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ROME – When King Charles III and his wife, Queen Consort Camila, are crowned on Saturday, the event will mark a historic juncture in Catholic-Anglican relations, as it will be the first time a Catholic bishop has participated in the ceremony in four centuries.
In a May 5 statement, the Archdiocese of Westminster in the UK, overseen by Cardinal Vincent Nichols, called Saturday’s coronation “an historic occasion for the nation, and also for the Catholic community.”
“For the first time in over 400 years, a Catholic Archbishop will take part in a Coronation in this country,” the statement said, referring to the fact that Nichols has not only been invited to attend the ceremony, but he will also give a blessing.
Other Catholic representatives at the coronation will be Vatican Secretary of State Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin and the newly-appointed apostolic nuncio to Great Britain, Spanish Archbishop Miguel Maury Buendía, as well as Archbishop Mark O’Toole of Cardiff, Bishop Hugh Gilbert of Aberdeen, Scotland, and the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, Eamon Martin.
In a May 5 tweet, Nichols said he was “privileged” to take part in the coronation ceremony, saying he’ll be standing beside the Archbishop of Canterbury and other Christian leaders “to invoke God’s blessing on His Majesty the King.”
In a May 2 tweet, British Ambassador to the Holy See Chris Trott said, “We are thrilled that Cardinal Parolin will represent Pope Francis at the Coronation,” noting that the last cardinal to do so “would probably have been Reginald Pole. In 1553.”
King Charles ascended to the throne last fall following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, who had reigned for 70 years, setting a historical record by becoming England’s longest reigning monarch. She had just celebrated her Platinum Jubilee when she passed away at the age of 94.
Charles will be formally crowned in an Anglican ceremony presided over the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, at Westminster Abbey in London on May 6.
Historical tensions between Catholics and Anglicans date back to 1534, when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England. However, Nichols and many other observers have said that rift and the tensions that ensued finally faded during Queen Elizabeth II’s time on the throne.
Her 70-year reign spanned seven different pontificates, beginning with Pope Pius XII. She met with Pope Francis in 2014. The last pope to meet her in the United Kingdom was Benedict XVI during his visit in 2010.
When Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in 1953, the religious landscape of the country was drastically different, and tensions between Catholics and Anglicans were more acute.
According to the Archdiocese of Westminster’s statement, in 1953, “it would not have been permitted for any Catholic to enter a Protestant church, let alone to take part in a Coronation service. This significant step is the fruit of decades of ecumenical relations.”
In the lead up to Saturday’s coronation, churches throughout the United Kingdom were invited to hold a triduum of prayer, of sorts, for King Charles from May 3-5. Nichols invited Catholics to participate by offering up their daily tasks, and through formal prayers such as the rosary and the Mass.
The three-day prayer initiative closed Friday evening when, per the request of the bishops of England and Wales, each Catholic community was asked to offer a special Mass in the King’s honor prior to Saturday’s coronation ceremony.
Nichols and the Presidents of Churches Together in England urged Christians of all confessions to join in the moment of prayer, calling it “a moment of great importance and joy for this nation.”
The Archdiocese of Westminster’s statement Friday quoted Nichols as saying the coronation ceremony would be symbolic, “because it respects our history, it builds on our history, and it complements the history, both in this way, and with the presence and greeting of the faith leaders from the other major religions now present in this country.”
Despite the fact that the coronation is an Anglican ceremony, Nichols said there are still traces of Catholicism, and pointed to three specific moments he said highlight the “profoundly Christian nature” of the event.
The first is that the King observe a moment of silent prayer, he said, saying, “I’ve been told this is his way of expressing his first allegiance which is to Almighty God. And then, that having been done, he can accept the allegiance of others.”
For the first time in a coronation ceremony, following the Constitutional Oath, the King will pray out loud in his own name, representing a ‘public moment’ in the service.
Nichols said the second moment is the anointing of the King, which he called a “tangible expression of the gift of the Holy Spirit, which goes back to Old Testament times,” and is something “which is precious and in these coronation settings is intimate and therefore private.”
This part of the ceremony will take place behind a screen, and the oil used to anoint King Charles was blessed in Jerusalem. At this point in the ceremony, Welby will anoint the King on his head, hands, and breast, an act that also reflects the Catholic act of anointing in the sacraments of Baptism, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick.
A third aspect of the ceremony with Catholic connotations is when the King and Queen Consort will receive communion, Nichols said.
In reference to the oath Charles will swear to uphold the Protestant succession while Catholic prelates are participating in the ceremony, Nichols said the oath is a constitutional act, reflecting “our desire for continuity,” and is important for the “stability and constitutional maturity” of the country, as the King is a constitutional monarch.
In addition to the Catholic representation at the coronation, the leaders of other faith traditions, including Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims and Sikh leaders, have also been invited to attend.
The presence of other Christian leaders and leaders of other faith communities has been broadly hailed as part of the King’s commitment to maintaining the way of life in a country that is drastically more religiously diverse than when his mother took the throne in the 1950s.
Seventy years ago, more than 80 percent of England was Christian, yet secularism and mass migration over the elapsing decades have changed that. According to Fortune Magazine, the number of Christians in England is now less than half, with the latest census figures saying 37 percent state they have no religion, while 6.5 percent declare themselves Muslim, and 1.7 percent Hindu.
This change is felt most acutely in London, where more than a quarter of citizens adhere to a non-Christian faith.
In a famous interview in the 1990s, while still in his role as the Prince of Wales, Charles made the historic statement that he would like to be known as “the defender of faith,” marking a small but deeply significant diversion from the British monarch’s historic title as, “defender of the faith,” meaning Christianity and, specifically, the Church of England.
His emphasis on religious diversity has been hailed as especially important in an increasingly diverse nation where clashes between different faith communities such as Hindus and Muslims are still happening, where antisemitism has been a political issue, and where historic differences between Catholics and Protestants can still be felt in Northern Ireland.
In addition to sending Parolin as his representative from Rome, Pope Francis has also gifted King Charles relics of what are believed to be the True Cross on which Christ was crucified, which will be included in a new processional Cross of Wales to be used at the Charles’s coronation.
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In his statement Friday, Nichols said he sees the diverse participation in Saturday’s coronation as part of Charles’s commitment to openness with regard to all faiths and their free expression in British society, alongside the country’s Christian roots.
Referring to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s suggestion during the ceremony that people pledge their allegiance to the King, Nichols said it is an invitation, not a command.
“It’s a lovely invitation and I hope people will take it up in their own way to express that they wish King Charles God’s blessing, and they wish him well in his spirit of service which he brings to this coronation,” he said.
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen