David Stanton writes from Westminster Abbey ahead of the great day


With the Coronation Service fast approaching there is a heightened feeling of anticipation and expectation around Westminster Abbey. Our staff of over 300 people are highly experienced at preparing for high profile services, but preparation for a Coronation service takes things to a different level. Preparation is complex and intricate and it involves many different peoples and groups working and dovetailing together in a co-ordinated way.

It is not widely understood that all arrangements for coronation ceremonies are made by the Earl Marshal and his Coronation Committee on behalf of the Crown and not by the Abbey. But the Dean of Westminster instructs the sovereign on all matters connected with the service and assists the Archbishop of Canterbury, who always crowns the monarch.

Since the late 14th century every coronation ceremony has basically followed the same order of service laid down in the Abbey’s magnificent medieval illuminated Latin manuscript, the Liber Regalis, which can be viewed in the new Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries at the Abbey. But for this coronation His Holiness Pope Francis has given the King two splinters of wood believed to have been taken from the Cross on which Christ was crucified. The relics will be carried at the head of the coronation procession. The fragments, which are 5mm and 10mm long, are a personal Coronation gift from Pope Francis. 

The Vatican believes them to be authentic pieces of the ‘true Cross’ used in Jesus’s crucifixion outside the gates of Jerusalem. The splinters have been embedded within a newly crafted silver cross called the Cross of Wales, which is made of recycled bullion from the Royal Mint, mounted on a staff made of wood from a tree blown down by the wind, and placed in a stand of Welsh slate. Such ecumenical generosity has heightened world-wide anticipation and expectation for this great event, which inevitably adds an extra dose of suspense.

The way we prepare such detail does reveal something about the professionalism and character of all who have worked so hard in creating this wonderful liturgical ceremony. Much of this has fallen to Fr Mark Birch, Precentor at Westminster Abbey. As we all know, anticipation generates a range of emotions, and all of us here witness a huge panoply of views that are expressed within today’s world of instant communication.

Over the last few years Westminster Abbey, like so many other churches, has experienced some very difficult times. Following the coronavirus outbreak, we lost more than £13m in revenue and we faced one of the greatest challenges to hit the Abbey in recent times. Reserves were severely depleted, there were redundancies and very hard decisions to make.

However I am pleased say that even during the most severe of lockdowns we maintained the daily Offices and daily Mass and even formed a small choir from our resident community to sing the Mass on Sundays. But this year things have dramatically improved. We have seen a huge rise in both people attending divine worship and those wishing to enter the Abbey as paying visitors. 

On Easter day I presided at the said 8am BCP Mass and there were 278 communicants. Before we opened the Great West Doors for the Sung Mass we saw a queue that we could not possibly fit in the Abbey. At Evensong I preached to a congregation of 2,000. Again and again, the Holy Week services were crowded and in the days around Easter we were flooded with tourists. It was, I believe, the first time we hit 7,000 visitors in a day since the pandemic.

It would be wonderful to think that there was a huge religious revival taking place around London, and that these numbers would hold up through the years ahead. But in reality I believe we are witnessing a complex combination of international excitement intermingled with a deep desire to feel part of this particular sacred space and thereby explore, in a spiritual way, the intrinsic religious ethos that underpins the Coronation service. 

Last month our Canon Theologian, Dr Jamie Hawkey, gave the annual Charles Gore Lecture on A Theology of Monarchy for the 21st Century. Amongst other things he reminded us about how traditionally the most sacred part of the ceremony is when the Archbishop of Canterbury pours holy oil from the ampulla onto the Coronation Spoon, and anoints the sovereign on the hands, breast and head.

You may well ask, what is the ampulla? Well it is shaped like an eagle and was made for the coronation of King Charles II in 1661. Unlike the regalia that had to be remade in the 17th century, the spoon is the only item to survive Oliver Cromwell’s destruction of the sacred symbols of monarchy after the English Civil War. It dates back to the early 12th century, and is recorded among objects at the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey in an inventory of 1349.

