In introducing an oath of allegiance into the coronation service, the Church of England has forced Christians – even those who support the monarchy – into a difficult position. We have only one King, says George Pitcher, and his name is Jesus
You know the monarchy have got it wrong when so many people where I live shake their heads dolefully and say something like: “What were they thinking?” Republicans here in rural Sussex are rarer than soft drinks at a Number 10 party.
So it beggars belief that, with things going relatively swimmingly ahead of Saturday’s coronation and opinion polls apparently swinging behind the lush pageantry, organisers of the event should have shot themselves in the foot by introducing an oath of allegiance. This is described as a “chorus of millions” which invites loyal subjects to stand in their slippers as one and pledge fealty to the new king.
Monarchists are generally a silent majority in our nation, approaching it in rather the same way as they do their Christian faith. It’s something they hold dearly, but they’d rather not shout about it. For every union-jack waving fan, there are literally dozens who refrain from wearing their support for the royal family on their sleeve, but are entirely happy they are there.
An uncomfortable choice
The oath of allegiance to the King and his “heirs and successors” (including his brother Andrew) makes them uncomfortable – and even more discomfited that, if they refrain from joining in, they will be making some sort of gesture of lese majeste. Quite needlessly, the new king has forced these millions into a choice they didn’t need to make - and one that they resent, because they find both their options unsatisfactory.
We live under the rule of law. We pay our taxes. But our allegiance is only to God
Some of my neighbours are not sure exactly what it is that makes them uncomfortable about the oath; allow me to oblige.
The first thing to say is that they are a bit cross with Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury (nominally in charge of the order of service) for putting in the public oath, or for allowing it to be put in.
In a television interview, the archbishop was mealy-mouthed, claiming not to remember whose idea it was. He also burbled that the oath is an “invitation… not a command”. For the vast army of royalists to whom I refer, an invitation and a command from their monarch is one and the same.
He should much be sharper about this sort of thing, because it’s not just about royal support. Charles III isn’t only king, but also supreme governor of the Church of England. He is Defender of the Faith. That is, our Anglican faith.
Defending the faith
As Welby well knows, we fought the Reformation for this faith five centuries ago. True, the English Reformation was schismatic from the Church of Rome - as a consequence of the proclivities of Henry VIII (who first held the title Defender of the Faith) - rather than protestant in the continental European sense. But we were adoptive of the Protestant tradition.
The Lutheran slogan that we’re “justified by faith alone” (see Ephesians 2:8–9) means that our allegiance is only to God. Any earthly, temporal mediator can take a hike. That’s a principle aimed chiefly at Church authority, but it also means that kings kneel before the King of Kings, too. It’s precisely why King Charles’s first words at his coronation are: “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve.” He echoes the one who washes his disciples’ feet.
Our true allegiance
Whether consciously or not, that’s why royalists feel in their water that there is a whiff of popish idolatry in the oath of allegiance. But, you may ask, what about the gospel injunction to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:21)?
The Nazarene here addresses the Pharisees, the Temple authorities who have not a little interest in exalting their own status and authority over his, and echoes his claim that he has come to “fulfil the law, not to destroy it” (Matthew 5:17). We live under the rule of law. We pay our taxes. But our allegiance is only to God.
Note that some commentators have claimed that the King should be swearing his allegiance to his people, not the other way around. Wrong. He promises to serve his people (see above), but swears his allegiance, as we do, to God.
Further to the idolatry point, we should perhaps not only observe the Christian scriptures at a ceremony in which the King has been so concerned to embrace other religions. In the Jewish Bible, for instance, the Mosaic law holds in its first commandment that “thou shall have no other gods but me” (Exodus 20:3).
Perhaps no one thought it was worth raising any of this at a meeting which, in any event, the Archbishop can’t remember. But what is truly remarkable is that when Republic, the anti-monarchy lobbying group, calls the oath of allegiance “nonsense”, so many who would call themselves royalists are forced to agree.