When Charles III is crowned as King Charles III, people across the United Kingdom and in Commonwealth countries across the world will be invited to cry out and swear their allegiance to the new King.
I won’t be doing that. There are two key reasons for this. The first relates to the relationship between Australia and the UK. I wrote about that in my previous blog. The second arises from my understanding of Christian faith and theology, which I will address in this blog.
This area of concern that informs my decision emerges from my own faith, and my understanding of “kingship” in the heritage and traditions of that faith. In Hebrew Scripture, the king of Israel was expected to “trust in the Lord” (Ps 21:7), “rejoice in God” (Ps 63:11), and “judge [the] people with righteousness, and [the] poor with justice” which have been granted by God (Ps 72:1–2). That was the ideal. The reality was different.
We know, of course, from the narratives that tell the story of Israel over many generations (1–2 Samuel, 1–2 Kings, 1–2 Chronicles), that many kings failed in this requirement, and “did evil in the sight of the Lord”, fulfilling the predictive prophecy of the prophet Samuel (1 Sam 8:10–18). Nevertheless, the idealised view of kingship, which Samuel dutifully set out in writing for the people (1 Sam 10:26), held sway through the ensuing centuries.
This idealised view was particularly developed in the portrayal of Solomon, who was seen to be filled with “wisdom and knowledge”, and granted “riches, possessions, and honour, such as none of the kings had who were before you, and none after you shall have the like” (2 Chron 1:7–12, especially verses 10 and 12).
Indeed, King Solomon is said to have “excelled all the kings of the earth in riches and in wisdom. And all the kings of the earth sought the presence of Solomon to hear his wisdom, which God had put into his mind. Every one of [those kings] brought silver and gold, so much, year by year.” (2 Chron 9:22–24).
This wonderfully wise, insightful, discerning man, Solomon—bearing a name derived from the Hebrew for peace, “shalom”—became a powerhouse in the ancient world. But he did not always live as a man of peace. Indeed, he used his 4,000 horses and chariots and 12,000 horsemen to good effect; we read that “he ruled over all the kings from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines and to the border of Egypt.” (2 Chron 9:26).
Solomon was remembered as king over the greatest expanse of land claimed by Israel in all of history. Solomon was a warrior. And warrior-kings were powerful, tyrannical in their exercise of power, ruthless in the way that they disposed of rivals for the throne and enemies on the battlefield alike. Think Alexander the Great. Think Charlemagne. Think Genghis Khan. Think William the Conqueror.
Solomon reigned for 40 years—a long, wealthy, successful time. That is the model of kingship which survives through into the modern era. We expect kings to rule. We expect them to invade and enforce and dominate, for that is the heritage passed on. (And I won’t comment on Solomon’s marital relationships; I will leave 1 Kings 11:3 to,speak for itself!)
In a fascinating article about the coronation, British biblical scholar Margaret Barker notes that the story of Solomon, anointed by the priest Zadok and the prophet Samuel (1 Kings 1:34, 39), is central to the symbolism and mythology that informs the service of the coronation. She explains how a number of the symbols in Westminster Cathedral, the setting for this ceremony, hearken back to the glories of Solomon. The coronation taking place this week references and relies upon the story of Solomon. See https://www.churchtimes.co.uk/articles/2023/28-april/features/features/zadok-and-melchizedek-and-their-place-in-coronation
Indeed, at the moment of anointing of the King, a prayer is to be offered that draws this direct connection: “thy prophets of old anointed kings and priests to serve in thy name”, and as the anointing is carried out (in private, behind a screen, the anthem by Handel is sung, “ZADOK the Priest”, while the Archbishop declares, “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”. The connection is crystal clear.
And even the weird line that the people are invited to say, “May the King live forever”—not just “Long live King Charles”, but the impossible “May the King live forever”—is because of the story of Solomon, mediated through Handel, as my colleague Avril Hannah-Jones notes; see https://revdocgeek.com/2023/05/05/zadok-the-priest/#more-4465
Beyond the symbolism, however, the reality of the British monarchy emulates the way that Solomon exercised his rule, as a fierce expansionary leader. The promise to Abraham, that he would be given land by God (Gen 12:1), was set out in full detail in words given to Moses (as it was thought), where God promises the people that “I will set your borders from the Red Sea to the sea of the Philistines, and from the wilderness to the Euphrates” (Exod 23:31).
That great extent of territory was nowhere near what Joshua or the Judges, or David or Saul ruled over; but by the time of Solomon, it is said that “Solomon was sovereign over all the kingdoms from the Euphrates to the land of the Philistines, even to the border of Egypt” (1 Ki 4:21). He had expanded his empire to the fullest extent. And the land was captured by force—pure, simple, aggressive military conquest.
The story of the British Empire is one of relentless expansion, built on the back of trading, invasion, colonisation, slavery, and systematic oppression. The British Empire stretched right around the globe; that gave rise to the saying, “the sun never sets on the British Empire”.
