‘God of love, we raise to you our Queen Consort”: for anyone who has longed to mention Camilla Parker Bowles to the most high but struggled to find the words, the Church of England is here, with a set of new prayers, to help. Will they work? Given the impressive pace of her ascent from dedicated fox-chaser to – after years of regular Anglican invocations – near deity, it seems almost blasphemous to ask.
In 1996 more than half of England’s bishops thought Camilla and Charles should never marry. When, in 2005, they did, in a register office, 73% of those polled were opposed to her becoming queen. Although the late queen then denied Camilla the bespoke name checks in Anglican worship enjoyed (until their withdrawal in 1996) by Charles’s first wife, she did enjoy inclusion in regular state prayers for “all the royal family”, followed by her 2022 orison upgrade, one that can still shock unwary congregants out of a spiritual reverie: “Almighty God, the fountain of all goodness, we humbly beseech thee to bless Camilla the Queen Consort.”
Now, after a transformation that might in more primitive times have been considered miraculous, the Church of England invites us in its new booklet, Daily Prayers for the Coronation of King Charles III, to celebrate Camilla’s “calling to a life of public service”. Church of Ireland liturgists beseech – or challenge – God, in another Camilla prayer, to “make her an example of virtue and godliness”. If this dismays Diana loyalists unable to forget the rottweiler years, Camilla’s acolytes could reasonably argue that a similar delay in St Augustine’s calling only added to his appeal. There may be hope, yet, for Prince Andrew.
Whatever the final shape of the coronation, traditionalists who fear – as recently reported – that Charles wants some all-faithsy sort of variations on the old template, should surely take heart from the conviction, as testified by feats of prayer-composition alone, with which the Church of England has assumed ownership of the rite. (Not forgetting the king’s probable awareness that a more modest or ecumenical coronation would likely come at considerable cost in Camilla homage.)
While the palace states, vaguely, that the ceremony “will reflect the monarch’s role today”, a letter from the archbishops of Canterbury and York reminds clergy that the ornate enthronement is a religious event: “through it we receive from Jesus”. Though, in a more easily observable transaction, it also receives from the king, in visibly enhanced status, while his mystical authority is, in return, supplied by the clergy in a style that might have verged on the obsequious at the Restoration.
In today’s new coronation prayer we are invited to pray, for example, on behalf of “thy chosen servant Charles our King and Governor”, “that we and all his subjects (duly considering whose authority he hath) may faithfully serve honour and humbly obey him”. A prayer for journalists, in particular, to remember, next time they are denied information on whatever finances he hath concealed.
Repeated arguments for a much edited or secular coronation, citing dwindling Christian belief as well as protagonists less obviously creditable than was Elizabeth in 1953, appear to have dented neither the church’s coronation ambitions nor the palace’s matching enthusiasm for spiritual choreography and knick-knacks. Only the Koh-i-noor has been sacrificed, to be sensitively replaced at the religious ceremony by the largest diamond in the world, the South African Cullinan. With decorative crosses over them, such jewels “remind us”, the prayerbook explains to the untutored, “that Jesus Christ is king over all”.
A royal guide to the “sacred regalia” confidently ignores the possibility that the non-religious, now outnumbering Christians in England and Wales, might find its inventory of treasures, if not absurd, roughly as meaningful as museum labels speculating on the importance of some prehistoric grave-good. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t like my own eagle-shaped chrism-dispenser with convenient removable head; “the oil is poured through an aperture in the beak”.
Non-believers must simply accept that, say, Camilla’s 3ft ivory rod with a dove “symbolic of the Holy Ghost” is too critical to national reverence to allow substitution with a replica more suited to the same nation’s acquired aversion to ivory. That this rod was brand-new on its introduction in 1685 merely underlines, to the devout, the still greater sacredness of an older spoon used in the anointing process. And that this year’s olive oil is literally from the Mount of Olives demonstrates, says the archbishop of Canterbury, “the deep historic link between the Coronation, the Bible and the Holy Land”.
If these links fail to convince younger, more secular, more republican-minded subjects, they may not automatically impress older ones whose presumed pro-Charles tendencies are potentially offset by long memories. Anyone who can recall him, aged 32, smirking “Whatever ‘in love’ means” at the 19-year-old Diana, may think there are worthier objects of prayer. And when did the virtuous Camilla, famously lazy and still a sucker for £735-a-night wellness retreats, start reminding clerics of King Solomon? Or is the deep religious message of the coronation one that the last queen’s conduct helped for so long to obscure: that with heredity in charge, the Church of England is never safe from supreme governance by a future version of Prince Andrew?
Either way, even given the accepted difficulties of picking spiritual leaders, it might have been wise for a church dedicated to the poor to invite fellow professionals to share the responsibility of anointing an irascible billionaire, however docile Charles might currently appear.
No wonder some of the coronation prayers read like a cry for help.
Day 27, “Self-control”: “As we remember the important tasks set before our King, and the challenges he will face, we pray that the fruit of self-control, which informs all our actions and decisions, will give him patience and strength…”
• Catherine Bennett is an Observer columnist
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