by Esmé Partridge
Tuesday, 27
December 2022
Response
15:30

What critics get wrong about King Charles’s Christmas speech

Paying tribute to other faiths does not make it relativistic
by Esmé Partridge
King Charles delivers his first Christmas message

Those convinced that the West is doomed seem intent on casting King Charles III as a villain who will hasten its decline. When he delivered his Christmas speech to the nation, some were eager to read this into his words; yesterday, Gavin Ashenden, the former royal chaplain, opined in the Catholic Herald that the royal address was sure proof that the King had “sown the seeds of destruction of the House of Windsor”. All because, it seems, he made reference to faiths other than Christianity.

There is of course no such thing a “multi-faith”. It is a cosmetic shibboleth designed to hide the predatory intentions of one kind of philosophical absolutism against another.  It is a mechanism for undermining the distinctive and absolutist claims of non-relative religious movements so that they can be rendered increasingly irrelevant by an uncompromising secular rationalism.
- Gavin Ashenden, The Catholic Herald

The King’s views on religion have always been a source of controversy. Showing sympathy for Perennialism — a school of thought which holds that there is some degree of truth in all the world’s traditional belief systems — Charles has been accused of undermining the exclusivity of Christianity and succumbing to a post-modern paradigm of cultural relativism, heralding a world in which even the monarchy is too scared to defend its own values in the face of multiculturalism.


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But on listening to the speech, it was difficult not to be taken aback by the sincerity with which he spoke about his Christian faith. To hear the head of state give an emotive account of his visit to Bethlehem, where he “stood in silent reverence by the silver star that is inlaid on the floor and marks the place of our Lord Jesus Christ’s birth” is surely a welcome surprise in 2022, the first year in history where Christians are officially a minority in England and Wales. It is certainly not something one would expect from an apparently post-modern monarch indifferent towards the disenchantment of the country. 

Still, instead of celebrating this, some remain cynical — the reason being that Charles, as well as praising the social and charitable contributions of the church, also praised those of synagogues, mosques, temples, and gurdwaras. According to the former chaplain, this signifies a slip into “21st century religious relativism” and a compromise of his integrity. 

Yet this is hardly convincing. Charles clearly believes that there is one Light, and one Truth; however, in-line with the Perennialist worldview, he recognises the possibility for other faith traditions to also participate in that light and, perhaps, help to overcome the greater threat of secular modernity.

This is not the liberal heresy that critics think it is. In fact, Charles’ views on religion are remarkably similar to those of European Renaissance thinkers, who defended their appreciation of other faiths on traditional theological grounds. The 15th century Italian Catholic priest Marsilio Ficino, for example, upheld the primacy of Christianity while also believing that other religions contained within them a glimmer of truth, the prisca theologia, and should be respected on this basis. For Ficino, this did not compromise his Catholicism; it simply showed that the love of God was universal, if perfected through Christ and Christ alone.

As it happens, other Renaissance thinkers saw this to be the ideal position for a monarch. For the 16th Century French political theorist Jean Bodin, the King should be the One above the Many, whose duty is to uphold the universal values shared by all people; to be the unity that transcends the multiplicity of sectarian difference. This entailed representing not only Christians of all denominations, but also Jews and Muslims. As an absolute monarchist, Bodin was deeply conservative by today’s standards, but even he saw it as perfectly acceptable for a King to honour subjects from religions other than his own. 

In living up to the ideals of Ficino and Bodin, Charles III is not a post-modern king, but a Renaissance king. He defends faith in such a way that accounts for the universal and particular, all the while remaining committed to Christianity. His speech was a reminder of the eternal Light that will outlive the rise and fall of worldly civilisations; just what the nation needs to hear at Christmastime.

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Steve Murray
Steve Murray
1 month ago

The writer, whilst generally on the right track regarding critics of the King’s Speech, omits to mention that Charles also referred to those whose faith was “or none”. In doing so, he set out his stall as he should do – as constitutional monarch of ALL people within the realm.
Yes, he carries the title “Defender of the Faith” and he does defend it. The critics the author of this piece refers to “doth protest too much”. I’m in the “or none” group, and can live with those who follow a faith providing they simply let others do the same, including the “or nones”.

Peter D
Peter D
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve Murray

I too, belong in the „or nones“ category yet find the traditional Church of England services quite comforting.
The Christmas speech was excellent. Many parts of the world have had different religions living side by side for millennia. Only allowing one religious belief is abnormal in the history of civilisation so well done King Charles for acknowledging the many differing beliefs the UK, and the world have.

