In the 1975 film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, a peasant asks Arthur how he became king. Arthur replies: “The Lady of the Lake, her arm clad in the purest shimmering samite, held aloft Excalibur from the bosom of the water signifying by Divine Providence that I, Arthur, was to carry Excalibur.” Another peasant then says: “Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.”
Megan Manson, Campaign Secretary for the National Secular Society (NSS) comments that: “Monty Python are comedy legends not just because they lampoon mythology central to British culture. They also brilliantly parody our existing system affairs of state – which are no less bizarre than Arthur’s ‘farcical aquatic ceremony’’. Megan Manson recently appeared on a BBC 4 programme in which she discussed the coronation and the importance of addressing the dominant role of the Church of England in the inauguration of the British head of state and other public ceremonies. Her above comments were most appropriate.
Commenting on the recent coronation event featuring the latest in the hereditary line of British monarchs, and their partners, an Australian friend stated: “No country can hold a match to England when it comes to holding such an event. It really was spectacular from every point of view. And the music in the cathedral was outstanding. What gets me though, is how the Church of England was at the centre of everything – for a couple of hours! It seemed that the ceremony wasn’t the crowning of the King of England, but rather crowning God’s King on Earth, or, at least, crowning the King of the Protestant faith. The percentage of the members of the Commonwealth who seriously and devoutly believed in the Protestant God would be way below 50%. They were supposed to be crowning the King of England, but you would not have known it.”
As a Scot by birth, I readily forgave my Aussie friend for his reference to the crowning of the “King of England”, as this conflation of “England” with the “United Kingdom”, and vice versa (not to mention The Commonwealth) seems to be a universal phenomenon (particularly when referenced by Americans and Australians). Further, I also pointed out to my friend and valued correspondent that, as a former Minister of the Baptist Church tradition within Christianity, it is a fact that the Christian Church is so much wider and more incredibly varied than merely one of Christianity’s denominations, the Church of England, whether referring to religious practice in the United Kingdom or to the world in general.
Readers of my blog articles, or regular email correspondents, may know that, apart from what I formerly may have been in my personal and professional lives, I am now a member of the British Republican Movement (BRM), as well as the National Secular Society (NSS). As such, present readers will not be surprised to know that I was not one of the minorities of British persons who witnessed the recent coronation event, neither on location nor on television.
However, after reading a couple of articles in a recent edition of the NSS newsletter, as well as hearing of the arrest and brief imprisonment of the BRM’s CEO, Graham Smith (for his peaceful protest at the event – even before it began!), I was constrained to write this article. Further, I am of the view that many, if not the majority, who viewed the coronation event with such fervour, if not favour, may well have been unaware of the significance of matters unfolding at and during the ceremony within Westminster Abbey.
Naturally, I respect the right of any person, British or otherwise, to be a monarchist, or to be a person who subscribes to the beliefs of any religious faith. However, I also firmly believe that the holding of any such views or beliefs should be, without prejudice, subject to the open expression of alternative perspectives – providing of course that they are consistent with prevailing laws that are sensible and are pursued and practiced without discrimination.
With the foregoing in mind, it was interesting to read that the National Secular Society recently brought together people of different faiths to discuss the future of the campaign to disestablish the Church of England. Although recent events, viz., the CofE’s role in the coronation event have led to increased scrutiny of the CofE’s established status and the privileges that flow from it, what this multi-faith conference made apparent was that these privileges are now being scrutinized and criticized by people of very different beliefs and backgrounds.
As the current NSS Newsline (19.05.2023) stated, “It is encouraging to see that those who may have profound disagreements with one another joining together in recognizing the unsustainability and injustice of the CofE’s established status.”
The shared commitment of those who came together, including Anglican priests and atheists, is not only to challenge the CofE privileges and replace privilege with equality. This is a promising first step, and one that the partners will be working hard to build upon. However, the partnership’s endeavors will also include such objectives as “holding the CofE to account for abuse, recognizing that the CofE’s increasingly dire record on safeguarding should have consequences for its established status and the need to separate the CofE from the state.”
Stephen Evans, the Chair of the NSS, has stated that this is not to deny religious leaders the freedom to speak out on matters that concern them, but “they should do so based on the principle of equality, not privilege.” The British system of government should not make “politicians out of prelates”, privileged or otherwise. Such challenges to the CofE also recognize that research in recent years shows that “the people of the United Kingdom are increasingly wary of religion, yet comfortable with people belonging to different religions.”
If the inauguration of a new monarch gives rise to some of the matters raised and questions discussed in this article, then this is to be welcomed. However, for this writer, the recent events involving the British royal family evidences the fact that the event and process of placing a new monarch on a throne in contemporary UK is a farce by any other name.