Musing on anointing: some (rather Baptist) thoughts on the Coronation

I did not watch this morning’s coronation; I read the liturgy when it was published, and have today read the sermon text. I saw various people on social media, including many who are on my ‘generally sane’ list, speaking excitedly about how this explicitly and unapologetically Christian event was going to be broadcast to the world—and I realised I couldn’t agree, although I didn’t know why.

I am not republican: I think a non-political Head of State is an excellent thing, and, while the current form of British monarchy is not a system you would invent, it does guarantee that. No doubt it should be reformed in all sorts of ways, but I am not convinced that, if we ripped it up and tried to devise something better, we would succeed.

I was therefore surprised by the level of antipathy I felt towards the coronation. I tend to ignore royal events: I find pomp and pageantry merely distasteful (if I never have to be in a formal academic procession again, it will be too soon). The coronation, however, actually troubled me. I have been trying to think through why, and ended up, as I often do, in the seventeenth century. (I realise talking about the seventeenth century on the day a King Charles was crowned is potentially in bad taste, but…)

The 1644 Confession of Faith of those Churches Commonly (though falsely) called Anabaptists was signed by representatives of seven baptistic congregations in London, all holding to Calvinistic soteriology, and all directly or indirectly offshoots of the Jacob-Lathrop-Jessey Separatist congregation that had more-or-less survived through the first half of the seventeenth century in London. It is, in my judgement, the best confessional document Baptists have ever produced, in English at least, although it is clearly of its time, and not something one would reintroduce unedited today.

One of its key features is organisation around the munus triplex, the threefold office of Christ. This was borrowed from the 1596 True Confession of the church that Henry Barrow and founded, and that then had Henry Ainsworth as its pastor in exile in Amsterdam, because the former pastor, Francis Johnson, was still imprisoned for his faith in London.

Both documents locate a surprising amount of content under the offices of Christ. It is not just that the kingly office of Christ drives their commitments to congregational government and separation of church and state; christology proper, soteriology, accounts of revelation and authority, matters of ecclesiology, and even eschatology, sit under these heads.

The munus triplex is in origin a hermeneutical rule: there are three offices in ancient Israel (at least as ancient Israel is narrated in the Hebrew Scriptures) that are marked by anointing: priesthood, prophethood, and kingship. To call Jesus the ‘Messiah’ or ‘Christ’ (Hb/Gk for ‘anointed one) is to insist that these three offices all find their true meaning and fulfilment in Jesus.

Thomas Aquinas presents the doctrine like this; Calvin starts to use it as an organising principle for narrating the work of Christ. The expansion of its range amongst the English Separatists and Baptists is extensive and perhaps surprising. It is also dependent on a further claim that King Jesus does not delegate any of these offices: he is our great high priest, so there is no need for any human priesthood; he alone is the true prophet, and so we look for truth nowhere other than his word; he alone is king, and so no-one else may presume to command any congregation of his people.

Now, both the expansion of the scope of the offices and this point about the lack of delegation are contestable, of course, and so other theological constructions than a Baptist one are possible. But the instinctive Baptist fear/complaint/demand is always that some human authority is trying to muscle in on a role that belongs to Christ alone.

British Baptists have not, generally, been anti-monarchy: there is a temporal realm, that requires governing, and a monarchy is a possible way to do that. The seventeenth-century English Baptists, even when persecuted, did not stop declaring their loyalty to the crown—but they thought that, in imposing forms of worship and doctrine, the crown had badly over-reached its authority, and was trying to govern where Jesus alone can reign.

So, to anointing, and coronation, which is centred on anointing in ancient British tradition, at least. The instinctive Baptist worry will be that, in using the symbol of anointing (particularly in claiming it is not symbol but sacrament, as some do), there will be a danger of confusing a proper temporal role with that role that belongs only to ‘the Lord’s anointed, great David’s greater son’. When this anointing is done in a religious service, by members of a state church, that danger might become close to unavoidable.

With such Baptist instincts, the liturgy was difficult. It is not that one phrase or another was unhelpful, but that the whole text at least blurred the distinction between Christ’s unique kingship and the temporal monarch’s role, and at worst seemed to conflate the two. The king’s first words were ‘I come not to be served but to serve’—taking a unique self-identification spoken by Jesus (consider how it goes on: ‘and to give his life as a ransom for many’ Mt 20:28 & par.), and applying it to himself. In the Recognition the church (represented by the Archbishop) is identified with the armed forces and the orders of chivalry, which properly owe full obedience to the monarch. The oath itself does not need much commentary.

The Archbishop’s prayer consecrating the oil asks that, through the anointing of King Charles, ‘we [who?] may be made a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for thine own possession’ This quotes 1Pet. 2:9, a description of the church, scattered as foreigners and aliens across the temporal nations, and being persecuted by temporal rulers (the reference was given wrongly in the official explanatory notes of the service published by the Church of England, which I assume was just Biblical illiteracy, not an attempt to disguise the misuse of the text). The ‘sotto voce’ proclamation of the anointing recalls the three-fold office, and the monarch is then ritually clothed with the supertunica, an explicitly priestly garment—a stole will later be added, with even the official commentary speaking of ‘the sense of ordination of a Christian minister’.

