King Charles III will be crowned May 6, in an Anglican liturgy in Westminster Abbey, confirming his role as supreme governor of the Church of England.
A former chaplain to the British Royal Family told The Pillar this week that he has no doubt that King Charles takes his faith very seriously, and will use his position to advocate for religious freedom and persecuted Christians around the world.
Rev. Angus Morrison became a minister in the Free Presbyterian Church after studying classics and divinity in Glasgow and London Universities, respectively, followed by a Ph.D. at New College in Edinburgh.
His faith journey would later lead him to join the Church of Scotland, known locally as The Kirk.
Morrison was moderator of the Church of Scotland – the leading hierarchical position – in 2015.
Morrison told The Pillar about his experience ministering to the Royal Family when they stayed at Balmoral Castle, in Scotland, and what he expects of King Charles’ reign in terms of faith.
You joined the Church of Scotland around the year 2000.
How did you get from there to being a chaplain to the Royal Family?
After I became a minister in the Church of Scotland, I worked for several years on the Island of Lewis, in the town of Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides. But I was also invited to get involved in various church committees and councils, almost from the beginning, such as the Panel on Doctrine, which is our theological commission. In 2005 the whole central administration of the Church of Scotland was restructured, and the 20 or 30 committees were merged into five central councils.
The two big ones were the Mission and Discipleship Council and the Ministries Council, which looked after the clergy.
In 2005 I became the first convener of the very big Mission and Discipleship Council, which was a position I really enjoyed.
That same year I received an invitation from Lord Mackay of Clashferne, who was the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain at that time, and who had been an elder of mine at a previous congregation.
He was appointed by Queen Elizabeth II to be her personal representative at the general assembly of the Church of Scotland, the annual gathering of the church at Edinburgh. The monarch is always there either in person or, more frequently, through a representative.
That person is called the high commissioner, and they usually make a speech at the beginning of the assembly on behalf of the monarch, and again at the end, and it is always a very significant part of proceedings.
Lord Mackay was invited to be high commissioner in 2005 and 2006 and asked me to be his chaplain. It was a very remarkable experience staying at Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh with the Lord High Commissioner, he is given all the honours that the monarch would be given if he or she were there in person, driven around in a limousine with no number plate, and a whole entourage.
It was like living in a parallel universe for a week, and leading morning prayers, and so on, for the household.
In 2006 I received a phone call saying that the Queen would like me to become one of her chaplains, so I must have done something right. I still recall the deeply humbling surprise and thrill of that invitation.
What exactly was your role with the Royal Family?
I should first explain that in Scotland, as in England, we have what is called a Chapel Royal which is a part of the Royal Household.
The responsibility of the Chapel Royal, in general terms, is to minister to the spiritual needs of the monarch and the royal family.
In the case of the Scottish Chapel Royal, this applies, understandably, when the monarch and royal family members are in Scotland. The Chapel Royal comprises at present 10 “chaplains in ordinary,” each of whom is chosen and appointed directly by the sovereign. When we reach the age of 70, we cease to be “chaplains in ordinary” and are usually appointed by the monarch as “extra chaplains.”
In addition, the Chapel Royal has two “domestic chaplains,” who are the ministers of the parishes in which the monarch usually resides when north of the border. These are the parishes in which the royal residences of Holyrood Palace and Balmoral Castle are situated.
Over the years, as chaplain, I spent several weekends with the Queen at Balmoral Castle and preached to her at the local parish church, Crathie Kirk, where she regularly attended during her stays at Balmoral. The Queen and Prince Phillip would come to Balmoral in Scotland for a season each year, roughly 10 weeks or so, in the summer, going into the autumn, and as chaplains we would be invited from time to time to stay in Balmoral with them over the weekend.
Besides this, I had the sad, albeit memorable, privilege of preaching there the Sunday after Her Majesty’s passing and later taking part in the 24 hour vigil by Her Majesty’s coffin in St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Queen Elizabeth was known to be a committed Christian, and took her role as head of the Church of England seriously. What was it like to minister to her?
It was a quite extraordinary privilege to minister to the Queen. One could never, of course, forget her unique status, and yet the genuine Christian humility and kindness of her character made it remarkably easy, and indeed a delight, to serve in this way.
The Queen, for example, was fully engaged in the weekly service at Crathie Kirk. The Order of Service would be delivered to Balmoral Castle on Saturday evening and the Queen would familiarise herself with the Scripture readings, Psalms and hymns.
She frequently picked up on matters of particular interest in the Sunday sermon and would, at times, raise these over lunch.
Philip would not be short of a, not infrequently humorous, contribution.
You always had a sense that the Queen was “on your side!”
It’s awkward enough for clergy to be quizzed about their sermons by their parishioners, let alone when they are the head of state. What was that like?
I have to be careful... We are not supposed to say too much about our private conversations with the royal family. But the Queen was always fully engaged in worship and interested in what you were saying.
One example that comes to mind was from the time of the Iraq War, and that particular Sunday there were some army officers in Crathie Kirk, home on leave. One of them had been wounded quite severely in his hand, which was very heavily bandaged. I hadn't known he was going to be there, but one of the little anecdotes I told in my address was about the Dürer brothers, Albrecht and Albert.
They were both very artistically gifted, but their father couldn't afford to put them through college, so they made a pact that one of them would go work in the mines for the period of time it would take the other brother to complete a course of studies in art, and then they would reverse roles.
When Albrecht graduated, they were having a meal to celebrate and he turned to his brother Albert and said: “Now it is your turn, and I will do for you what you did for me, so that you can go and study”.
But Albert showed him his hands, which had been completely wrecked by the arduous work in the mines, and explained this was no longer possible for him [to paint]. The tradition is that Albrecht’s famous painting of “Praying hands” is modelled on Albert’s.
I was speaking about this as an illustration of sacrifice on behalf of others, and the Queen was very quick to see a link between that story and the army officer who had been wounded in battle, in service of the country. She was very touched by that, and spoke about it at some length. That is a very vivid memory.
During her reign she oversaw many very serious social changes. The collapse of marriage – which besides being a social phenomenon also took a toll on her own family - but also issues such as same-sex unions, for example.
As Queen she did not get involved in the public debates themselves, but how do you think this affected her personally?
That is a good question and not an easy one to answer.
It would not be appropriate to speculate on the Queen’s deepest thoughts in relation to matters on which she was wisely reticent. As a mother and grandmother, deeply committed to the wellbeing of her family, she would most certainly have been saddened by the toll taken, as you say, on certain of these relationships.
The Queen’s deep instinct and aim, informed by her faith, was most decidedly to promote reconciliation and healing.
There were also very deep changes within the Churches of the Anglican Communion, which continue to affect it today. Do you have any insights as to her thoughts and positions on issues such as women’s ordination, or blessing of same-sex unions?
The Queen thought deeply, and from the standpoint of orthodox Christian faith, about many current issues in the church and society. She would have had her own considered views on the particular matters you mention.
Her appointment of a number of female clergy as Royal Chaplains might well be taken to indicate clearly her support for women’s ordination. Beyond that it would be inappropriate for me to speculate on her personal views.
Perhaps you could help us understand the relationship between the Church of Scotland and the Anglican Church.
Is the Church of Scotland part of the Anglican Communion?
The Church of Scotland is not part of the Anglican Communion. Historically, Protestantism in Scotland and England developed quite separately. For example, the Church of Scotland and the Church of England represent two different forms of church government – the one Presbyterian and the other Episcopal.
Both are “established” churches, recognized in law, that is as the “official” church of the respective nations, although, again, the form of establishment is somewhat different north and south of the border. The monarch is head of the Church of England while in Scotland she, or he, is simply a member of the Church of Scotland.
It’s worth noting that relations between the Church of Scotland and the Church of England have been considerably closer in recent years. During my own time as moderator, in 2015, a historic agreement, known as the Columba Declaration, was signed by both denominations, recognizing their long standing ecumenical partnership and laying the groundwork for future joint projects.
Two years ago, a further agreement, the Saint Andrew Declaration, was signed by the Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church. These have been widely recognized as ecumenically promising developments.
For a Catholic, it seems very strange for someone to belong to one church, let alone lead it, but regularly attend services at another, or to be a member of two churches at the same time, that are not in communion with each other…
I think that to say we are not in communion is rather a strong statement. Our relationship with the Church of England has certainly become closer in recent decades.