David Yetter
David Yetter
1 month ago

One of the most noted English Christian apologists of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, in his prophetic little volume The Abolition of Man not only takes the view that there is a deposit of truth (in particular moral truth) shared by the traditional religions of the world, but even deliberately adopts a non-Christian term, “theTao” to refer to this.
I call it prophetic because the book combines the features of true prophecy: a correct foretelling of the future and a call to repentance.

Helen Nevitt
Helen Nevitt
1 month ago
Reply to  David Yetter

The Abolition of Man is one of the truest books I have ever read.

Claire D
Claire D
1 month ago

Good article, thank you. I found the King’s speech both balanced and very moving, I wish him well.

Last edited 1 month ago by Claire D
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago
Reply to  Claire D

I was quite moved by it, too; a good start. I think that there are a number of people out there who are determined to do King Charles down; they may even be closet anti-monarchists. He is the king of the entire nation, and as such must acknowledge all his subjects, which I think that he did with dignity and generosity.

Phil Richardson
Phil Richardson
1 month ago

It’s also, broadly speaking, the position taken by the Vatican II document ‘Nostra Aetate.’

James Surry
James Surry
1 month ago

You beat me to exactly the same comment Phil.

Gregory Wolfe
Gregory Wolfe
1 month ago

I think what you’re describing might be more broadly (and helpfully) described as “Renaissance Christian Humanism.” In addition to Ficino and Bodin, I would propose a more archetypal figure such as Erasmus — who once wrote a poem to the young King Henry VIII, hoping he would become the Christian Humanist monarch par excellence (only to be traumatically disappointed). Maybe Charles III will come a bit closer to what Erasmus hoped to see in Henry.

Henry Haslam
Henry Haslam
1 month ago
Reply to  Gregory Wolfe

For a modern take on the subject see Religion in the modern world: celebrating pluralism and diversity, by (the Revd professor) Keith Ward

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 month ago
Reply to  Henry Haslam

Perhaps a good book, but the title is fairly off-putting. Idols of the Theatre.

Geoffrey Hicking
Geoffrey Hicking
1 month ago

In a similar vein, I would like to say that those people (Mark Melvin, Jonas Moze, etc) criticising the Flashman article today are utterly off the mark. The author (Mr Krishnan) was trying to feel his way towards sympathy for George MacDonald Frasier, remarking on the tender way an imperialist dies during the Mutiny, praising the rebellious Bengalis he taught. He states that MacDonald Frasier thought of Empire as something of its time, and goes on the chastise those that constantly moralize. It hardly felt like a woke denunciation.

All those (already converted) people denouncing the article as “snowflakey” are unaware that it is not aimed at them, but those centrists on the fence that need to be coaxed in their direction. Perhaps more understanding by Mr Moze etc would be in order.

Last edited 1 month ago by Geoffrey Simon Hicking
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
1 month ago

Not really relevant to this particular article, but, nonetheless, I do agree with you about the writer of the Flashman article; I didn’t see anything “woke” in it either.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 month ago

Good points, but why didn’t you post them on the Flashman article?

Geoffrey Hicking
Geoffrey Hicking
1 month ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

I don’t think anyone would read it. Once the top comments reach 30 likes or so, lesser comments just get lost down below. That’s just how electronic architecture works unfortunately.

Furthermore, I was trying to resolve a problem regarding imperial historians on that thread anyway, and didn’t want that comment to get too complicated.

Martin Adams
Martin Adams
1 month ago

Thank you for an apposite and well-written article. Esmé Partridge impeccably addresses the tensions that can arise when attempting to strike a healthy balance between the essentially absolutist, individualistic claims of Christian faith — e.g. “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father, except through me” (John 14:6) — and the inevitable compromises that have to be made at an institutional level when the institutions concerned include those who do not accept those claims. In this case the institutions are the monarchy invested in an individual, and the nation — many millions of individuals. So, Esmé Partridge scores a bullseye when she raises the writings of Marsilio Ficino and Jean Bodin — a bullseye because their observations are entirely consistent with Biblical teaching and practice.
Perhaps the most striking example of Biblical teaching that supports their position is found in Acts 17. When Paul visited Athens, “his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols.” He stands up to make a speech in the Areopagus; and what does he do? Although his godly spirit had been “provoked” by the idolatry around him (other translations refer to “anger”, to being “stirred”, to being “painfully excited” etc.), he did not allow that personal reaction, godly though it might be, to reinforce himself by berating the Athenians for their idolatry. Rather, he refers to something he saw — an altar dedicated “To an unknown God”. He then says that he can now proclaim that unknown God to them; and he does so by quoting from well-known poems (identified by classicists) to Zeus that speak of godly character and attributes. All of these, he says, are now “made known” through being personified in Jesus Christ, in his life, death and resurrection.
So Paul identifies in the Athenians exactly what Esmé Partridge finds in Ficino, that

other religions contained within them a glimmer of truth, the prisca theologia, and should be respected on this basis.

