April 19, 2023 - 6:00pm

The coronation is, in formal terms, a solely religious ceremony. No legal power depends on being anointed. Despite concerns over the erosion of the religiosity of the coronation, the fact remains that placing oil blessed in Jerusalem on a monarch in imitation of the anointing of David, Solomon, and Christ is about as Christian as a ritual as can be. Indeed, just today it has been reported that the coronation procession will be headed by a cross made out of supposed relics from the cross on which Christ was crucified.

Even after King Charles’s efforts to make this a multi-faith event, there has been some pre-emptive worrying, much of it from Anglicans. For example, Dr Jonathan Chaplin, of the theological college Wesley House, Cambridge, argues that the religious rituals involved are unlikely to be “received by the overwhelming majority of the nation on whose behalf the event takes place”. 

This is, for several reasons, wrong. Those of us who are not Christians are perfectly capable of appreciating the coronation on its own terms, without modification. While the meaning of the coronation is undoubtedly different for those of us who lack a relationship with Jesus, it is meaningful nonetheless. 

For a start, the coronation can have religious meaning for non-Christians. The Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis, who ordinarily as an Orthodox Jew would not enter a church, will be attending, because Judaism teaches a duty to honour the King, even if he is not Jewish. On seeing the monarch, the Chief Rabbi will recite the Jewish blessing for seeing non-Jewish kings, thanking God for allowing heavenly glory to be reflected in human flesh. 

Admittedly, that is a minority experience within a minority experience. Far more people in Britain, including many largely secular nominal adherents to minority faiths (myself included), are religiously ambivalent. Yet the coronation remains meaningful. Much of its significance comes from the fact that the King, obviously an Anglican, takes it seriously. By elevating the obligation to govern according to law into a perceived divine commandment, the coronation oath impresses upon the head of state the seriousness of their duty. The alternatives Chaplin suggests — such as an affirmation administered by the Commons Speaker — fail because they do not impose as intense a reminder. 

The semantics of the coronation are also multi-layered. Critics give us non-Christians far too little credit by assuming that we are able to only constitute one, Christian reading of the ceremony. It is normal that one should attend weddings and funerals grounded in different religions. Non-Catholic wedding guests, for instance, are able to celebrate the underlying union of the couple without becoming catechists. Similarly, the non-Christian viewer of the coronation is perfectly capable of experiencing the other meanings in its solemnity. 

What’s more, the coronation has a contextual meaning significant to non-Christians. The coronation is the centrepiece of the 1688 settlement, which re-oriented the monarchy to the apex of a new crowned republic. It is the reification of a constitutional order whereby, parallel to the Church of England’s continued establishment, each reign has, with fits and starts, brought progress in freedom of religion. 

Britain enters this coronation with a practising Hindu in Downing Street, a Muslim in Holyrood, and an atheist as Leader of the Opposition. The coronation, however alien it may feel to supposed outsiders, indicates the continued operation of this constitutional settlement. It is thus emblematic of that strange British genius: a system utterly muddled in principle but which works excellently in practice. 

Anglicans shouldn’t fret over the misplaced idea that non-Christians cannot appreciate the coronation. The history, symbolism, and importance of this peculiar ritual can be and, indeed, are significant, regardless of faith. That, certainly, is something worth celebrating.

Elijah Granet is a contributing writer at the Constitution Society and the editor of the Legal Style Blog.