So the power of the King (or Queen) was felt in multitudes of countries, where local wealth was plundered and alien systems of government were imposed: India, Kenya, Rhodesia, Nyasaland, Malaya, Aden, Ireland, Palestine, South Africa—and Australia, as I canvassed in my previous blog.
On the cruelties and injustices perpetrated by the British, see https://www.abc.net.au/news/2022-09-18/queen-elizabeth-ii-empire-colonialism-history/101430296 and https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2022/04/04/the-british-empire-was-much-worse-than-you-realize-caroline-elkinss-legacy-of-violence
On “stuff the British stole”—artefacts that were taken from the colonies to be displayed in the homes and museums of the Mother Country, see https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2022/nov/01/stuff-the-british-stole-australia-abc-tv-series-marc-fennell-colonial-history
It is only in recent years that some statements of regret and apologies have been issued by the Queen, or other key members of the royal family, relating to specific colonial situations; and that some artefacts have been returned to their countries of origin after spending decades in UK museums. That is a start towards backing away from past injustices—but much more can, and should, be done.
More than this: “Solomon sat on the throne of the Lord, succeeding his father David as king; he prospered, and all Israel obeyed him” (1 Chron 29:23). He was considered to be the specific personal representation of the divine in Israelite society. That is directly mirrored in the way that King Charles III will be declared to be “Defender of the Faith” and also in the fact that he has the role of Head of the Church of England.
“Defender of the Faith” was conferred on Henry VIII by Pope Leo X in 1521, and every monarch since then has carried this title. The title of Head of the Church of England was adopted by Henry VIII in 1536, when he seized assets of the Catholic Church in England and Wales and declared the Church of England to be the established church.
The intertwining and enmeshing of state and religion is clear in these two titles—again, directly echoing the situation with Solomon and Israel. Although there is a stream within ancient Israelite religion which yearns and prays for the king to demonstrate the justice and righteousness that God desired for the nation. “By justice a king gives stability to the land”, says the sage, “but one who makes heavy exactions ruins it” (Prov 29:4).
Before being overrun by the Babylonians, one prophet in Israel declared that “the king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (Isa 32:1); another prophet, years later during the Exile, declared that “the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (Jer 23:5).
That hope, in Christian theology, was taken up in Jesus, who was claimed to be the righteous branch, the one ruling with justice (Matt 12:15–21). Jesus spoke clearly about the need for justice in our lives (Matt 23:23; Luke 7:29). He provided a clear countercultural vision for his followers, and called them into a radically different way of living. Yet the church went a different pathway, thanks to the influence of Constantine and then the theologians and popes that followed after him.
And in recent centuries, the church in the UK has gleefully merged this fervent prophetic hope with the dominance of the monarchy, and blunted any of the sharpness of the message of Jesus. They have continued to support a system in which the British monarch is regarded as their spiritual leader and yet injustice continues to be perpetrated in their society, and in their Empire and then Commonwealth.
Canon Glenn Loughrey has recently reflected on this situation, writing that “the participation of church UK in the blessing of the continuation of the system which decimated Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and others across the globe is both a denial of and a continuation of the church in all its forms in colonial genocide”. To continue to support the system which caused such damage is unjust and unethical.
Now, it is true that the King will be greeted on arrival at the Abbey by a young Chapel Royal Chorister, “in the name of the King of Kings”, to which the King responds, “in his name, and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve”. And, indeed, when the Archbishop of Canterbury asks King Charles III, “will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?”, he will reply, “I will”; and later, he will pray, “God of compassion and mercy, whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom, and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth”.
Well, we shall see. Will the time under this monarch simply continue the imperial power that was exercised by his predecessors? It is hard to see any different happening. The system will continue, relentless and pervasive, continuing the privileges and power established in medieval times, regardless of the personal views of the incumbent monarch. And whilst it is true that the system has adapted and changed in minor ways into the present age, the crushing authority of the system, developed by monarchs in the past, is still perpetuated by governments in the present. There have been no apologies, no reparations, no acknowledgement of past failures.
Our Prime Minister has met with the new King ahead of the coronation. “He has a long record of interest in issues such as climate change, on issues relating to Australia’s Indigenous people, on issues across the full range, particularly of the environment, and that remains the case, ” Mr Albanese said after that meeting. It would be really good to see King Charles III express regret at the actions of the invading British colonies of 1788 onwards, clearly state an apology to the First Peoples of Australia for what their ancestors experienced, and urge the Federal Government to move towards The Republic of Australia, with an Indigenous President, as soon as possible. This is what leaders of various Commonwealth countries have called for. See https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/04/commonwealth-indigenous-leaders-demand-apology-from-the-king-for-effects-of-colonisation
But I very much doubt that this will happen.
And so, I won’t be crying out my allegiance to the newly-crowned King when invited to do so during his coronation; rather, I will be quietly reaffirming the reality of Australia at this point in time. That reality, as I have stated, is well-encapsulated by the three words, Voice—Treaty—Truth. That commitment is what we need for the present times—not allegiance to an inherited powerful foreign ruler.