Ethics & Christian living, Social commentary

A crowning ambivalence

‘VIVAT REX EDUARDUS! They crowned a king this day, and there has been great rejoicing and elaborate tomfoolery, and I am perplexed and saddened…

Thus wrote the American author Jack London who came to England in 1902 to write about poverty and homelessness. His visit coincided with the coronation of King Edward VII.

The 1902 Coronation was deliberately designed to be a showcase of British imperial power. But as Jack London records, similarly to some views I have read today, not everyone was that bothered:

‘The East End, as whole, remained in the East End and got drunk. The Socialists, Democrats and Republicans went off into the country for a breath of fresh air.’

Expose of poverty

The book Jack London’s visit produced, The People of the Abyss, was a ground-breaking piece of reportage. Like George Orwell 30 years later, Jack London fused his politics and writing talent in a powerful expose of the poverty amid great wealth: 

“From the slimy, spittle-drenched, sidewalk, they were picking up bits of orange peel, apple skin, and grape stems, and, they were eating them.  They picked up stray bits of bread the size of peas, apple cores so black and dirty one would not take them to be apple cores, and these things these two men took into their mouths, and chewed them, and swallowed them; and this, between six and seven o’clock in the evening of August 20, year of our Lord 1902, in the heart of the greatest, wealthiest, and most powerful empire the world has ever seen.”

Military might

The physical and spiritual degradation of the poor contrasts with the militarism and might of the British Empire displayed in unique pomp at the Coronation:

‘I saw it at Trafalgar Square, ‘the most splendid site in Europe’, and the very innermost heart of the empire. There were many thousands of us, all checked and held in order by a superb display of armed power…myriads of men, splendid men, the pick of the people, whose sole function in life is blindly to obey, and blindly to kill and destroy and stamp out life. And…the East End of London, and the ‘East End’ of all England toils and rots and dies.’

Religion and power

Jack London captures the ambivalence around the role of religion when fused with State power. He quotes the words the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Frederick Temple, spoke to the new King when handing him the same sword that King Charles III received today:

‘With this sword do justice…help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay’

But these fine words do not seem to mean much in reality. That very evening, as celebrations for Coronation rage, he writes about the many men, women and children sleeping rough in those same Westminster streets. He meets a young woman who became homeless when her father died in an accident and was now stranded on the streets.  She says forlornly:

‘There’s no ‘ope for me I know, but I’ll die on the streets. No work’ouse for me, thank you.’

The Coronation today

We don’t live in the same world as 1902 today. In many ways, the past is another country. And I know that King Charles has promoted many great causes for many years and the coming Bank Holiday is being used to promote community volunteering.

But watching today’s coronation sparked in me a feelings of deep ambivalence around the role of religion in such events. It’s a struggle I have every time I am in Westminster Abbey, a church which feels like a temple to British imperialism.

On the one hand, there is no doubt that the whole Coronation is deeply shaped by Christian rhetoric, liturgy and symbolism. The fact that it is the Archbishop who leads, anoints and crowns the King are among countless ways that show that the authority of the role is one granted by God.  And Justin Welby’s clear emphasis on the centrality of service (‘love in action’) enhanced this further.


But on the other hand, these words and symbols are overpowered by militarism, pomp and religious opulence. The liturgy and music may contain great content but they are drowned out by what seems like an archaic celebration of nationalism.  It means the whole event feels a very long way from the humility and simplicity of Jesus Christ.

Let’s be honest, how many people really take home a message of ‘humble service’ from such an event?

The medium must connect with the message. This is why Jesus rode a donkey when he entered Jerusalem in direct contrast to how ‘powerful’ leaders marked their arrival.  The way he lived embodied the radical message he preached:

“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:25)

21 thoughts on “A crowning ambivalence”

  1. The words in the service are powerful and speak repeatedly of the ways of the Servant King. And the sight of the King removing his bejewelled vestments down to his shirt for the anointing, spoke strongly to where authority really comes from. But I agree that there is indeed something about medium and message here that strikes a discordant note.


