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Why Charles III will be anointed at his coronation

Millions of people will watch the coronation of King Charles III when it is broadcast live around the world this Saturday. 

The Imperial State Crown that Charles III will wear after the coronation service. CSvBibra via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

But they won’t see the most sacred moment of the Anglican service held May 6 at Westminster Abbey

The cameras will cut away for the anointing of the British monarch, who succeeded the long-serving Queen Elizabeth II following her death on Sept. 8.

What exactly will happen away from the watching world’s eyes? And what does it mean? The Pillar takes a look.

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The Coronation of Henry IV at Westminster Abbey in 1399. Public Domain. 

The coronation rite’s roots

Saturday’s coronation ceremony is rooted not only in England’s Catholic past, but further back, as far as biblical times. 

According to a study guide on the Prayer Book Society’s website, “the Coronation is a series of ancient rituals, some of which trace a direct line to the anointing of King Solomon” by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, as described in the Hebrew Bible’s Books of Kings.

Most of the other rituals date from before the Norman Conquest of England in the 11th century. In the 10th century, the English bishop St. Dunstan crafted a rite, with papal approval, derived from the Byzantine Empire.

In the ensuing centuries, the coronation ceremony of English kings evolved but retained its three-part structure, even after the English Reformation

The service consisted of:

  • The king’s promises and his acclamation by the people;

  • The king’s consecration and anointing;

  • The vesting, coronation, and enthronement of the king, followed by the homage and Holy Communion.

The Rev. Marcus Walker, rector of St. Bartholomew the Great, an Anglican church in the City of London, told The Pillar in a phone interview: “It’s interesting that [the anointing] was retained — and very consciously retained — and even the more Protestant end of the monarchs, like for example Elizabeth I, there wasn’t a question of not anointing.” 

According to the study guide, “only the Holy Roman Emperors, the Kings of France, and the Kings of England were recipients of the great honor of anointing and crowning. And the English Coronation Rite is the only one of its kind which remains in the Christian world.”

To this day, the British monarch has both a political and religious identity. The king is not only the head of state, but also the supreme governor of the Church of England, the country’s established church and the mother church of the Anglican Communion, the third-largest Christian communion after the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodox Church.

The interior of Westminster Abbey, where the coronation ceremony will take place. © CEphoto, Uwe Aranas via Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 4.0). 

What will happen

The coronation of Charles III will begin with a procession into Westminster Abbey. At the head of the procession will be the newly made Cross of Wales, containing a relic of the True Cross donated by Pope Francis.

The anointing will follow the king’s oath (which includes a promise to maintain “the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law”), a Gospel reading, and a sermon by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Church of England’s most senior bishop and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion.

The anointing will be preceded by the hymn “Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire” (Veni, Creator Spritus). 

Welby will be presented with the coronation oil, which was harvested from groves on the Mount of Olives, where Jesus spent part of his earthly life and Charles III’s grandmother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, is buried.

The olives were pressed outside Bethlehem, and the oil seasoned with sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber, and orange blossom. (And not, as in the past, with the animal products civet and ambergris.)

The oil was consecrated in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the city’s Anglican archbishop and Greek Orthodox patriarch. 

“This is probably the single most ecumenical coronation in history,” Walker noted, “with the relics of the True Cross gifted by Pope Francis leading the king in, and oil blessed by the Patriarch of Jerusalem anointing the king.”

The oil will also be used to anoint Camilla, Britain’s queen consort. Asked why she will be anointed when Queen Elizabeth II’s husband, Prince Philip, was not, Walker said: “Because he wasn’t king and she is queen. It is as simple as that.”

According to media reports, the queen consort’s anointing will take place in full public view, in contrast to that of the king.

To prepare for his anointing, the king will remove the robes of state, leaving him dressed in simple clothing.

As the choir sings Handel’s surging “Zadok the Priest,” which evokes the anointing of King Solomon, a screen will be erected around the monarch, who will be seated on the coronation chair, used at coronation services in the abbey since 1399. 

An official commentary describes this as “the king’s only moment of privacy during the service, as he contemplates how he is called by God.” 

“Canopies such as these can be traced back to the Old Testament,” it says. “In the Middle Ages, it was custom for Sovereigns to travel beneath such a canopy. In this context, it is to signify the presence of God over this covenant of anointing.”

Oil will be poured from an ampulla — a solid gold flask shaped like an eagle — into a silver-gilt coronation spoon

The Archbishop of Canterbury will then dip two fingers into the oil and anoint the king on his hands, breast, and head, saying in a quiet voice:

“Be your hands anointed with holy oil.
Be your breast anointed with holy oil.
Be your head anointed with holy oil,
as kings, priests, and prophets were anointed.

And as Solomon was anointed king by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so may you be anointed, blessed, and consecrated King over the peoples, whom the Lord your God has given you to rule and govern; in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.”

The official commentary says that the anointing sets the king “apart to fulfill a vocation and begin a new life as Sovereign, dedicated to the service of all.” 

Walker explained that the anointing would take place off camera not simply because of the practicalities of marking the monarch’s head, hands, and chest with oil.

“I think it’s also the idea that it’s the most sacred part,” he said. “So Elizabeth II also demanded it. And, although it wasn’t filmed live, George VI also demanded that the anointing wasn’t shown. And that goes back even earlier where a canopy was — and indeed is — lowered, to keep the prying eyes away from that intimate moment between God and monarch.”

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What does it mean?

The Church of England recognizes two “chief sacraments”: Baptism and the Eucharist, which are known as “dominical” sacraments because of their association with Jesus. 

The church’s official website says there are “five other sacramental ministries of grace that are also seen as channels of God’s presence and action”: Confirmation, reconciliation, anointing of the sick, marriage, and ordination.

Walker told The Pillar that the Anglican Communion had seen a revival of the practice of anointing over the past 50 years, in both sacramental and non-sacramental contexts.

“Probably it has more of a particular connection now, in that anointing has come back for most of the Church of England, at Baptism and at Confirmation, and the use of the oil of chrism at our initiation as Christians,” he said, “and the king’s initiation as monarch is that much clearer.”

He noted that the renewed appreciation for anointing came from “two ends” of the Anglican spectrum.

“You’ve had the rediscovery of anointing with the Anglo-Catholic movement and the refocusing on the sacramental life of the Church. But also in the charismatic movement, anointing is a very big thing. It’s something that they’ll regularly talk about because of course it’s scriptural,” he said.

Walker described the coronation ceremony as “a wonderful opportunity to teach people about what anointing is.”

“Almost the same words as are used at Confirmation will be used at the moment of anointing,” he said. “The invocation of the seven gifts of the Spirit, singing ‘Come, Holy Ghost, our souls inspire’... [a] really direct link between what we hope happens to all of us at our confirmations and what we hope happens to the king at his anointing.”

Walker suggested the anointing was also an eloquent expression of where authority truly lies. 

“The anointing is almost really the ultimate symbol of the fact that the king’s authority derives from something far deeper, far more powerful than him, than the people, or than anything else,” he said. “It’s a real acknowledgment that the place where power comes from is the divine, is God.”

He added: “This is the most public profession of Christianity by any public figure, I think, in any state who isn’t in fact simultaneously a bishop like the pope around the world today. It’s quite an astonishingly bold assertion of Christianity.”

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