Holy and elitist — can the coronation of King Charles be both?

Episcopalian Jay Blossom wrestles with the holy symbols and contradictions displayed at the coronation of King Charles this past Saturday.

The Anointing Screen was designed by iconographer Aidan Hart and brought to life through both hand and digital embroidery, managed by the Royal School of Needlework. Screen capture from the BBC stream of the coronation.

As I sat watching the coronation of King Charles III in the early hours of Saturday morning, it struck me that the most theatrical moment of the service was the crowning, but the spiritual heart of service, little changed for the past thousand years, was the anointing. Like Saul, David, and Solomon of old, Charles was set apart for his particular office by the use of sacred oil.

In 1 Samuel 10, we read that the prophet Samuel took oil and poured it on the head of Saul, after which Samuel kissed him and said, “Is it not because the Lord hath anointed thee to be captain over his inheritance?” (v. 1).

Six chapters later, having rejected Saul as king, God directs Samuel to anoint someone else as king — this time, a son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah. Samuel inspects seven of Jesse’s sons, but none of these are chosen. Rather, God directs him to the eighth son, David: “Samuel took the horn of oil, and anointed him in the midst of his brethren,” the Scripture says. “And the Spirit of the Lord came upon David from that day forward” (1 Samuel 16:13).

Years later, when David is old and dying, the ailing monarch commands the prophet Nathan and a priest named Zadok to find his son Solomon and anoint him as king over Israel to ensure that the kingdom would remain united and loyal to God. As they do so, a trumpet blasts. And all the people cry, “God Save King Solomon” (1 Kings 1:39).

The theological context of a coronation assumes that, as at a Catholic priest’s ordination or even a Catholic, Anglican or (if the pastor/parents desire) Presbyterian baptism, anointing with holy oil effects an ontological change in the person who is anointed. When the ruler is anointed, it invokes the Holy Spirit, setting the sovereign apart for their special office, and it makes the monarch a new creature.

When the ruler is anointed, it invokes the Holy Spirit, setting the sovereign apart for their special office, and it makes the monarch a new creature.

If the anointing is understood as the central act of the coronation, some of the other traditions make more sense. It’s why the coronation always takes place within a service of Holy Eucharist. It’s why the sovereign is afterward clothed with garments that mimic the vestments of a priest. And it’s why sacred music is an integral part of the service.

On Saturday, the moment of anointing itself was hidden from view just as it was at Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. And at that moment, the choir sang the anthem “Zadok the Priest” set to the glorious music of G. F. Handel, which was written for the coronation of King George II and has been used at every coronation since:

Zadok the priest
and Nathan the prophet
anointed Solomon king.
And all the people rejoiced and said:
God save the King!
Long live the King!
May the King live forever!
Alleluia! Amen!


And then, after the anointing, the king was presented with his regalia, culminating with the crown itself: St. Edward’s Crown.

After 10th-century ruler Edward the Confessor was made a saint in 1161, all objects connected to his reign became holy relics. The monks at Westminster Abbey, where Edward was buried, claimed the king had asked them to care for his regalia and use it for the coronations of all future rulers and so it was until the crown was either sold or melted when Parliament abolished the monarchy in 1649.

The current St. Edward’s Crown was made for the coronation of Charles II in 1661, and although it was based roughly on the design of the earlier relic, it was much more elaborate and costly – not surprising, considering the profligacy of the king for whom it was made.

St. Edward’s Crown, Royal Collection Trust / © His Majesty King Charles III 2023

But still, the connection of the crown with an ancient saintly king is part of its significance. At a British coronation, a sovereign takes solemn vows. They are anointed and then vested in the robes of priesthood. The crown of Edward the Confessor is set upon their head. And, as we heard in the sermon by the archbishop of Canterbury, the sovereign is commissioned for a life of service to others and charged with upholding righteousness and justice.

The ritual displayed on Saturday spoke to me, especially the spiritual act of anointing and the music. But I also couldn’t let go of all the contradictions that were present. I found myself dwelling on the relationship between Christianity and power.

As my 31-year-old nephew texted me on Saturday, the whole ceremony was rife with “White elitist entitlement.” Even with the first-time participation by non-Christians, the service was Christian with the result being the coronation of a Christian king, even though the United Kingdom and British Commonwealth, over which the sovereign has traditionally been head, is multicultural and multireligious. It was also an elitist and specifically English service based on the Liber Regalis, a 14th-century instruction manual for English coronations. The coronation’s purpose is, of course, to set apart a single person – usually someone born to the “right” family with access to political and monetary wealth – for leadership and service.

Beyond the role of a Christian monarchy in the modern world, I found there to be a contradiction within the Christian service of coronation. While there is biblical precedent for the anointing of kings, Christians must weigh this example with Jesus’ instruction that in the kingdom of heaven, the first become last (Matthew 20:16), the humble are exalted (Luke 14:11), and the rich are sent away empty (Luke 1:53).

At the coronation, we saw a sovereign who is instructed to be the servant of all, even as he is presented with priceless regalia representing his authority over his “realms and territories” — a bejeweled sword, golden spurs of knighthood, a rod of justice, a silken glove. We saw a golden, ornamented crown on Charles’ head while he was instructed to emulate Jesus, whose crown was a circle of thorns. The archbishop of Canterbury told Charles to “serve the people,” as he sat there being served.

We saw a golden, ornamented crown on Charles’ head while he was instructed to emulate Jesus, whose crown was a circle of thorns.

To be honest, I can’t make sense of these contradictions. They seem to both point to a history that the church needs to reckon with while still capturing a glimpse of God’s love and instruction.

The first official portrait of His Majesty The King following his Coronation on 6th May.
Picture by Hugo Burnand. Posted on @theroyalfamily’s Instagram account.

For instance, the coronation reminds us that the leadership is more about continuity than a single person. Charles may have been reminded of this in another moment not captured on television. After taking communion, he and Queen Camilla retired to the Chapel of St. Edward the Confessor behind the high altar. There, out of sight of the cameras and gathered luminaries, he removed St. Edward’s Crown from his head and placed it on the tomb of the 11th-century king for whom the crown is named. In that intimate space, Charles found himself surrounded for a few minutes by the remains of many others of his predecessors, both good and bad — brutal Edward I, the great leader Edward III, the terrible 14th-century monarch Richard II, and Henry V. Perhaps he was humbled; I do not know.

The image that will linger with me took place just after the coronation service. Charles processed out of the abbey holding both a scepter, symbolizing power and authority, and an orb — a small globe surmounted by a cross. It’s that pesky cross that always gets my attention. Even wrought of gold, it reminds us of Jesus’ supreme gift, that he willingly laid down his life for his friends, including us.

It would be easy for Charles to forget — indeed, it would be easy for any of us who hold positions of leadership to forget — that in Christ, humility is always supreme. We make plans and decisions, we hire and fire, we write checks and demand action. And soon we start to think that we are little sovereigns in our own spheres.

It would be easy for Charles to forget — indeed, it would be easy for any of us who hold positions of leadership to forget — that in Christ, humility is always supreme.

But it would behoove all of us to remember the archbishop of Canterbury’s (somewhat bland) injunction to live in service to others. Because in the kingdom inaugurated by Jesus, we will be judged not by the weight of our crowns, but by whether we have wrapped the towel of a servant around our waist in order to wash the feet of the poor.