The year that I was moderator we were working on this and there was a great deal of prior work going into these developments, in which we recognize one another as reformed Churches, and the Columba Declaration sought to create a basis on which we could undertake joint projects together, and facilitate ministers of the Church of Scotland taking services in the Church of England, and vice versa.
I had a bit of involvement during my year there, and in fact I was invited by the Archbishop of Canterbury to come down and address the general synod of the Church of England, and this was the first time in history that the moderator had done this, so it was a wee bit ground-breaking.
My wife Marion and I stayed at Lambeth Palace with Archbishop Justin Welby and with his wife Caroline, who treated us extremely kindly, and we had lovely times of fellowship with them.
Returning to your question, the monarch, when in Scotland, does regularly worship in the Church of Scotland as the national and established church, and it has been a happy relationship.
For historical reasons, as you know, the monarch is the head of the Church of England, but that is not the case in Scotland, as Presbyterianism doesn't allow for that, but Queen Elizabeth was a very warm supporter of the Church of Scotland, and was greatly loved in the Kirk.
And Charles, too, whenever he is north of the border also takes part in services in the Church of Scotland.
It is an unusual arrangement, I grant you that, but these are the anomalies that history throws up, and you make the best of them, and this has worked well, and comes in the context of increasingly warm relations between the Christian churches, including the Catholic Church, in Scotland.
King Charles has always spoken highly of the importance of religion in general, and to himself personally. Have you had any contact with him on that level?
It is very clear that religion and faith are matters of very great importance to King Charles, both in general terms, and on a deeply personal level.
His own faith was nurtured within the Church of England, whose services he has always regularly attended. I would like to think that we Presbyterian Scots have also made some little contribution to the King’s spiritual nurture.
My own last contact with him, in that connection, was at Crathie Kirk on Easter Day last year. At that service I had the privilege of preaching to our future King and Queen on the foundational Christian theme of resurrection. It was a rather orthodox sermon, but it was conveyed to me that he had appreciated it. Like other preachers, I have found our King, like our late Queen, a deeply spiritual and appreciative worshipper.
I have heard it said that he would rather be known as “Defender of Faith,” than as “Defender of the Faith.” In your opinion, does it make sense, in this day and age, to have the head of state as head of the established church?
Would it make more sense to have the King play the role of fostering ecumenical and interreligious dialogue? Is there even space for an established church nowadays in the UK?
This “Defender of Faith” as distinct from “Defender of the Faith” question goes back to a remark Charles made nearly 30 years ago.
I suspect too much was made of it then, and has been made of it since. Indeed, in more recent times, Charles has explicitly clarified his position.
This may, of course, reflect a growing clarity in his own mind, but that is surely fine. It would be good to think that we all develop and mature with the passing of the years!
In his first meeting as the King, at Buckingham Palace, with leaders of many faith groups, he reaffirmed his own Christian faith and commitment to the Church of England. At the same time, he spoke of his less “formal” duty, as well as his personal determination, to provide safe space for those who choose to follow “other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.”
This is clearly the right and Christian thing to do. The King’s defense of the Christian faith provides a kind of umbrella under which people of diverse faiths know that they too find protection.
I fully understand your point about the head of state being head of the established church and, indeed, about the whole question of church establishment in the modern world. There are strong arguments against, as well as some for. It’s impossible to rehearse the debate here. The accidents of history undoubtedly leave us sometimes with odd anomalies. To endeavour to correct them can have unintended consequences.
I would venture the thought that one clear positive in the current arrangement is, as we’ve already noted, the protection it affords to people of faith, in an age where the persecution and oppression of religious believers is exceedingly widespread and increasing.
King Charles has also been very outspoken on behalf of persecuted Christians in the world. I have quite a close relationship with Archbishop Angaelos, of the Coptic Orthodox Church in London, and I know that Prince Charles visited the Coptic Centre in London more than once, and when those young Coptic Christians were murdered in Libya, Charles showed a great deal of solidarity, and has urged politicians to do more in defence of the persecuted Church.
All of that suggests someone who is very committed in his Christian faith, but who also wishes to include protection under that umbrella for people of other faiths.
Going back to some of the questions I asked you previously, about the monarch’s personal opinions about cultural and social issues such as marriage, and so on. You said you would not presume to comment on personal opinions that were always kept personal, because of the monarch’s constitutional role, but is that in itself not an obstacle to playing a leading role in a church?
