King Charles III’s coronation is an opportunity to unite the country in pursuit of a common purpose
Thanks to my wife’s ardently royalist grandmother, we inherited coronation memorabilia, mugs and souvenir brochures. For years neglected at the bottom of a drawer, suddenly they are being handed round.
They are a bit of family history and they are also strange to me, coming from a world I did not know. There is a copy of Picture Post magazine, describing how different people plan to spend the day of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation. A gatekeeper will watch at Hyde Park Corner and Emrys Hughes, the “whimsical” MP for South Ayrshire at the time, insists he will be working on domestic policy – gardening.
It is a sixpence magazine called Everybody’s that gives me particular pause. Here is evidence that it is a long time since our last coronation. In 1953 a nation still shared a story. Everybody’s chose this edition to run a story of the sinking of the Tirpitz. There was an article on regimental colours, symbols of a way of life never to be surrendered to “savages”. Everybody’s noted the Archbishop of Canterbury’s affection for his days at Repton. There was a lot about cricket. The shared story has a “them against us” feel, but it was still assumed that we knew ourselves.
It really matters that elements of coronation are familiar and fixed
A coronation asks us if we know ourselves and our relationships. That is why a coronation is always historic. At a coronation we turn the page, suddenly we are no longer Elizabethans. Stamps and coins alter. As we begin something new we reach for the reassurance of custom and established liturgy. One of the things the coronation does is to remind us that we have done this before and we will do it again. Ever since Duke William of Normandy set a throne over the coffin of Edward the Confessor, we have assembled in the Abbey to manage what could so easily be an awkward moment. We make change historic and so make it tame.
Putting down Everybody’s, I go to the Abbey galleries and consult the 14th century Liber Regalis, the benchmark for coronation for 300 years. It is still authoritative. It really matters that elements of coronation are familiar and fixed.
Coronations are necessarily historic, but Everybody’s reminds us that coronations also belong to a particular moment. In 1953, there was a shared experience of war that made it possible to talk about national identity. There was also an eager desire for something fresh, youthful and bright. There was a particular mood and a known conversation. Coronations are indeed historic, they are also fundamentally contemporary.
Coronations change, they must, reformation and revolution demand fresh words. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, in 1547, and William Sancroft, in 1685, shifted our description of monarchy. In 1953, as Everybody’s noticed, there was another radical act of re-imagination. “The moderator makes history”, the magazine claimed, as it explained that the moderator of the Church of Scotland presented the Bible to the monarch.
Seventy years later, we approach this coronation afresh. When the moment comes, will we know ourselves? The narrative is very different now. In 2023, we will not – cannot – exchange shared wartime stories. We talk of difference and diversity more than we speak of shared memory. We debate ideas of heritage and nation intensely, we notice that we cannot assume shared faith. That means there are new demands on us as we try to find some purchase in historic and Christian liturgy. We assemble in all our diversity, with our different histories and assumptions and we will have work to do.
The coronation challenges us to find a place in the community of nation and Commonwealth. Whether we are at Hyde Park Corner or in the garden, this moment and this service questions our will to live together and find some common purpose. The coronation changes, but can we?
The Very Reverend Dr David Hoyle, Dean of Westminster
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