The Guardian view on the 2023 coronation: all change please | Editorial

After her 70-year reign, the death of Elizabeth II in September was a national shock. Much of the country came to a halt. Crowds processed past her lying in state in Edinburgh and London. The accession of Charles III was gracefully handled. The royal funeral was large and dignified. Some 43% of the population of the UK (and 11% of the population of France) watched it on television. It was the end of an era.

Even in those solemn days, there was not, however, a settled national mood about the future. That is more true than ever now, three months into the reign of the 74-year-old king. The opinion polls suggest a two-to-one divide among the public in favour of a hereditary monarch. But under Charles III, the monarchy is still feeling its way into its post-Elizabeth relationship with the nation. The temper of the new era is not yet defined.

The most immediate challenges to Britain’s monarchy do not come from republican feeling. Instead, they arise from the anger expressed against the king and the Prince of Wales by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. By using their Netflix documentary series to paint a picture of racism, misogyny, insensitivity and inflexibility within the House of Windsor, the Sussexes may be undermining the new king more effectively than a more constitutionally focused campaign could do. The publication of Prince Harry’s memoir in January will only add to that.

A very different but no less consequential test awaits in less than five months. The coronation of Charles III, which will take place on Saturday 6 May 2023, is creeping up on a nation that has not devoted much thought to what is involved in it. That is understandable. There has not been a coronation for 70 years. Most of the British people are too focused on the hard grind of a cost of living crisis to spend their time reflecting on an ancient ritual.

Looking for meaning

Yet the coronation will surely matter. At some level, it will hold a mirror up to the kind of country we are. But what will it say? After attending the 1953 coronation, the Tory diarist Henry “Chips” Channon wrote: “What a day for England, for the aristocracy and the traditional forces of the world. Shall we even see the like again?” The sociologists Edward Shils and Michael Young were equally dazzled, but less snobbish; the coronation, they wrote, showed Britain as a large family.

A generation later, the critic Tom Nairn dismissed the Shils and Young view as exemplifying “the sociology of grovelling”. But the historian Ben Pimlott thought that the coronation was “more than mere flummery … it helped to define, not just royalty, but the British identity for the next generation”. If something like that is also true of its 2023 successor, then it is high time that more thought is given to what the content should be and what messages it should try to convey.

First, however, it is important to ask an often overlooked question: whether there should even be a coronation at all? A date for the coronation was quickly announced in September. Yet a coronation is not required to make Charles III monarch. As Dr Bob Morris of the Constitution Unit at University College London succinctly states: “The law does that.” The law was followed in September at the accession. Charles III has been the king ever since. So what exactly is the point of it?

It is a remarkable fact that no monarchy in Europe requires a coronation except the British. The others – Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and Sweden – have no ritual of this kind. Several make do with a proclamation. But only the British monarch is the head of an established church – as supreme governor of the Church of England and, by his accession oath, as upholder of the Presbyterian faith in Scotland. Above all, only the British monarch is anointed with holy oil by a priest within a eucharistic Christian rite that proclaims, in effect, a divine blessing and connection. Is this justified any longer?

Although the constitution still binds the monarchy to the Anglican church, Britain in 2023 will be profoundly different from Britain in 1953. The religiosity of 1950s Britain can be exaggerated, and in a similar way the influence of Christian values in modern Britain should not be understated. Nevertheless, the decline in Christian observance, the growth of secularisation and the growing religious diversity of modern Britain are large realities. The grip of antidisestablishmentarianism is weakening. In the 2021 census, only 46% of the inhabitants of England and Wales identified as Christians. The place and meaning of a coronation that acts as though none of these is the case is open to question and, at the very least, to discussion.

Profoundly different times

This is not the only respect in which the 2023 coronation is bound to be very different from the past. Britain is no longer an imperial power, as it was in 1953. Nor is it a military power on the scale of 70 years ago; back then, 40,000 troops took part in the parades or guarding the route, while 190 ships participated in the naval review at Spithead. Both figures are inconceivable today. The hereditary peerage, integral to Elizabeth’s coronation, is constitutionally marginal 70 years later. The centralised union of 1953 is today a devolved and less stable state. At today’s prices, the 1953 coronation cost the Treasury around £27m. The king’s reported preference for a more lavish affair is bound to be controversial in a cost of living crisis.

Yet, so is almost everything else about what is planned for 6 May. Remarkably, there have been few announcements about what sort of event the king and his advisers, who presumably include ministers answerable to parliament, envisage. We know that King Charles and Queen Camilla will both be crowned (and presumably anointed), that the archbishop of Canterbury will officiate, that attendance in the abbey will be smaller than in 1953 (when special stands were constructed), and that the service is likely to be shorter (it lasted three hours in 1953).

We do not, though, know what kind of ceremony is planned, what oath the king will swear, what role non-Anglicans will play, who will be invited (this question is larger than the fate of the Sussexes), whether there will be any civil society dimension of the ceremony in, say, Westminster Hall, or even what kind of processions are envisaged. That leaves a lot of interesting and potentially symbolic and resonant questions unanswered. It is surely time for the planning of the coronation to come out of the closet of secrecy and be shared and debated. After all, the coronation is not just about him. It’s about us too.

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