We would expect a church leader to be free to weigh in on such sensitive matters, or others which might have a religious aspect to them, but in the case of the King of Britain his hands are tied in many ways…
Charles, prior to becoming King, would send memos and notes to politicians about issues that he felt strongly about, and sometimes got into trouble for doing so, but the monarch in this country has been seen as somebody above politics, as a person who holds the whole political thing together, which requires being neutral in terms of expressing any kind of political commitment. They have to be seen to be above the political debate, but supportive of the structures and the institutions in place.
So yes, I am sure that Charles, in particular, will often be frustrated by an inability to say things that he would be dying to say, but feels constrained not to because of the actual role he has as monarch in a country like this, where the political system is what it is. I agree, it is not easy.
It's not as if he wouldn't be able to say things about the Christian faith, though. One of my hopes for Charles is that he will follow his mother's example in, for example, using his annual Christmas broadcast in a kind of almost, from time to time, evangelistically, in terms of articulating the Christian message. I think she did that increasingly over the years, and it was wonderful.
She was a kind of evangelist to the nation, in that sense, each Christmas time, and I do hope that Charles, as King, will follow that example and that we will be hearing his own Christian commitment coming through clearly.
King Charles’ heritage on his father’s side is Orthodox. He has often expressed interest in this part of his legacy.
What role does Orthodox spirituality play in his life? In what way has it affected his religious outlook?
I am aware of the King’s deep interest in Orthodoxy but would not be able to comment in detail on the impact it has had on his spirituality. He has paid visits to Mount Athos, the monastic complex in northern Greece, to which he has a particular attraction. He has called on the Coptic Orthodox Centre in London and hosted Coptic Pope Tawadros II at Clarence House. He has an appreciative understanding of Orthodox iconography and values the many Byzantine icons with which he has been gifted over the years.
The UK is seen very much as a secular country nowadays.
Does the fact that the central ceremony in the crowning of a new monarch takes place during a religious service, in a cathedral, show that Christianity still plays an important social role, or is it just folklore, detached from people’s everyday life?
That is a very interesting question. I was struck earlier this week to learn that polling data provided by the Bible Society shows that, remarkably, most Britons appear to want the Coronation to be wholly Christian, rather than secular, or even multi-faith. This, of course, has to be set in the context of declining numbers of our citizens identifying as Christian.
Yes, the UK is seen as an ever more secular country. There is undoubtedly among us a kind of collective amnesia about the Christian roots of so much that has been best in our institutions, values and culture. At the same time, a widespread openness to the spiritual dimensions of life has been noted, not least among many young people. The challenge to us all in the church is to be more effective and attractive ambassadors of the Christian faith, and together to model the kind of loving, welcoming community of which a lonely and often disillusioned generation would want to be a part.
The Catholic landscape in the UK has also changed dramatically over the past century. Catholics have gone from being second-class citizens, in many respects, to being perfectly integrated into everyday life.
Are the old days of anti-Catholicism definitely over in the UK?
Within the UK, it sadly has to be said, Scotland historically acquired a particular and unenviable reputation for sectarianism. Something of its residue is still evident, to a degree, at certain football matches and in particular areas.
More generally, however, the kind of prejudice to which you refer has largely gone, with Catholics and Protestants living and working happily side by side. In the ecclesiastical context, relations between the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church have developed to the point where in 2021 an historic declaration of friendship between the two churches, the Saint Margaret Declaration, was resoundingly endorsed. We have come a long way!
Nonetheless, Catholics are still explicitly barred from being monarch, which in practice means that King Charles, or his heirs, would have to abdicate if they happened to become Catholic. Does this make sense, in your opinion?
In an age of increasing ecumenism, this appears to make no sense at all. I can well understand the strength of feeling about it. We are back once again to the odd situations that our chequered history can throw up. Another would be the rule that excludes Protestants from taking communion in a Catholic congregation – although I do know priests who are happy to overlook the rule!
We live in an imperfect world and church. In regard to the particular matter you raise, the constitutional implications of changing the current situation would be considerable and certainly beyond my pay grade! The really important thing, it seems to me, for the sake of our common mission, is that we move still closer in the unity of the truth and love of Christ’s Gospel.