King Charles III has to be a king to all the peoples of this nation. That is something his great ancestor, Queen Elizabeth I, understood perfectly. So did the second Elizabeth, the present King’s mother. Charles III’s speech put Christianity first. He did not refer to the profound point that the “glimmer of truth” might be brighter in some non-Christian faiths than in others; but that does not change the fundamental points, which are that his speech implicitly recognised the desire for God among those holding non-Christian faiths, and that the institutional strengths rooted in Christian faith are equally available to those who have no faith directed towards God.

Nathan Hale
Nathan Hale
1 month ago

As he is a nominal Defender of the Faith, it is incumbent upon Charles to emphasize the Christian character of Christmas. Christianity, in its essence, is not a syncretistic Faith.

Rick Lawrence
Rick Lawrence
1 month ago
Reply to  Nathan Hale

But surely in its essence it IS a syncretictic faith (I admit I had to look that word up). All religions have a starting point. Christianity has the birth of Christ as its (symbol of) beginning but the basic tenets of Christianity are essentially the same as all religions. It is understandable that many beIieved that Christianity was the one true religion in the Middle Ages, but today such a view can ony be regarded as extreme arrogance. Charles’s speech was right on the mark.

Last edited 1 month ago by Rick Lawrence
Julian Pellatt
Julian Pellatt
1 month ago

The Church of England is the bedrock of our cultural identity as a nation and communities in the towns and country.
While Charles III’s embrace of other religions that are practiced in the UK is laudable (‘inclusive’), perhaps the ‘little people’ (thanks, Dave C!), who may not be religious as such but identify with CoE values and traditions, may look to their King to reinforce these; and may feel instinctively uncomfortable if they may perceive that his empathy with that identity may be diluted by a contemporary worldview.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 month ago
Reply to  Julian Pellatt

I think that having a non-Christian as head of the Church of England is strange but am very thankful to live in a country where there is freedom of religion.
While he acknowledges other faiths, he does not seem to recognise that the various traditions have beliefs that are mutually exclusive.

E. L. Herndon
E. L. Herndon
1 month ago
Reply to  Judy Johnson

King Charles was blessed to be the son of parents who were Christian as a way of walking, not just talking. In not recognizing, or commenting on, the differences/contradictions of other traditions, I think he struck just the right note of emphasizing our basic human commonality in acknowledging that we are part of something greater than us, of a design beyond our comprehension. Hopefully, he is going to be an exemplar of classic Anglican Christianity. The first Queen Elizabeth, after all, set the standard for believing deeply but communicating economically. In these unnecessarily partisan times, he so far commands respect.

William Shaw
William Shaw
1 month ago

It’s early days but I’d say he’s doing a good job.
I’m not sure that being Defender of All the Faiths is possible but I applaud him for trying.
He might be the King who helps unite our increasingly divided society.

Last edited 1 month ago by William Shaw
Chip Prehn
Chip Prehn
1 month ago

Amen. Touché.

Iris C
Iris C
1 month ago

I was brought up as a Presbyterian where the Minister would direct one’s thoughts but the individual had direct access to God in observation and prayer, without the need for any ritual. For example, celebrating Christmas and the services in the run up to Easter were not observed – post was delivered on Christmas day. As a result I find the modernised service in the Church of Scotland (to bring it more into line with Episcopalians) alien.
I mention this because in its pure form, Presbyterianism is (in many aspects) as near to other faiths as it is to C of E.

David Andrew Robertson
David Andrew Robertson
1 month ago

This is a somewhat superficial analysis….not taking account that Charles clearly believes that the Light is not Christ – but is within each one of us…see this article – https://www.christiantoday.com/article/why.the.kings.christmas.speech.concerns.me/139672.htm

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
1 month ago

The Monarchy are pandering, via their own media, to the National Socialist, internet driven LGBT / racialism/ global warming ” virtual invasion” that makes 1944 D- day look like a French tourist trip…

Robert Kaye
Robert Kaye
1 month ago

Want to buy a tinfoil hat?