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Coronation Ceremony Marks Turning Point in Catholic-Anglican Relations

A flag of the United Kingdom waves as members of the royal family, including Britain’s King Charles III and Queen Camilla, along with Prince William and Princess Catherine and their three children, stand on a balcony at Buckingham Palace following King Charles’ and Queen Camilla’s coronation ceremony in London May 6, 2023. (OSV News photo)

by Elise Ann Allen

ROME (Crux) — When King Charles III and his wife, Queen Consort Camila, were crowned on Saturday, the event marked a historic juncture in Catholic-Anglican relations, as it was the first time a Catholic bishop participated in the ceremony in four centuries.

In a May 5 statement, the Archdiocese of Westminster in the U.K., overseen by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, called Saturday’s coronation a “historic occasion for the nation, and also for the Catholic community.”

“For the first time in over 400 years, a Catholic archbishop will take part in a coronation in this country,” the statement said, referring to the fact that Cardinal Nichols was not only invited to attend the ceremony, but he also gave a blessing.

Other Catholic representatives at the coronation included Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the newly-appointed apostolic nuncio to Great Britain, Spanish Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendía, as well as Archbishop Mark O’Toole of Cardiff, Wales; Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, Scotland; and the Archbishop Eamon Martin of Armagh, Northern Ireland, who is the Primate of All Ireland.

In a May 5 tweet, Cardinal Nichols said he was “privileged” to take part in the coronation ceremony, saying he would be standing beside the archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders “to invoke God’s blessing on His Majesty the King.”

In a May 2 tweet, British ambassador to the Holy See Chris Trott said, “We are thrilled that Cardinal Parolin will represent Pope Francis at the Coronation,” noting that the last cardinal to do so “would probably have been Reginald Pole. In 1553.”

King Charles ascended to the throne last fall following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who had reigned for 70 years, setting a historic record by becoming England’s longest-reigning monarch. She had just celebrated her Platinum Jubilee when she passed away at the age of 94.

Charles was formally crowned in an Anglican ceremony presided over by the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at Westminster Abbey in London on May 6.

Tensions between Catholics and Anglicans date back to 1534 when King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England. However, Cardinal Nichols and many other observers have said that the rift and the tensions that ensued finally faded during Queen Elizabeth II’s time on the throne.

Her 70-year reign spanned seven different pontificates, beginning with Pope Pius XII. She met with Pope Francis in 2014. The last pope to meet her in the United Kingdom was Pope Benedict XVI during his visit in 2010.

When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the religious landscape of the country was drastically different, and tensions between Catholics and Anglicans were more acute.

According to the Archdiocese of Westminster’s statement, in 1953, “it would not have been permitted for any Catholic to enter a Protestant church, let alone to take part in a coronation service. This significant step is the fruit of decades of ecumenical relations.”

In the lead-up to Saturday’s coronation, churches throughout the United Kingdom were invited to hold a triduum of prayer, of sorts, for King Charles from May 3-5. Cardinal Nichols invited Catholics to participate by offering up their daily tasks and through formal prayers such as the rosary and the Mass.

The three-day prayer initiative closed Friday evening when, per the request of the bishops of England and Wales, each Catholic community was asked to offer a special Mass in the king’s honor prior to Saturday’s coronation ceremony.

Cardinal Nichols and the Presidents of Churches Together in England urged Christians of all confessions to join in the moment of prayer, calling it “a moment of great importance and joy for this nation.”

The Archdiocese of Westminster’s statement Friday quoted Cardinal Nichols as saying the coronation ceremony would be symbolic “because it respects our history, it builds on our history, and it complements the history, both in this way and with the presence and greeting of the faith leaders from the other major religions now present in this country.”

Despite the fact that the coronation was an Anglican ceremony, Cardinal Nichols said there are still traces of Catholicism and pointed to three specific moments he said highlight the “profoundly Christian nature” of the event.

The first is that the king observed a moment of silent prayer, the cardinal noted, saying, “I’ve been told this is his way of expressing his first allegiance, which is to Almighty God. And then, that having been done, he can accept the allegiance of others.”

For the first time in a coronation ceremony, following the Constitutional Oath, the King prayed out loud in his own name, representing a “public moment” in the service.

Cardinal Nichols said the second moment was the anointing of the king, which he called a “tangible expression of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which goes back to Old Testament times,” and is something “which is precious and, in these coronation settings, is intimate and therefore private.”

This part of the ceremony took place behind a screen, and the oil used to anoint King Charles was blessed in Jerusalem. At this point in the ceremony, Archbishop Welby anointed the king on his head, hands, and breast, an act that also reflected the Catholic act of anointing in the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick.

A third aspect of the ceremony with Catholic connotations was when the king and queen consort received Communion, Cardinal Nichols said.

In reference to the oath Charles swore to uphold the Protestant succession while Catholic prelates are participating in the ceremony, Cardinal Nichols said the oath is a constitutional act, reflecting “our desire for continuity,” and is important for the “stability and constitutional maturity” of the country, as the king is a constitutional monarch.

In addition to the Catholic representation at the coronation, the leaders of other faith traditions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, and Sikh leaders, were also invited to attend.

The presence of other Christian leaders and leaders of other faith communities has been broadly hailed as part of the king’s commitment to maintaining the way of life in a country that is drastically more religiously diverse than when his mother took the throne in the 1950s.

Seventy years ago, more than 80% of England was Christian, yet secularism and mass migration over the elapsing decades have changed that. According to Fortune Magazine, the number of Christians in England is now less than half, with the latest census figures saying 37% state they have no religion, while 6.5% declare themselves Muslim, and 1.7% Hindu.

This change is felt most acutely in London, where more than a quarter of citizens adhere to a non-Christian faith.

In a famous interview in the 1990s, while still in his role as the Prince of Wales, Charles made the historical statement that he would like to be known as “the defender of faith,” marking a small but deeply significant diversion from the British monarch’s historical title as, “defender of the faith,” meaning Christianity and, specifically, the Church of England.

His emphasis on religious diversity has been hailed as especially important in an increasingly diverse nation where clashes between different faith communities, such as Hindus and Muslims, are still happening, where antisemitism has been a political issue, and where historic differences between Catholics and Protestants can still be felt in Northern Ireland.

In addition to sending Cardinal Parolin as his representative from Rome, Pope Francis has also gifted King Charles relics of what is believed to be the true cross on which Christ was crucified, which were included in a new processional Cross of Wales used at King Charles’ coronation.

In his statement Friday, Cardinal Nichols said he sees the diverse participation in Saturday’s coronation as part of King Charles’ commitment to openness with regard to all faiths and their free expression in British society, alongside the country’s Christian roots.

Referring to the archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion during the ceremony that people pledge their allegiance to the king, Cardinal Nichols said it is an invitation, not a command.

“It’s a lovely invitation, and I hope people will take it up in their own way to express that they wish King Charles God’s blessing, and they wish him well in his spirit of service which he brings to this coronation,” he said.

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