The crowning is surely worth a Mass, says Michael Brydon
In a few months we look forward to the Coronation where we will hallow King Charles with prayer. At that service we have historically done everything the Church can to nurture and strengthen our Supreme Governor. There is the anointing, the presentation of the Bible as ‘the most valuable thing that this world affords’ and the celebration of Holy Communion. Every pre-Reformation Coronation we have records for was in the context of a Mass and every post Reformation Coronation, with the one exception of the Roman Catholic James II, has also been in the context of a service of Holy Communion.
In 1689 the Coronation Rite was revised for William and Mary, by Bishop Compton of London, to ensure that it was impossible to separate the crowning from taking place within the celebration of a Communion Service. Compton’s motivation was clearly to make it impossible for another Roman Catholic to be crowned but he happily, if unintentionally, restored something of the Medieval order to the Rite. It is also worth noting that whilst it may be the crowns, sceptres and orbs that excite visitors to the Jewel House of the Tower of London, the collection also includes the gold chalice and paten made for the Coronation of Charles II. The procession of the regalia has always included the episcopal carrying of a chalice and paten (often called the patena in this context) and since 1689 they have been joined by the Bible. The official illustration of the three bishops carrying their part of the regalia, at the Coronation of George V, is a particularly fine illustration of this.
The procession of the chalice and paten with the Bible obviously makes the clear point that the Lord is made known to us in both the Scriptures and the Sacrament. The importance of this public linking of Word and Sacrament is hinted at in Archbishop Wake’s post Coronation annotation of the Rite for George II. Wake was frustrated that although the Bible was carried, the ‘neglect of the officers’ meant that the accompanying bishops failed to bear the chalice and paten although the bishops ‘who should have born them [still] walked in their places.’
If past Anglo-Catholics preferred to forget that Queen Anne and her immediate successors all took clear oaths denouncing transubstantiation, during the Coronation, there was still plenty in the Rite to encourage them to use it as a way of pushing for the centrality of the Lord’s Service. The notion of a Eucharistic sacrifice was gently maintained by the unique continuation of the word altar in the Coronation Rite, as opposed to the Prayer Book’s reference to the Lord’s table. This point was not lost upon more militant Protestants who routinely petitioned the Archbishop of Canterbury, at successive Coronations, to do something about this. The Coronation also served to preserve the notion that something a little more exotic than a surplice and hood might be worn with the continued use of copes. In addition, past royal offerings associated with the Coronation, have routinely been used to embellish the Lord’s Service in some way. Quite often it has been a new altar frontal, but sometimes actual Communion plate. For example, in 1953 the Duke of Edinburgh gave a wafer box to the Abbey but also commissioned a chalice and paten for Lambeth Palace Chapel.
It is often recounted that the moment of anointing was deemed too sacred to film in 1953, but it is routinely forgotten that the same was true of the moment of Communion. If anything, this seems to have caused Archbishop Fisher more anxiety and prolonged discussion with the BBC. Fisher was no Anglo-Catholic, as shown by his suggestion that the ablutions might be performed without the use of water, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t have a high view of the Sacrament. One of his reasons for moving the presentation of the Bible to after the oath was to make the teaching point that ‘the Word (as the prayer book (sic) shows) comes before the Sacrament.’ He and Archbishop Garbett of York were uncomfortable at the BBC’s request that they might broadcast the whole of the Communion Service in 1953, as opposed to 1937 when radio coverage had not included any part of it. Fisher felt that it was right for people to hear the words of consecration in ‘quiet homes and hospitals’ but that one couldn’t guarantee ‘quietness and stillness’ on all the stands where people would be listening outside the Abbey. In the end neither the radio nor the television shared the prayer of consecration and coverage resumed with the singing of the newly commissioned motet, O taste and see, by Vaughan Williams.
Fisher was equally anxious that the young Queen was carefully prepared for all aspects of the Coronation including the moment of Holy Communion, and to be spiritually prepared for that in particular. With assistance from Miss Margaret Potts of St Julian’s Community and Mother Clare of St Clare’s Community, Fisher worked very hard on A Little Book of Private Devotions, which offered a reflection, a prayer and scripture for every part of the service. Elizabeth II was encouraged to meditate on such biblical passages as St Paul’s advice to the Corinthians to remember that ‘the bread which we break is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’ She was reminded that ‘from the depths of our unworthiness we pass to the heights of Christ’s sacrifice for us and of Christ present in the Sacrament of his communion with us.’ And if our late Queen wondered how all of this happened, she was offered those careful word of the first Queen Elizabeth:
‘Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it;
And what the word did make it;
That I believe, and take it.
We know from a letter of appreciation that the late Queen both appreciated and used the book. Although well-known for normally attending morning prayer this partly stemmed from Her Majesty’s recognition that the reception of the Sacrament was not to be undertaken lightly. At the time of writing, we don’t know whether Charles III will be sustained by the Sacrament or not at his Coronation. There are rumours that there are pressures for this not to happen, which may explain why at the February General Synod, the Archbishop of Canterbury said that he did not know when the Rite would be in the public domain. We have to pray and hope that the Coronation remains within the context of this dominical Sacrament, since it not only offers living bread to sustain the King in his momentous task, but also as an opportunity for the Church to explain its centrality and importance to the wider world. It would be a tragedy if that purple passage by Gregory Dix about the dynamic centrality of the Eucharist to Christian people in all circumstances was no longer true.
Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance for every conceivable need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found nothing than this to do for kings at their crowning……
Charles III is a sincere believer and can arguably claim to have been the most interested heir to the throne in the study of religion since the Stuarts. At previous coronations the newly crowned monarch has removed the crown before receiving the body and blood of Christ. If this were to happen, again, it would be a powerful and teaching sign to the nation and beyond that Charles III knows the importance of the King of kings.