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Broadcast from St George's Church, Hanover Square

06 January 2003 00:00 | Reverend Dr Wesley Carr, Dean of Westminster

Not all coronations have been orderly and celebrated with glorious music like Handels. It was a dismal Christmas Day in 1066 when the nobles and bishops gathered in Westminster Abbey to crown William  yes, it was William the Conqueror. Outside the soldiers from Normandy, uncomfortable in the English winter, huddled to keep warm as the service went on. It reached the moment when the new monarch, King William, was acclaimed by the people. But the congregation answered in two languages, some in Norman French and some in English. The joint effect was a muffled assent that sounded half-hearted. The soldiers became angry: these mumbling people should respect their Norman king. They needed to be taught a lesson. So they set fire to buildings around the abbey. Smoke drifted into the church where the king, the nobles and the bishops looked anxiously around at another and fled. But the fire was outside the abbey. So the half-crowned monarch, the archbishop and the bravest of the bishops returned and gabbled the rest of the service and escaped as fast as possible. Thus William the Conqueror was crowned king.

We could go on with such stories: some coronations have been a shambles; some have been partisan; but all have been religious. For a coronation is the ritual at which the queen or king is publicly affirmed. They come to the throne at the moment of accession; The king is dead; long live the king; but they become publicly king or queen at the coronation, when they are enthroned and crowned.

Tomorrow is the fiftieth anniversary of the last coronation, that of Our Queen Elizabeth in 1953. There is a service at the Abbey to mark the event. It, too, had its controversy. it was the most public coronation in history: it was televised. We gazed in amazement at 12 inch black and white screens with an unsteady picture. The archbishop and the dean had been unhappy at the prospect of television. The medium was already acquiring a raffish reputation. It might, probably would, profane the sacred service. However, the BBC laid on a demonstration and the archbishop and dean changed their minds and supported the televising. I am often asked whether any future coronation would differ from present one. The answer is that it is likely but I do not know. But I am sure of one thing: the remarkable modern technology of television will have an impact. We cannot conceive of such an occasion not being televised.

There is one point, however, where I expect the cameras will still not be invited: the most important moment in the service. The king sheds his colourful outer robes and wears only a white simple robe  the mark of purity. The archbishop anoints the king with holy oil: each hand, the breast and the head. But four knights of the Garter hold a canopy over the sovereign and lower it for this moment. Contrast the moment of crowning: a very public drama which occurs virtually at the end of the ceremony.

Why is the anointing so important? Because it sets the tone of the monarchs leadership. By anointing you set someone aside for sacrificial living. It ma happen, for example, at baptism, confirmation and ordination. And the word Christ means anointed. It is a top flight religious word and action. For the monarch it is taking that role of king, and saying that this is a sacramental role that means, it is one which is approved by God and which is part of that order which is divinely given. It does not, of course, make the sovereign morally better behaved or more holy. He is as human as anyone, although obviously loaded with far greater expectations. But he is set apart for the role of king, even though he may not act out of choice.

That archbishop and dean were worried about a new medium damaging something sacred. In a sense they were right, even though they made the wrong decision at first. Whatever else a coronation is it, it is inescapably religious. Will things be different next time? It is wrong and too early to speculate. But it will only be a coronation if is a religious ceremony. Some say that to bring religion into the nation's heart in this way is out of date. Certainly, things are very different from the time of William the Conqueror. But there remain parts of life, which even though people do not believe, stir something " religious": the, usually hidden, believing part of yourself is stirred. Our two readings from the Christian New Testament illuminate this. We have to admit that they can be (and have been) used to justify tyranny and oppression. But as we say: the corruption of the best is the worst.

St Peter, writing to those who did not know how to behave when the government was being hostile, says that we must face that reality and live as nobly as we can. In our first reading he offers the earliest Christians a sort of motto to help them remember: "Honour everyone; love your fellow believers: Fear God; honour the emperor". It moves from everyone to a special group; and from concern with God to honour the emperor. Or as we might say: Others first, family second; God first, government second. So 'others' and 'God are the Christian's first concern (as Jesus himself taught: Love God and love your neighbour) and the political and social worlds come second.

So what about rendering to Caesar and to God? The story needs careful attention. Jesus opponents pose a trick question: is it right to pay Caesars tribute? If he says we should not pay this tax, then we can charge him with treason to Rome; if he answers pay it, then the people will turn on him, as a quisling and traitor. Even the coin is itself blasphemous -because it had a human portrait on it. The topic is highly charged theologically and politically: men had lost their lives for less. Jesus first exposes hypocrisy: he gets the questioners, to whom the coin was so hateful with its portrait of the emperor, to take one out of their purse and thus show they used it. Then he shrugs them off by being simple and direct: 'Whose face is this?' They answer 'Caesar's'. 'Then " says Jesus, 'give Caesar what is his in his world and pay God back in his coin in God's kingdom. Get your priorities right.

And this is how people began to behave. It is a mark of the early Christians that in spite of developing persecution, they remained convinced that the world (pagan and Christian alike) needs order and good government. Ours is one of the few national anthems addressed to God. It is thus humane and human: for Christians believe that good government is a divine gift to people. And in a world such as ours today, who would disagree? And so we come full circle. The four knights lower the canopy; the anointing begins; and the choir begins, as they have done since 1727, sing to Handels thrilling setting, Zadok the priest.

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