I imagine that most of the English-speaking world watched at least sections of the coronation ceremony of King Charles III last weekend at Westminster Abbey. I took in the delayed broadcast on YouTube and found it fascinating for a number of reasons. Perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me — but it did — just how extraordinarily religious, indeed explicitly Christian, an observance it was.
It was presided over, of course, by the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Anglican hierarchs and clergy were thick on the ground at the abbey. The name of Jesus was invoked numerous times, readings from the Bible occurred, a communion service unfolded, and the new king and queen partook in the sacrament. Though it happened demurely behind screens, Charles was anointed in the manner of a priest or bishop at his ordination, and afterward, he was clothed in what looked, for all the world, like priestly robes. In point of fact, the conflation of the sacerdotal and kingly roles was remarkably redolent of Old Testament figures such as Saul, David, and Solomon.
There were two sacred moments in particular that caught my attention. First, at the very outset of the ceremony, King Charles declared, “In imitation of the King of Kings, I have come, not to be served, but to serve.” And secondly, just after the anointing and just before the coronation, the archbishop of Canterbury presented Charles with an orb, topped by the cross of Jesus, and commented that it symbolized how the new king’s rangy authority was under a higher divine authority.
Now, there is no question that we human beings are beguiled by power and those who exercise it. Most of us want power in some form and so look with a combination of longing and envy on the people who have it. This goes a long way to explaining why we look with dazzled eyes at a ceremony such as the coronation of a king. But the religious element, so obviously on display in Westminster Abbey last week, speaks to something else—namely, how legitimately afraid we are of power.
Long and dreadful experience has convinced us that the concentration of power, unrestrained by moral duty and consideration, is one of the most dangerous forces on earth. Kings, emperors, warlords, princes, and dictators, permitted to exercise their authority in an arbitrary way, have wreaked havoc on untold millions and have been responsible for the piling up of mountains of corpses. This terror of power was, of course, uppermost in the minds of the founders of our country, which explains why they adopted a network of checks and balances in our government, assuring that no individual or representative body could capriciously impose its will on the collective.
But such internal, institutional constraints will never definitively solve the problem of the abuse of power — which brings us back to the coronation. The only finally satisfactory answer to our difficulty is the placing of power within a hierarchy of moral values, culminating in the supreme good who is God. This means that we understand that power serves the basic goods of life: knowledge, friendship, art, play, etc. It is meant to foster those ends and is, accordingly, legitimate only when it moves outside the ambit of the ego-needs of the one who exercises it. And those moral goods, in turn, are grounded in the nature of God, the ultimate good. If we do not acknowledge this transcendent point of reference, those basic moral values lose their integrity and come to be seen, soon enough, as private whims or the fruit of changeable cultural consensus.
This is precisely why all of the language during the coronation ceremony regarding the king being under the authority of God is not mere pious decoration or simply a vague nod to the now-fading religiosity of the British people. Properly understood, it is deadly serious, born of a very real fear, and expressive of some of the best spiritual instincts that we human beings possess. Power is under God or it is tyranny. It’s as simple as that.
When Abraham Lincoln was preparing the final version of the “Gettysburg Address” for publication, he added two words to the famous closing sentence, which now reads, “that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” By a deep and sure instinct, Lincoln knew that our much-cherished American freedom loses its meaning when unmoored from moral truth. Whether we are talking about a king, a representative government, or the people as a whole, those who exercise freedom without consideration for moral purpose become, in short order, lethally dangerous.
Though we Americans have thrown off our allegiance to the British monarch, we remain stubbornly fascinated with him and his family. It might be a salutary exercise, as we watch all of the colorful pageantry, to remark that this new English king, by his own admission, serves under the authority of the King of Kings.