You may ask how is this holy oil made? Well it remains a secret, but I can say it contains oils of orange flowers, roses, jasmine and cinnamon and is consecrated by a bishop on the Coronation day. This sacred blessing, using the ampulla and spoon, is right at the heart of our Christian coronation service, powerfully demonstrating the connection between the monarch and God.

All this ritual and symbolism does much to generate the current atmosphere of excitement and anticipation and enquiry. Enthusiasm is running high and is undoubtably contagious so we are finding that people are listening attentively, and are genuinely inquisitive not only for royal history but living faith. This is an atmosphere that lends itself to listening and learning.

Many people are also discovering that one of the ways we can push back the darkness of this broken world is by looking for the light and beauty of God in everyday moments. Hundreds of candles are being lit daily before the large icons in the Nave that represent the Mother of God with the Christ Child and Christ himself. Perhaps this is one of the gentle and revealing consequences of ‘coronation fever’.

With young people in mind, and ahead of the service, the Abbey has launched an online Coronation Club with a series of videos to inspire children aged 7 – 11 to find out more about this historic service. It has been designed to be used in schools, youth groups and at home with families, and the episodes will bring viewers behind the scenes at the Abbey. Children will hear stories of coronations past, and discover what happens at a coronation service and why through games, challenges, crafts and quizzes. We have designed each episode to be accompanied by an activity pack with resources to help support the topics covered in the films.

This prompts me to say that over recent months Mckinsey Management Consulting have been working with Chapter and our Senior Management team about how we could extend our mission digitally by launching a new Digital Abbey project, with a focus on curating and creating daily spiritual content for our proposed new mobile app. McKinsey have given their time and expertise free to the Abbey and we are all profoundly grateful. Like it or not, we at the Abbey believe there are significant cultural changes being forged by digital and social media, changes that are shaping the ground in which we are called to voice the faith. 

In many ways we believe the most profound change that is taking place around us is not technological but cultural: a real challenge for us in the Church is to appreciate how much is changing in the ways that people, especially young people, are gathering information, are being educated, are expressing themselves, and are forming relationships and communities.

The Abbey is consequently now actively looking for a Succentor who will work with our two other Minor Canons (Precentor and Sacrist) to help capture the opportunities resulting from an ever-changing digital landscape and to write effectively for a digital audience.

Back in 1953 (a world away from digital media) Westminster Abbey was closed for five months before the Coronation for extensive work to transform the Church. This time, to prepare for the Coronation of Their Majesties on Saturday 6 May, we will be closing the Abbey from Tuesday 25 April and will re-open on Monday 8 May. I am pleased to say that Services will take place in St Margaret’s Church up to and including Tuesday 2 May. Immediately after the coronation.

On the musical front, James O’Donnell, our Organist and Master of the Choristers, left the Abbey last Christmas to take up a new position as professor of Sacred Music at Yale university in the US. I am delighted that since January this year Andrew Nethsingha has accepted the post of Director of Music and Principal Conductor of the Abbey Choir. Our gain is the loss of St John’s College, Cambridge. As head of the Abbey music department Andrew has hit the ground running and is now responsible for all musical aspects of the Abbey’s work and will be directing the music during the coronation. Years ago I was a pupil at Exeter Cathedral School when Andrews’s father Lucian was Master of the Choristers. 

With an eye to the future, we have a long-term project to further enhance the welcome offered to the many thousands who come to the Abbey from around the world each year. Planning permission has been granted for the construction of a new building, designed by our Surveyor of the Fabric, Ptolemy Dean, on the site of the former medieval Great Sacristy on the north side of the Abbey. 

This will greatly enhance the experience of all who come to the Abbey by freeing up more than 10% of the Abbey floor. In pre-pandemic days we had hoped this would be completed before the coronation. However it will be built to last and will be with us for many, many years to come.


The Reverend David Stanton is Sub-Dean and Canon Treasurer at Westminster Abbey.