    1. Thanks Guy – yes I agree that that aspect of the symbolism is the most effective – but there is so much more that could be done with a contemporary creativity.


      1. Can you suggest what ‘more’ you have in mind? The service was a development in contemporary ways of course. And it will always be a compromise. What more actually doable things could have happened do you think? Thanks Jon


  2. Jon, thank you. At the queen’s funeral, although there was pomp and militarism, the power of her lived life as a mother in Christ made the stateliness somehow appropriate. Today, it felt as though the church had been coopted into a state procedure in a way that was both archaic and inappropriate. As both Christian and reluctant republican, it was disturbing to see how those not subscribing to today’s ‘take’ on how to ‘celebrate’ the coronation, or actively oppose it, were marginalized and arrested.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I also wondered if the archbishop was aware of the conflict of interest – in his sermon he (rightly) spoke of the call not to hold on to power. But earlier, he’d required the king to promise not to take away the power of the bishops. I don’t remember the exact words, and they may not have been optional, but it doesn’t really sit very well.


    1. Think of the Crown trying to dominate the Church-as in the story of Thomas Becket. This is simply about the Church’s freedom.


  4. great post Jonners. especially this line:

    “Let’s be honest, how many people really take home a message of ‘humble service’ from such an event?

    I know there are traditions etc etc, but the more pompous these ceremonies are, the more disconnected the words become with their supposed intended meaning.


    1. cheers Tom – hope you are well mate. Yes, some people do love the theatre but I think the church becomes too wedded to the pomp and it does not sit right.


  5. Good points about the church’s role in this service.
    At least it has some influence. This could have been in an Olympic Stadium to celebrate our new President, or heaven forbid, the next Military Leader, with no role at all for the church.


  6. Well, Jean, I typed up a really beautiful and all too long reply, then LinkedIn refreshed on my phone and poof it was gone.

    Something about the importance of a unified church and state doing all they can to advance the religion that is acceptable to God, namely, the care of orphans and widows.

    So much for style! Let’s talk about it.


  7. This is such a good post on a day where religion has again been co-opted by the rich and powerful to reinforce the status quo. The introduction by Justin Welby of the pledge of allegiance is to keep the masses deferential and the religious bound to an earthly king rather than the King of Kings. It is more about retaining the privilege of the established church rather than championing the rights of the poor and hungry.
    The church leaders paying homage to their monarch now have a special responsibility to use their privilege to remind government that if hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer’s money can be found for successive royal pageants it can also be found to provide homes for those suffering from homelessness, food for the hungry, and a welcome for the migrant.


    1. Thanks Lee – I think this why watching the coronation reminded me of the the chapter in the Jack London book and the way he contrasted the pomp and the words with the reality of inequity and social injustice at the heart of the British Empire.


  8. So, let’s not enjoy anything. Let’s analyse, criticise, compare, pull apart. Come back Cromwell. How can we even enjoy Christmas with so much sadness in the world.?
    Except that we have deep and abiding hope In Christ for a new future.
    I had a good day. I enjoyed time with my family. I am glad that millions heard scripture read live.


    1. Thanks for the comment Andy. Glad you had a good time with your family and I agree there were lots of good things. There is a time for celebration and not everything should be analysed and pulled apart. I was sharing my ambivalence rather than my condemnation.


  9. As a minister in the CofE I feel deeply uncomfortable with the whole tone of this event and how the CofE publicity machine has spun it. Interestingly not one person in our congregation mentioned doing anything servicewise or socially. In poor patches like mine it felt like the whole thing was met with indifference.


    1. thanks Pip. Yes, the perspective from poorer areas is something important to be reminded of. I led the youth work on Sunday at my church and if we think most young people picked up on the nuances of the liturgy and symbolism then we are very wide of the mark!


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