No one does it better. Pageantry: Flags, horses, carriages, polished brass (and gold), uniforms, music, processions and a reach back into history that stretches a thousand years and more. Yesterday was a big day in the life of our nation. Very few of us have witnessed a coronation, though I did (on Wednesday) have a conversation with someone who (as a young girl) had stood outside Westminster Abbey when Queen Elizabeth was crowned and who still remembers moments from that day (especially the Queen of Tonga arriving in the pouring rain, dressed in her traditional South Pacific costume and working the crowd with a huge smile on her face).
What did we see? The newspapers, the TV, internet and radio had made a lot of just how strange the Coronation service would be. Some folk resent the whole idea of a modern democracy like ours holding onto the idea of our Head of State being a hereditary monarch – that’s absolutely fine. The United Kingdom has a proud tradition of dissent – being able to question or voice that dissent far from being unpatriotic is a thoroughly British thing whereas in some countries no one can question those in power without risking their freedom of life itself.
But even those who are convinced royalists may initially have been baffled by the ceremony. (Three cheers for the CofE’s communications departments for helping us to understand). There was so much symbolism involved for the thing is, there are some things that are really difficult to put into words and where symbols (rather than words) carry some of the weight of what we are trying to say.
The language of symbols is not as uncommon as you might imagine. You may be fortunate to have a purplish piece of paper in your wallet: it is ‘just’ a piece of paper (though admittedly the new notes are harder to rip or destroy) but it is also a £20 pound note. It’s not a piece of paper you’d be happy to lose because it is more than a piece of paper. The ring on my finger is more than a piece of gold. It could be that the vicar just likes ‘bling’…but it is actually an expression of my wife’s love for me. The ring is also a ‘promise’- I wouldn’t want to lose it. Music carries symbolism: Nigel Farage from UKIP and the Brexit campaign would presumably not appreciate entering a conference to the sound of the Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – the EU ‘anthem. Images in art, photography, films, sculpture reference other images, they make connections in our minds that overlay how we might appreciate or interpret what the artist is trying to communicate – so that, for example, an image of a mother cradling her baby in a war torn country might reference the Virgin Mary cradling Jesus.
Symbols. Bread and wine (of course) in churches…and water, and oil, and ash (for Ash Wednesday) and the cross, particular items of clothing. The building too (Westminster Abbey) being significant – remarkably it witnessed the coronation of William the Conqueror. The links to an ancient past reminding us that we must find a ‘useable history’ in our past without being hemmed in by those things of which we are ashamed or which have no relevance. The fact that the coronation was a religious event says something about the place of faith in our society and the values to which we aspire.
And then some people themselves carried symbolic roles. Even if they didn’t have speaking parts, it says something about our country that members of the main faith traditions in the country played a part in the service. It says something that members of the main Christian denominations had a role too and that participants in the ceremony reflected the multi-cultural nature of our country. Huge thought will have been given to who did what – because the service was an attempt to reflect who we are as a people.
And then there were symbolic things: things presented to the King but presented because they carry meaning. A bible was given because we still believe its teaching is important (even if many don’t share its faith), there were any number of items presented that spoke of justice…but particularly of justice being tempered with mercy. (Spurs, swords, bracelets, gloves, a sceptre, a rod). Our King may no longer have the power of an absolute monarch but his coronation expressed what we feel about power – that it is for the protection of the weak, upholding that which is good and standing against that which would destroy or undermine the common good.
A ring was given – a symbol of a promise and commitment made. In an echo of ordination a stole was presented – again a symbol of service. A crown was placed on the King’s head but it was only placed after the King had promised his people that he will serve them to the best of his ability – it is a crown offered to someone who has committed themselves to Christian service and who was then anointed with a prayer for God’s enabling to do so. The ‘anointing’ acted as a reminder of commissioning and empowering for ministry as at an ordination. The anointing reminding Anglicans in particular that, under God, a lay person (not a priest) is head of our church (not an insignificant thing). Only then the crown. No longer a crown offered (as in days of old) to a conqueror in battle but the honouring of someone committing themselves to the selfless service of the country. And a crown removed as King and Queen knelt to receive communion, acknowledging their dependence upon the King of Kings. And, of course, on top of the crown?…a not insignificant cross. At the head of the procession and atop the great Crown itself, a cross. The cross carries so many meanings but the one made central to the service yesterday was this.
Greatness lies in the service of God and of our neighbour and the two hold together. That’s why we pray for the king and for ourselves today – for living this way, the way of the cross is fulfilling but incredibly hard and we need all the help we can get.
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