The coronation service that will take place in Westminster Abbey tomorrow is a drama in five acts. The first of them is the Recognition. The Recognition may not be as well-known as the Anointing or the Crowning, but it’s both very ancient, going right back to Anglo-Saxon times, and an essential precursor to what follows – essential for the King, but also essential for us.
After the entrance procession, the King will stand in what’s called the theatre, at the heart of the Abbey. Slowly he will turn to face each of the four points of the compass. At each point, these words will be proclaimed: ‘I here present unto you King Charles, your undoubted King’ – to which the congregation will respond ‘God save King Charles’. In this symbolic act, the congregation, speaking for each one of us, will recognise Charles as true King and Head of State, and on that basis the coronation will proceed.
But to my mind, there’s something else going on in this act of Recognition. For not only is this a recognition of a royal King, but also of royal subjects.
For King Charles represents not only these islands and the Commonwealth realms and territories across the globe, but also each one of us individually. He is our King. And he will travel to Westminster Abbey tomorrow with and for each one of us.
Amidst all of the pomp and circumstance, the coronation is a radical act of solidarity between King and people, all his people. It embraces the whole population of this nation and Commonwealth in its rich and wonderful diversity, and unites us through our relationship with our monarch.
It’s all too easy for us to narrow this expansive vision of solidarity and inclusion, to write off the coronation as an anachronism, as being of significance only for the likes of us who have come to the Cathedral this evening, or those who tomorrow will line the streets of London to wave Union flags. But that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Why? Because tomorrow’s coronation is, first and foremost, a Christian act of worship and, as such, its primary focus is God – not the King or Queen, or the Archbishop, the pageantry or the music, but God, God the creator of all, the God who in Christ came not to be served but to serve.
Jesus Christ commits himself to a life of sacrificial self-giving in the passage from St Luke’s Gospel we heard a few moments ago. By this point in Luke’s account, Jesus has been baptised in the Jordan, tempted in the wilderness, and now his teaching ministry begins. Turning up in his home town, he goes to the synagogue on the Sabbath and reads from the prophecy of Isaiah: ‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to captives, recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free’.
The initial response of his hearers couldn’t be more positive. Luke tells us, ‘All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth’. But then, suddenly, the mood changes. ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’, they ask. And within a few short verses those who at first welcomed Jesus’ words have driven him out and tried to throw him over a cliff.
But what’s happened? At first the people of Nazareth recognised Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah, and that was good news indeed. But then the implication of Jesus’ words hits home – a Messiah for the poor, for captives, the blind and the oppressed – a Messiah not just for them, but for all.
Tomorrow, surrounded by the ancient stones of Westminster’s Abbey Church, on that sacred site where monarchs have been crowned since 1066, before His Majesty is recognised as our ‘undoubted King’, he will utter these words: ‘In Christ’s name, and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve’.
And once again, he does that not just on his own behalf, but also with us and for us, as our representative as well as our Monarch. And he will be able to say those words with confidence and trust because, before the regalia are presented, before he is vested in royal robes, before he is given the orb and sceptre, and before he is crowned, he will first be anointed with oil – an act of blessing and consecration to a life of service that, following the example of Queen Elizabeth, his late mother, has at its beginning and its end total and utter dependency upon God.
‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me’, anointed not for self, but for service.
And so, on this coronation eve, let us pray for our King and Queen, and for their family, and for our nation and Commonwealth. Let us pray that as King Charles travels to the Abbey tomorrow, with us and for us, he may be given the courage, faith and love to respond to his God-given vocation. And let us pray too that as he is recognised as our King and anointed by the Holy Spirit, that same Spirit may be poured out afresh upon us, that we may recognise our solidarity, not just with our Monarch, but with all his people without exception, and with his Majesty and with them, commit ourselves anew to generous, selfless, all-encompassing service in the name of the one who came not to be served but to serve.
‘I here present unto you King Charles, your undoubted King.’ God save King Charles. God save us all.