As the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla approaches, a subset of progressive opinion can’t help but vent disdain for the ancient ritual. Just Stop Oil is refusing to rule out disruptive action (we’re facing “civilisational collapse”, after all). A protester with the anti-monarchy group Republic told ABC News: “I think it’s a disgrace. To think this country is in a mess, and we’re spending out millions on a coronation.” A Guardian commentator sneered that if local cinemas show the coronation, it would mean “all the people who actually like that rubbish will all be in one place, and I’ll be able to go about my day unimpeded”.
While such animus is out of step with mainstream opinion, it’s clear that the coronation has lost its romance and even its meaning among much of the wider public. Two-thirds of respondents tell YouGov pollsters that they either don’t care very much or don’t care at all about the ceremony. Only 9% of Britons said they care “a great deal”, and that cohort tends elderly.
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Modern Britons may well ask: why do we find ourselves locked into a ritual — a religious ritual, to be precise — inherited from the ancient past? Even if some share the Christian faith that underpins rituals like the coronation, can’t they practise that faith privately, without the need for a solemn, state-sanctioned ceremony involving bishops, priests, crowns, sceptres, and holy oils? Why do we need public ritual at all?
All this is a tragedy, because old rituals like the coronation can play a deeply salutary — and even progressive — role in societies otherwise wracked by modern capitalism’s cruel, arbitrary hierarchies. We human beings do all sorts of things that have no functional value in themselves but that help us communicate symbolically. We shake hands. We exchange rings. We are wired, it seems, for ritual: a pattern of words and actions characterised by formality, rigidity, and repetition. The closest analogous human behaviour, according to many anthropologists, is children’s games.
In the middle of the last century, a husband-and-wife team of British anthropologists travelled to Africa in an attempt to scientifically understand the ritual process. Specifically, they sought the meaning of religious rites among traditional tribes; ultimately, it awakened them to the indispensability of ritual for decent societies.
Victor Witter Turner was born in 1920 in Glasgow. As a teenager, under the tutelage of an Anglican priest, he was drawn to mystical traditions. But by the time “Vic” entered university and married, he had become a card-carrying Communist. His wife, “Edie”, had also embraced Marxism early on, because it was a worldview “wrung clean of religion”.
In the late Forties, the couple discovered Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa in a public library. It inspired Vic to study anthropology: he was thrilled by the thought of living hand-to-mouth in remote places, and drawn, too, to the “neat social systems among indigenous islanders” that seemed to exist “like an organism with its own social structural laws”. He worked under Max Gluckman, the legendary leader of the structural anthropology movement based at the University of Manchester, who dispatched Vic to central Africa to study “chieftainship politics”.
Ritual, of course, was central to defining the individual’s roles within the “neat social systems” in which he was interested. For example, many tribal peoples mark the passage from childhood to adulthood with highly elaborate rites, whereas in the modern West, childhood often merges imperceptibly with adulthood, leaving it to each individual to figure out what it means to “come of age”.
Many anthropologists then dismissed tribal ritual as the unintelligible mumbo-jumbo of a “simpler” people. But in 1951, Gluckman sent Vic a telegram urging him to switch to researching the religious practises of the Ndembu people of south central Africa. Edie came along. The Turners’ time among the Ndembu convinced them that such supercilious attitudes were false. “In matters of ritual as of art,” Vic would write years later in his seminal 1969 text, The Ritual Process, “there are no ‘simpler’ peoples, only peoples with simpler technologies than our own. Man’s imaginative and emotional life is always and everywhere rich and complex.”
Zambia, where the Turners encountered the people, was then a British colony known as Northern Rhodesia. Nevertheless, the Ndembu welcomed the foreign couple’s attempts to understand their rituals, even inviting them to participate. The Turners studied the Isoma, a rite that treated women suffering from infertility. The central action of the ritual involved the afflicted woman and her husband walking in the nude several times between two holes, one identified as “cold” and the other “hot”, representing both the grave and the birth canal. In this way, the ritual reconciled the once-warring communities of the living and the dead.
The Dutch-German anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, whose ideas the Turners borrowed, taught that every rite involves three stages. First, a separation, when the subjects are removed from the social structure. Next, the liminal stage, when the subjects become indeterminate, ambiguous, outcast even: during the core action of the Isoma, the afflicted couple no longer occupy their symbolic roles as husband and wife; their nakedness signifies that they are more like new-borns, or the dead. Finally, there is a reaggregation, when the subjects return to the social structure, either in a new condition — a boy emerges as a man after the extreme trials of the coming-of-age ritual — or merely restored to their prior condition — the afflicted couple now “healed” by Isoma.
The Turners focused their analysis on the middle stage. As Vic explained, liminal beings “are neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial”. To become liminal is to assume a transcendent vulnerability; it is the condition of Christ on the Cross. The humiliation of the liminal subject, for the Turners, fostered communitas, a state apart from the structured hierarchies we inhabit most of our lives. Communitas, a primordial state beyond rank and class, reminds us that the high and mighty have their status only in relation to the low, and “he who is high must experience what it is like to be low”.
Before he assumed power, a Ndembu chieftain had to undergo ritual humiliation at the hands of a mythic figure known as the Kafwana; coded female, she was associated with the land and the people who tilled it, those who weren’t politically or militarily strong but who nevertheless possessed a sacral power. Among other things, the chieftain-to-be had to absorb a barrage of insults and criticisms from other villagers; once installed, he didn’t dare hold it against the people. In this way, the religious ritual taught the chieftain that he was first and foremost a servant.
By humbling himself, and dispensing with his normal privileges, the one undergoing the ritual must recognises what Vic called “humankindness”: “a generic bond between men.” Without it, the hierarchical community has no qualms about excluding and even destroying the weak. Far from locking people into the past, then, ritual allows them to confront present and future challenges. Ritual, in this telling, humanises societies.
On the surface, the coronation of King Charles and Queen Camilla is about as distant as can be from the chieftainship ritual of the Ndembu people. But the rite’s underlying structures are are shockingly similar. The Anglican ceremonial adds several layers of Christian symbolism, not to mention genteel ornamentation — all of which softens the liminal humiliation of the king-to-be and his bride — but the fundamental process is the same.
First, there is the separation of the ritual subjects — Charles and Camilla — from humdrum British reality. This is marked by their carriage ride to Westminster Abbey. Next comes the liminal stage, where Charles’s face is literally covered by Anglican churchmen, using a canopy of golden cloth, known as the anointing screen. The covering shields the most sacred element of the ritual from prying eyes, but it also means that Charles is erased as an individual.
The core action of the liminal stage is the anointing of king’s hands, breast, and head with oil. In the Bible, such oils are the mark of the self-sacrificing King of Kings: Jesus is anointed before he is to undergo his passion, death, and burial. Once the screen is removed, the anointed king will kneel at the high altar while the archbishop recalls how “Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God … was anointed with the Oil of gladness above his fellows.” Thus Charles, as a Christian statesman, is united with the sacrifice of Christ. He is giving up something, trading his personality for that of the sovereign, dutybound to serve the commonweal.
Finally, there is Charles’s reaggregation: he re-enters society with elevated status, symbolised by the crown and sceptre. But again, this occurs only after he has ritually identified himself with society’s victims — indeed, with the anointed Victim. All this marks him out as the servant-ruler of the British people, rather than merely a king.
Today’s economic hierarchies tell the winners that they owe their status to no one and nothing but their own “meritocratic” efforts. This isn’t, in fact, true: study after study demonstrates that social mobility has stalled, especially in the Anglosphere. But it makes for particularly obnoxious elites: if they owe their status to no one, then they also have no obligations to society’s losers. Against such a backdrop, Britain’s traditional monarchic rituals, not least the coronation, are a very different, and much-needed, account of what the high owes the low.
When we glimpse the communitas lying beyond everyday structures — when we leave behind profane everyday reality to play the solemn, cosmic game of ritual — we are possessed by a vision of what society could or should look like. Here, the mighty chieftain submits to the lowly Kafwana. Here, the omnipotent Son of God consents to be humiliated. And His Majesty the King consents to follow the mortified god-man, even into the tomb.
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