from many religions take part in the next Coronation. But as the godly anointing of the head of state and supreme governor of the Church of England, the Coronation must retain the Christian elements that define it.