Saturday, 20 July 2024

The Coronation of King Charles III, 6th May 2023

Westminster Abbey has been the place of English coronations for almost a thousand years, and a form of the coronation service can be traced back even further, to the ninth century. In the fourteenth century, all this ancient material was recorded in the Liber Regalis, the Royal Book, which is kept in the Abbey. The deepest roots of the coronation service, however, are in the Old Testament, because it is modelled on the ritual for the Davidic kings in Jerusalem. They were anointed with holy oil, and anointing is still the most sacred part of the coronation service.

Solomon was anointed king in 960 BCE, when Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet took him to the sacred spring Gihon (1 Kings 1.38-40). This was before he built the temple where later kings were anointed and crowned (e.g. 2 Kings 11.12). An anthem about Zadok and Nathan anointing Solomon has been used at English coronations since before the Norman conquest in 1066. Since 1727 it has been 'Zadok the priest', composed by Handel for the coronation of King George II, and sung at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953 and of King Charles III.

Solomon was remembered as a wise king, despite his many failings (1 Kings 4.29-34), and his wisdom came from observing the creation and learning how all things worked together. Anointing was the sign that God had given him this wisdom to rule his people. Solomon prayed for this, and the Lord granted him a wise and discerning mind (1 Kings 3.10-14).

The psalms and the writings of the prophets show clearly that even when the kings were wicked men like Manasseh (2 Kings 21.1-16), the people never lost sight of this ideal. Unlike the kings of other nations, the king in Jerusalem was the Servant of his people. One of his royal garments represented a yoke: 'the government shall be upon his shoulder' (Isaiah 9.6), and the passage then describes his reign of justice and righteousness.

When he was anointed with the perfumed oil, the King received the spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord (Isaiah 11.2). He was marked on the forehead with a diagonal cross, X, the sign of the Name of the Lord, and he was given the name Immanuel, 'God with us' (Isaiah 7.14). In the temple, he sat on the throne of the Lord in the holy of holies. The Chronicler says Solomon 'sat on the throne of the Lord as king' (1 Chronicles 29.23). This image of the human king representing the Lord was prophetic since John saw the divine-and-human Jesus on the throne in heaven (Revelation 22.3-4).

The throne of the Lord was not a chair; it was a chariot with four great wheels. The Chronicler says the pattern was revealed to King David (1 Chronicles 28.18), and Daniel saw it in his vision (Daniel 7.9). Ezekiel was lost for words when he tried to describe his vision of the chariot throne - 'wheels within wheels' - but he did see the Lord in human form enthroned in the midst of the four wheels, 'the likeness of the glory of the Lord' (Ezekiel 1.28).

The holy of holies was behind the veil of the temple, and it represented the source of creation. The whole temple symbolised the creation, the main part being the visible material world and the hidden holy of holies being the invisible presence of the Lord on his throne.

The human King had to be the Lord for his people, holding not only his kingdom in peace and harmony, but the whole creation. Psalm 72 was a prayer that God would give the King his own justice and righteousness, for the sake of the people and for the whole creation. James Montgomery set this psalm as the hymn 'Hail to the Lord's anointed':

Hail to the Lord's anointed,
Great David's greater son ...
He shall come down like showers,
Upon the fruitful earth;
Love, joy and peace like flowers,
Spring in his path to birth ...

All these Old Testament themes were in the coronation service: while the current King received all the regalia the Orthodox choir were singing parts of Psalm 72, and many must have been thinking of King Charles' life-long concern for the environment and sustainable business practices, and his work for disadvantaged young people since he set up the Prince's Trust in 1976. The Gospel reading was Luke 4.16-21, where Jesus fulfilled Isaiah's prophecy of the one anointed to bring good tidings to the poor and liberty to the oppressed. The other Bible reading was Colossians 1.9-17 which describes the Lord in creation, holding all things together. The image of the Servant was repeated many times.

Isaiah spoke of the Spirit resting on one who would receive wisdom and understanding, counsel and might, knowledge and the fear of the Lord and he added that he would be perfumed (Isaiah 11.3). The Hebrew word is not 'delight'; it is 'perfumed' and shows this was about the anointing oil. Later storytellers said that the perfumed oil in the temple was blended to imitate the true heavenly oil which exuded from the Tree of Life.

The perfumed anointing oil was a sign of the gift of the Spirit, and so just before King Charles III was anointed, the choir sang the ninth century hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, often sung at Pentecost. An English version was made for the anointing of King Charles I in 1626, and it has been used at every coronation since:

Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire,
and lighten with celestial fire.
Thou the anointing Spirit art,
who dost thy sevenfold gifts impart.

The biblical imagery was not only in the words of the service. The space where the King was anointed was also part of the message. King Edward the Confessor built the Abbey at Westminster that was consecrated in 1065, but some 200 years later, King Henry III rebuilt it in the new Gothic style. Suzanne Lewis, an expert on the rebuilding, said it 'created a powerful new image of monarchical power ... as sacred, based on the ancient notion of the king as 'God's vicar on earth'.

In 1268, in the area of the rebuilt Abbey corresponding to the holy of holies, he set an elaborate mosaic pavement, made by Italian artists and named after them: the Cosmati pavement. The intricate pattern of circles included an inscription saying that it represented the power at the centre of creation - just like the holy of holies. The king's throne was at the centre - as in the holy of holies - surrounded by the pattern of four circles/wheels of the throne chariot. That is where King Charles III sat on the coronation chair when he was anointed.

A screen was placed around the chair at the moment of anointing, to prevent the intrusion of TV cameras. King Charles III suggested that the design be based on a stained-glass window in the Chapel Royal showing the Tree of Life; and Aidan Hart designed a screen with the Tree of Life. The result was another temple image, perhaps unintended, but nevertheless very powerful. These parts of the story are not in the Bible but preserved in later writings: people remembered that the Lord's throne in the Garden of Eden was at the foot of the Tree of Life, and, as we have seen, the true heavenly oil exuded from the Tree of Life.

When we reflect on the coronation service and its setting, it is good to know that its deepest roots are in the Bible. When John had his final vision, he saw the Tree of Life and the Waters of Life, and then he described the throne of God and the Lamb. He did not say that it was under the Tree, but we can guess that it was. In front of the throne stood the faithful who had access again to the Tree of Life and its oil; they had the Name, that X, on their foreheads, which means they were baptised and anointed (Revelation 22.1-6, 14). Christian means 'anointed'.

Dr Margaret Barker
Methodist Preacher and Theologian

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