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ROME – When King Charles III and his wife Camilla were formally crowned last Saturday, observers and royal pundits alike took special note of the religious dimension of the ceremony, which featured members of Christian denominations beyond the Church of England as well as followers of non-Christian faiths.
Among those in attendance were Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders, as well as several Catholic bishops and Vatican officials.
Catholics present at the May 6 coronation ceremony included the Vatican’s Secretary of State, Italian Cardinal Pietro Parolin, as well as Cardinal Vincent Nichols, archbishop of Westminster, who gave a special blessing to the King during the ceremony.
It was the first time a Catholic leader had been physically present inside Westminster Abbey for a coronation, following a progressive thaw in relations between the Catholic and Anglican churches over the past century.
Speaking to Crux, James Somerville-Meikle, deputy director of the Catholic Union in Great Britain, said that in his view, the coronation from a Catholic perspective “was a day of celebration.”
“We’ve come a long way since 1953, when the papal delegation waited outside Westminster Abbey and there were no Catholics taking part in the ceremony,” he said, noting that King Charles throughout his life has gone to great lengths “in understanding and working with other faiths.”
Though he swore an oath to uphold the Church of England, “there was also a prayer to be a leader to those of all faiths and none, which was very important,” he said, noting that on his way out of the Abbey after the ceremony, the King paused to greet other faith leaders seated at the back.
“It was a moment of great joy…yes, he’s Defender of the Faith in terms of the Church of England, but through his words and deeds clearly wants to be a source of inspiration and leadership to people of all faiths,” Somerville-Meikle said.
Similarly, British Ambassador to the Holy See Chris Trott said that given his current posting, he paid extra attention to what was happening in Saturday’s ceremony.
“For me, the really important point, which I think echoed here for the Vatican, is the essential nature of our monarchy is about service, and the sacramental vows taken by our King are vows of service to his people for life, and there are not many other heads of state that make those sorts of promises to God at the beginning of their time in power,” he told Crux.
Referring to the ecumenical and interfaith elements of the coronation ceremony, Trott stressed that he himself is not involved in any dialogue at the faith level but said that his government is “keen to see ecumenical relations flourish.”
“To see in this service last Saturday the full range and extent of ecumenical participation and then beyond, with the inclusion of Sikh, and Muslim, and Hindu, and Jewish members of the House of Lords in the formal ceremony, I thought was very powerful,” he said.
When Christian communities can come together, it is easier for them to then reach out to other faiths, Trott said.
Both Trott and Somerville-Meikle agreed that the interfaith and ecumenical elements of the coronation ceremony are not only indicative of King Charles’s own openness, but they are also important in a social and cultural landscape that is increasingly diverse, from both an ethnic and religious perspective.
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.
At the time of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation in 1953, the religious landscape of the country was drastically different, and tensions between Catholics and Anglicans following their split in 1534, when King Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England, were more acute.
Relations between the Catholic and Anglican churches improved drastically under Queen Elizabeth II, who met five popes during her lifetime, and Charles’s commitment to ecumenical and interfaith dialogue has been hailed as a further step in the path of openness and dialogue.
Seventy years ago, more than 80 percent of England was Christian, yet secularism and mass migration over the decades have changed that. According to Fortune, the share 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.
Trott asserted it was the Catholic Church’s own fault they were unable to enter Westminster Abbey for past coronation ceremonies, saying, “Catholic Church policy prevented them from going through the door of the Abbey.”
He said the Second Vatican Council changed that, ushering in “a much stronger ecumenical approach from the Catholic Church.”
It was this change in the Church’s own internal rules, he said, that allowed high-ranking Vatican officials and other bishops throughout the United Kingdom to have a role in the coronation service, he said.
Somerville-Meikle disagreed, arguing that the historical situation that forbade Catholics from entering the abbey was more complex.
“You’re always going to find people who want to find reason for grievance,” he said, noting that just a few hundred years ago, “kings and queens had to swear that the Catholic Mass was superstitious and idolatrous. Those days, thank God, are in the past.”
He voiced his view that relations between Catholics and Anglicans are largely positive now, and that the coronation service showed “how far relations have come between the Church of England and the Catholic Church.”
Nowadays, “the bigger dividing line is not so much between Christians, and it’s not really so much between Christians and people of other faiths, it’s between people who have faith and people who do not,” he said, saying this makes Charles’s outreach to all faith communities all the more important.
“It’s clear that in his words and deeds that he wants to be a King to people of all faiths,” Somerville-Meikle said, noting that in the modern context, at times “it can feel quite difficult at times being a Christian,” and to have someone there “who’s ‘Defender of the Faith’ and crowned in an overtly Christian ceremony is a cause for celebration.”
Both Somerville-Meikle and Trott agreed that this emphasis on interfaith and ecumenical dialogue is an area of overlap between King Charles and Pope Francis, who has made ecumenism a cornerstone of his papacy and who has prioritized relations with the Muslim community.
“They’re both men who are aware that the world around them is changing very quickly. The pope as leader of the Catholic Church, Charles as leader of the Church of England,” Somerville-Meikle said, saying, “if they want their message to be heard, then they need to find communion beyond the Christian faith.”
While the situation is different for King Charles, who leads a diverse kingdom and whose seat on the throne is dependent on consent, “He knows that in order to secure his position and authority, he needs to reach out to people beyond the Christian faith.”
“It’s slightly different for the Holy Father in that he is unashamedly the leader of the Catholic Church, but if you want the message to be heard, you do need to reach out beyond the Christian community. I think Francis understands that well,” he said.
Trott said that “it’s impossible to deny” the strong message the coronation ceremony sent “about the multi-cultural nature of the society that King Charles now sees himself as head of,” and that as heads of state, he and the pope can find common ground on this issue.
In terms of future relations between the Holy See and the United Kingdom, Trott said he believes they will continue to improve.
“What we saw with the engagement of Vatican representatives in the coronation, the gifts of Pope Francis to King Charles in advance of the coronation, with the gift of the piece of the True Cross, the relic, I see it getting ever stronger,” he said, and noted that his government recently splurged in order to move both his residence and the British embassy closer to the Vatican.
He insisted that he and his government will continue working closely on issues of shared interest such as poverty, global conflicts, sexual violence in conflict, modern slavery, climate change, and religious freedom.
“We need to find ways to try to improve the lot of the global population of humanity. That sounds very grand, but that’s what we’re trying to do collectively,” he said, and voiced hope that the King would visit Rome and the Vatican sometime soon.
Somerville-Meikle voiced his belief that Pope Francis and King Charles will both make it a priority “to find a way practically that the Church of England and the Catholic Church can work together from that understanding between our religions.”
“There are opportunities for us to work together where we find common concern, and also to work together proactively…there are ways in which we can work more closely together, and I think with Charles we will see more of that,” he said.
Pointing to the coronation service, Somerville-Meikle said it “reflects how far we’ve come and hopefully there’s more still to come in terms of improving those relations and what they can bring and what we can do together.”
Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen