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The Observer View on the Coronation of King Charles Iii: Our Faith in These Magical Rituals Won’t Last Forever

We need to think about how the monarchy institution sits in a modern and more secular Britain

How many of us said it? And, of those who mouthed or declaimed the words of the coronation oath, in sitting rooms and at picnic tables, to car radios or pub TV screens, how many did so with a sense of fingers crossed behind their backs?

The innovation of the people’s declaration of allegiance to King Charles III had been designed, in the words of the archbishop of Canterbury, to offer “the general public” what for centuries had been the preserve of “national figures”. The idea was that this would not just be a behind-abbey-doors head-nodding of ladies of the thistle and knights of the garter to acknowledge the new king, but a “great cry” of loyalty “around the nation and across the world”. That “call” to the country was toned down to an “invitation” on palace orders at the final hour. Though some people no doubt enthusiastically took up the opportunity, there was another very British response at midday on Saturday: indifference and shoulder shrugging; a collective “nah, not really”, which was probably the voice of a majority.

Ancient ritual cannot bear too much daylight. In the perhaps laudable effort to make the politics of this coronation instantly personal, the powers that dreamed up the people’s pledge missed the trick of the crown’s relation to the public. Oaths – marriage vows or witness box swearings-in – are designed to concentrate the individual mind on abstract legal responsibilities; to let you know exactly what you are signing up for. It is one thing cheerfully to tune into the latest episode of royalty as spectacle, a slice of Elizabethan drama. It is another to be invited to stand up from your armchair to offer unquestioning loyalty to this particular winner of fate’s lottery and his offspring in perpetuity. In theatrical terms, the oath broke the fourth wall of national pageant. It was a reminder of the truth that monarchists want most of all to avoid: the fact that all of this, the robes and the carriages and the stone of destiny, is ultimately a choice we make.

Over the course of the past week, commentators have been highlighting the demographics of declining support for the institution; the young aren’t overly bothered with the late-life king. The institution has survived poor ratings on and off for centuries, of course. But what Saturday’s ceremony emphasised was that some of the foundations of royalty are also in steep decline. The sonorous liturgy and soaring music still move the heart. But the words do not carry the awesome weight they did at the late queen’s coronation in 1953, and certainly not when they were promoted by James I to unite his kingdom and its warring Christian factions with the Bible of 1611. Few of Charles Windsor’s subjects have faith – as the ancient make-believe of the service assumed – that he has been anointed by supernatural power.

In the run-up to the event, we were asked to applaud the fact that, for the first time, a few voices of republican dissent were allowed to have a presence at the procession, even if the BBC and the overnight campers on the Mall might have wished them away. In the suggestion of security minister Tom Tugenhadt, this was evidence – facial recognition technology and new powers against protest notwithstanding – of the gracious tolerance of our elected authorities. The limits of that tolerance were revealed early on Saturday morning when Graham Smith, the leader of the Republic group, and five of his supporters were arrested and detained, when unpacking placards for their peaceful protest, apparently under Wednesday’s hastily approved laws.

We must find sensible ways to explore the question of whether Britain still wants this hereditary institution

As a nation, we have generally overlooked the magical thinking of royal legitimacy and enjoyed the flag waving and street parties as a welcome distraction from the realities of the world. That sentiment cannot be assumed. The new monarch’s parents were a living reminder of unity, of finest hours and blitz spirit, of duty and sacrifice. King Charles does not enjoy those associations. He has arrived in divided and unequal times. He takes the throne as years of austerity and a biting cost of living crisis bring not only the indulgence of this ceremony but the ongoing extravagance of palaces and retinues and feudal models of land ownership into sharp focus.

The theme of the coronation may have been service and inclusivity – in typical Church of England style we were invited to thrill at the fact that women, no less, were involved in the religious ceremonials – but there remains, clearly, a clanging anachronism in the idea of a people’s monarchy.

To his great credit, King Charles III has never been shy of using his birth-given status to address some of the tougher questions of the world beyond his own privilege. His instinctive and informed defence of the natural environment, and of rural communities, has been profound and prescient; as have his initiatives to offer skills and hope to young and challenged people across the country. It is now in his gift to employ that empathic spirit to shape the tone and relevance of his reign.

The events in Westminster Abbey were designed to mark a new chapter in nation and commonwealth. That celebration of new beginnings must find sensible ways to involve and explore the question of whether Britain still wants this hereditary institution at the centre of power; and, if it does, whether it should persist in all its current grandeur. On a day laced with that well-worn belief that “nobody does pageantry as well as we do”, it is essential to hold on to another of the traditions for which this nation has been admired: that of critical thought, of rigorous self-awareness. That latter virtue insists that we should never be content with the sentimental pride of “this is what we are good at” but must always be asking: is this the best we can do?

Source: The Guardian