King Charles to be Defender of the Faith but also a defender of faiths

The King shares his mother’s religious devotion and has also shown great interest in non-Christian faiths

At the coronation of King Charles III in the coming months, the new sovereign will take an oath, promising to rule according to law, to exercise justice with mercy and to maintain the Church of England.

Under a canopy of golden cloth, he will be anointed with holy oil, blessed and consecrated by the archbishop of Canterbury.

The Westminster Abbey coronation will be a deeply religious occasion. Among King Charles’s many titles are Defender of the Faith – a title bestowed on Henry VIII by the pope, and retained after England broke with Rome – and supreme governor of the Church of England.

His mother took these roles seriously. In her later years, the Queen increasingly spoke publicly of her religious faith and devotion, citing her “personal accountability before God” in one Christmas message.

“Her faith was rooted in the traditional low church Protestantism favoured by Queen Victoria and the House of Windsor, although she was markedly ecumenical and very happy to attend Roman Catholic services,” said Ian Bradley, the emeritus professor of cultural and spiritual history at the University of St Andrews and author of God Save The Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy.

“Charles shares his mother’s faith and devotion, though it has a slightly different complexion – perhaps more naturally high church, with a particular affinity for and interest in eastern Orthodox Christianity.” The new king has also shown great interest in non-Christian faiths, especially Islam and Judaism.

In 1994, Charles triggered controversy when he said he would be defender of faith rather than Defender of the Faith, in a desire to reflect Britain’s religious diversity. There were suggestions that the coronation oath might be altered.

In 2015, he clarified his position in an interview with BBC Radio 2, saying his views had been misinterpreted. He said: “As I tried to describe, I mind about the inclusion of other people’s faiths and their freedom to worship in this country. And it’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being Defender of the Faith, you can also be protector of faiths.”

He pointed out that the Queen had said her role was “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church [of England] has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country. I think in that sense she was confirming what I was really trying to say – perhaps not very well – all those years ago.”

Now, as he ascends the throne almost three decades after that controversy, most people would agree that Charles should champion the right to religious belief and practice of all his subjects, not just that of the dwindling number of people in the pews of Anglican churches.

“King Charles will rethink what being Defender of the Faith means, but it will be a reflection of how his mother exercised her faith role in reality,” said Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of church history at the University of Oxford. “She was very aware that she presided over a multicultural society, and in practice there won’t be such a great shift.”

Bradley agreed there would be little discernible difference in practice. “Charles shares his mother’s commitment to the church and to matters of faith. Partly under his influence and following her own instincts, she had already moved a long way in the direction of becoming defender of faith in the way he outlined, reaching out to non-Christian faith groups and frequently referencing them in her Christmas broadcasts.

“Indeed, l would say that one of her most significant achievements in the spiritual area was to embrace the interfaith society that Britain became in her reign without surrendering her own Christian commitment. It was an aspect of her fundamental openness and tolerance.”

Social attitudes have moved on in other ways. Charles III is the first divorced sovereign since Henry VIII – although two of the 16th-century monarch’s marriages were technically annulled rather than dissolved.

Until 2002, divorcees were barred from remarrying in an Anglican church. Charles and Camilla were married in a civil ceremony in 2005, with the archbishop of Canterbury blessing the union in St George’s chapel at Windsor Castle immediately afterwards.

Charles’s self-confessed adultery and divorce may still rankle among some traditionalist Anglicans, but it will not trouble the archbishops, let alone the vast majority of the population.


Harriet Sherwood

The GuardianTramp

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