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A right royal reckoning

The coronation is so overwhelmingly religious it risks diminishing the monarchy.

india Updated: May 31, 2013 21:33 IST
Simon Jenkins
Simon Jenkins

Don’t wait. Do it now. Long live the Queen, but Sunday’s 60th anniversary of her coronation is a good moment to review this strange ritual. Better to get a new version in place than to have a dreadful last-minute squabble come the day.

Hereditary monarchy is the fashion by which Britons at first ruled and then “embodied” their nation state. Few would nowadays start from there, but we are not starting, just continuing. Monarchy enjoys the overwhelming support of the British people. If asked to elect a has-been politician or passing celebrity as president, they would opt for monarchy. Since the crown has no power, the fitness for office, behaviour or beliefs of the monarch are not a consideration, except insofar as they might affect popular support. All that matters is the fact of an uncontestable bloodline.

Admittedly the rules of this game do change to sustain the mores of the day. In 1917 the royal family thought it wise to change its name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor. Edward VIII was compelled to abdicate in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a divorcee. The present Prince of Wales was able to divorce and go on to marry a divorcee, who surely must be allowed to be his queen. The eldest child of either sex can now be first in line to the throne. These spring cleanings have little to do with fitness for office.

So what of coronation? Last month the queen of the Netherlands transferred her office to her son in a civil ceremony, held in her palace in the presence of cabinet ministers. The new king was not crowned and, apart from donning a fur-trimmed red cape, wore morning dress. There was no crowning and no religious component to the ceremony, though it was followed by a church service. The new king said he was not a “protocol fetishist”.

The Queen’s 1953 coronation, to be reprised many times on television this weekend, now seems medieval in its costumes and ritual. The Queen is serene and vulnerable, flanked by fussing bishops and ranks of hereditary peers, symbolising the legitimacy of inherited office. The conferring of state headship is an exclusive Anglican ritual, steeped in the Henrician Reformation. At the critical moment, a canopy conceals the act of anointment, by a priest not a civil official. Succession is sanctioned and blessed by God, with a staged cry of assent from the congregation. The Queen is bonded to her country and people by supernatural compact.

To most people this must seem archaic and odd. To anthropomorphise the state is one thing. To invest the holder with sacred significance suggests the priest-kings of the orient. The coronation oath — to promote peace, equity and mercy — may nowadays be devoid of political significance, since breaking it would be meaningless. But to render the ceremony so overwhelmingly religious risks diminishing its status in the eyes of modern citizens.

The Prince of Wales has mooted the epithet “defender of faith” in preference to “defender of the faith”. The concept of a head of state as a “defender” of any sort of faith is uncomfortable in an age when religion is again acquiring a habit of militancy.

What does matter is the contract between the head of state and the people of the nation. This contract is a symbol of stability and continuity. It is the fount of citizenship and focus of military loyalty. The transfer of monarchical office should be in the seat of representative democracy — parliament — and not a church. In an ever more secular nation, civil partnership must be in the royal family’s best interest.

The Guardian

First Published: May 31, 2013 21:32 IST