Sermon Coronation Service 7 May 2023: Readings: 1 Kings 3:5-10; Romans 13:1-10
The Coronation of Charles the Third last evening in Westminster Abbey involved ceremonies and words which reach back through time, even to the time when Solomon was anointed King of Israel by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet in the 10th century before Christ.
In our first reading, at the beginning of his reign, Solomon asks God for wisdom:
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your people?
There is always humility in knowing that we are not sufficient, that we need help to discharge a great responsibility such as governing people.
There is no greater help for a ruler than wisdom: an understanding mind, able to discern good and evil is needed to govern well.
In the service the Archbishop of Canterbury prayed thus for Charles our King,
Bestow upon him such gifts of wisdom and love that we and all thy people may live in peace and prosperity …
Another humility was also present in the service.
Charles arrived at the Abbey and said these words at the commencement of the service,
In His name and after his example I come not to be served but to serve.
There has been comment and criticism that the coronation service was very religious, very Christian and yet, so the line of attack goes, the United Kingdom is no longer a very religious nation.
An English bishop writing in The Times yesterday, Graham Tomlin, makes the important case that the Christian character of the ceremony is about what understanding of power is at stake for the monarch. [https://twitter.com/gtomlin/status/1654765935671099392?s=20 ; see also, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/alternatives-to-a-religious-coronation-would-be-worse-mc87r8gkz (which is behind The Times paywall)]
And, by extension, Tomlin’s case is about the understanding of what power and authority means for King Charles’ governments in the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and other realms for whom he is King. Including Aotearoa New Zealand.
Thus the words of King Charles, about coming to be crowned In Christ’s name and after Christ’s example, in order to serve and not to be served, are a commitment
- to power understood as service,
- to leadership which is compassionate and merciful.
This emphasis on servant leadership was the thrust of the Archbishop of Canterbury’s sermon last night.
Whatever we make of the rituals in the service,
- whether we care for such a service to be as it was, overtly, explicitly Christian,
- at its heart the Coronation Service we experienced last night,
- challenges not only King Charles but all of us who care for the way we are governed,
- to seek the power of love and not the love of power.
Signs of this specific Christian understanding of power in terms of loving, serving leadership were many in the service.
The orb, sceptre and rod, for instance, symbolise earthly rule;
- but the orb has a cross at its top, a reminder that human authority stands under the authority of the God who is love,
- and the rod and sceptre were presented with words speaking of justice, equity and mercy.
That is, the monarch’s authority (and, as I noted, by extension the governments of the monarch) is to be exercised with both justice and mercy, with fairness and compassion.
The anointing of the King with consecrated oil and the robing of Charles in a manner resonant with priesthood signifies a setting apart of our monarch for a life of dedicated service, acknowledging that the gift of wisdom comes from the Holy Spirit of God.
Such dedicated service is service dedicated to God and to the well-being of God’s people and not to the advancement of oneself.
Our King already has had a long life of service exemplifying the dedication he formally entered into last night.
To speak in this way is speak for an understanding of government embedded in our second reading tonight:
“for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God.”
It is also to speak for a society in which the driving motivation for what we do is what we also heard in that reading, that God asks that we love our neighbour as we love ourselves.
There are many voices that beg to differ on the matter of whether a divinely ordered and motivated monarchy as the cornerstone of our and other Commonwealth democracies is a good thing.
It is very obvious at this time in our nation’s life that enthusiasm for a constitutional monarchy is waning. Our Prime Minister has recently uttered the “R” word, republicanism.
Terry Eagleton, writing recently in the days running up to the Coronation, acerbically notes against constitutional monarchy:
“Real democracies, which is to say republican ones, don’t work like this.
They are the only political form which doesn’t need to invoke a legitimating power external to the people themselves.
Instead, the people legitimate themselves, in their everyday speech, action and law-making.
This lends them an unusual authority, but it breeds uncertainty as well.
It means that political society is founded only in itself, with no pre-written script or divine agenda, and this feels close to a sense of groundlessness.
Democracies have to make things up as they go along, more like experimental theatre than Shakespearian drama.
“The people” sounds like a firm enough foundation, but in reality the people are divided, diverse and keep changing.” [ https://unherd.com/2023/05/why-doesnt-king-charles-like-me/ ]
This is not an entrancing vision for a new way of nationhood;
even less so when we compare his dismay at human frailty with the inspiration the Coronation service itself provided,
that God both initiates human authority and holds it to account for the quality of its Christ-like character in servant leadership.
Charles the Third is now our newly crowned king. If we are not collectively motivated to develop and own a new vision for a head of state, we are obligated to own the king we do have.
It is no easy task to be a servant leader, to live out a commitment to serve and not to be served, to depend on God’s wisdom and not one’s own.
We should pray for Charles and cherish him, as we are doing in this service tonight, for to do so is to pray for ourselves as citizens of the state of which he is head.