On Saturday, hundreds of millions of people are expected to watch a ceremony that hasn’t been seen in 70 years: the coronation of a British monarch. I’ll admit I’m likely to be one of them, thanks in part to my own fascination with the royal family (which grew considerably after watching Netflix’s The Crown) and that of my wife, who grew up in Jamaica and Canada, two British Commonwealth countries.
In a ceremony that CNN describes as “a symbolic coming together of the monarchy, church, and state for a religious ritual,” King Charles III will vow to uphold the law and the Church of England. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and leader of the global Anglican Communion, will then anoint Charles with oil and place a heavy crown on his head. The crowds surrounding Westminster Abbey will chant, “God save the king.”
Of course, not everyone will be celebrating. A recent poll of adults in Britain found that 64 percent of respondents have little or no interest in the coronation. As people across the U.K. struggle to navigate a cost-of-living crisis, a lavish ceremony that’s estimated to cost British taxpayers tens of millions of dollars (and that’s just for security) feels downright unsavory. But what I’ll be thinking about amidst the pomp and circumstance is the global legacy of the British Empire, a legacy that includes centuries of exclusion; racism; and plundering of land, resources, and human beings on nearly every continent — a legacy that is inseparable from both the British monarchy and the church.
In some ways, the monarchy has been open to positive change: Since the days of King Henry VIII, the British monarch has been supreme head of the Church of England, often taking on the formal role as “defender of the faith.” Throughout British history, monarchs have used this role to limit the rights of those of other faiths (including other Christian traditions). Fortunately, plans for Saturday’s coronation ceremony signal that the monarchy is seeking to modernize with the changing religious contours of British society. Charles’ coronation will be the first to include female bishops and what NPR calls “the active participation of faiths other than the Church of England,” including Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh leaders. At Charles’ urging, the coronation will acknowledge that Britain is no longer an exclusively Christian country but is in fact a nation that includes people of many faiths and those who are not religious at all. At a recent meeting with faith leaders, Charles said that as king he intends to protect the diversity of religion in Britain, and to “respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals.” These are positive steps toward embracing greater religious pluralism and freedom in the U.K. — and a sharp contrast with those in our own country who falsely believe the U.S. has always been and should remain a Christian nation (or even a Christian theocracy).
But in other ways, the legacy of British imperialism remains unhealed. In the last couple of years, Barbados and Jamaica announced their intentions to leave the British commonwealth, formally severing ties with the British crown. In both nations, enslaved people were forcibly brought from Africa and toiled in brutal conditions for hundreds of years, all to the economic benefit of the empire and its sovereigns — just one chapter of a long history of the royal family’s role in financing human enslavement that goes back to Queen Elizabeth I.
When Prince William visited Jamaica last year, he echoed earlier remarks by Charles and said that “the appalling legacy of slavery forever stains our history. I want to express my profound sorrow. Slavery was abhorrent, and it should never happened.” In his recent memoir, Prince Harry acknowledged his family’s role more directly, writing that the monarchy’s wealth was generated by “exploited workers and thuggery, annexation and enslaved people.” And just a month ago, Charles also signaled the first explicit support for research into the monarchy’s ties to slavery. Yet in all these measures, the members of the royal family have stopped short of offering a formal apology or support for any sort of reparations. Unsurprisingly, planning and messaging around the coronation has failed to acknowledge — let alone seek greater repair — for the harmful legacy of British colonization and imperialism, which was so often blessed and bolstered by both the crown and the church.
Of course, when it comes to the destructive impacts of racism and militarism in service to empire, here in the U.S., we must first remove the beam in our own eye. Though we don’t have a monarch, we are no strangers to the gap between the story of our history we present to the world — and all too often misteach to kids in school — and the ugly reality of the U.S. legacy of slavery and empire. And despite the ongoing efforts led by members of the Congressional Black Caucus, our own country has neither established a federal study to develop proposals around reparations nor agreed to a process that would tell the truth about the ongoing impact of racial injustice, imperialism, and militarized violence.
The problem is that when the church gets too close to empire, it can easily lose its prophetic zeal and independence. It is important to heed lessons from Emperor Constantine, who, by converting to Christianity in 322 C.E., coopted the early church into the Roman empire. The danger remains that the closer we get to Rome, the further away we get from Christ. Just as Jesus and the early church posed a threat to Roman domination and imperialism, we too should follow the countercultural example Christ set in his life and teaching, including the colonization-defying logic of the beatitudes.
Even the Lord’s Prayer, which Jesus taught his disciples to pray — and which will be recited at Charles’ coronation — becomes quite subversive when placed within the context of Roman occupation and empire. The prayer calls on Christians to pledge our allegiance to God’s kingdom-building project in a way that supersedes our other allegiances, even to the state.
Whether you watch the coronation or not, we should be wary of the marriage of church and state that a British coronation represents and redouble our own efforts to ensure that the church in the U.S. retains its independence and prophetic witness. Let’s also remember that the true biblical meaning of repentance is not simply feeling sorry but requires a commitment to repair the harm that has been done. Britain’s royal family has a long way to go before it can be said that they or the nation have repented for the evils of its past, which continue to haunt the present.
Ultimately, it will be up to the people of the U.K. to determine how the British royal family should continue to evolve. But it’s up to all of us to resist and dismantle oppressive structures that place conquest, power, and riches ahead of human dignity and justice. It is also up to us to celebrate and advance a commitment to religious diversity and pluralism that affords equal dignity and voice to people of all or no religious beliefs in the U.S., Britain, and around the world.