I could go on and on. The messianic texts in Is. 61 are applied to the monarch in the liturgy; the pre-eucharistic prayer over the gifts is unclear but bizarre, somehow conflating the consecration of the elements by the epiclesis with some peculiar blessing conferred on the monarch—is he also to be transubstantiated, or what? There is a moment when all are invited to pray ‘May the King live for ever’, echoing the pagan identifications of monarchs as deities recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures.

The point is not that any one of these elements is objectionable in itself, but that there is a constant press throughout the service towards speaking of the monarch in messianic terms, and towards aligning the church as one more temporal order under the monarch’s command.

Now, I said above that this is all based on specifically Baptist instincts (although I suspect they would be shared by many in the historic Free Churches in slightly different forms), and that other theological systems are available, and one response to all this would be just to shrug and say, ‘If you were an Anglican it would make sense’. My problem with this is, I don’t think it would, because what I have identified is not a claim, or set of claims, I disagree with, but a mood, or a pressure.

I can imagine a coronation liturgy that embodied some sort of sacramental Erastianism. It would begin with a declaration that the monarch had assumed office by virtue of succession, but was now to be consecrated as God’s chosen one to reign over the realm. Attention would be drawn to the parallels with the Messiah, as simply theologically appropriate, and the claim that the service was a species of ordination would be open and strong. Eusebius’s Panegrynic on Constantine would be a good model, and would suggest useful liturgical elements. Such a service would not pretend to be anything other than what it was, would not pretend to ecumenical reach, or to embody Lewis’s ‘mere Christianity’. It would be honest.

Honesty is a good thing in liturgy.


  1. Neil
    May 7, 2023

    It is a shame that you didn’t take the time to join the service on TV before you commented. The themes of kingship under God, service and worship came through very strongly. I didn’t spot any militarism in the service and there was no confusion between kings as you wondered.
    I can imagine that preparing the service would be exceptionally challenging and inevitable there will be parts that people will disagree with. (I would have done some things due!)
    As Christ called us to unity, I wonder if you missed out with your personal boycott, missing the opportunity to share a national Christian service with believers across a whole theological spectrum. You can still watch it on catch up. I recommend it!

    • steve
      May 8, 2023

      Comment *Thanks for stopping by. You may well be right. I listed several specific examples where I thought the liturgy as written was defective. The full video of the service remains available online; if you can point me (by timing is probably easiest) to specific moments in the video where the concerns I identified were, in your judgement, negated by visual acts not present in the published liturgy, I will happily review them, and amend my comments as necessary.

  2. Joanna Leidenhag
    May 7, 2023

    This was extremely helpful Steve, thank you.

    • steve
      May 8, 2023

      Thanks, Joanna.

  3. David Hilborn
    May 7, 2023

    Comment *Thank you very much for this, Steve: stimulating, sensitive and considered as ever. It might surprise you to know that as a former Congregationalist who ‘converted’ to Anglicanism 21 years ago, I had at least some of the same reservations about the Coronation liturgy, even if I was not particularly surprised by its content and shape. Part of my doctoral thesis was devoted to what linguists call ‘pragmatic ambivalence’ in liturgical texts – not least in Anglican liturgical texts. There were plenty of examples of this phenomenon on display yesterday – not least, as you say – with regard to the relationship between Messianic kingship and temporal hereditary kingship: between the reign of Christ and the
    reign of Charles. My son, Matt – a Hispanic Studies academic rather than a theologian, but an astute interpreter of texts all the same – picked up on this very quickly and sharply, and a lively debate ensued. I played the CofE apologist as best I could, but your post here has prompted me to concede that you – and he – have more of a point than I was immediately prepared to concede. My Anglicanism is most firmly rooted in Puritanism, and while processing my thoughts on this I’ve been working my way through Jonathan Healey’s engaging new history of 17thC revolutionary England, ‘The Blazing World’. The doctrinal and ecclesial tensions that characterised the tenures of James I, Charles I, the Cromwells, Charles II and James II are still with us to an extent, however much they were mitigated by the advent of constitutional monarchy in 1688-89 and the religious tolerations that ensued, albeit gradually.

    • steve
      May 8, 2023

      Thanks, David–I hope you are thriving.

      I worry sometimes whether the amount of time I spend in the C17th unfairly colours my reading of contemporary events!

      ‘Pragmatic ambiguity’ is an excellent diagnosis. My concern (perhaps overly-sensitive because of the time I spend in the C17th) is that it becomes something vicious, a way of allowing those who desire to maintain the privileges of Establishment to paper over their differences dishonestly. You’ve no doubt read Pascall’s *Provincial Letters* where he, with biting and hilarious satire, identifies something similar in the Jesuit/Dominican alliance against the Jansenists.

  4. Neil
    May 8, 2023

    I dont think that I am able to make a timeline with detailed comments, but I would commend the early part of the service with its focus on service under God as a key context, important in our national life.
    The anointing in privacy underlined the relationships of God, individual and priest – away from the cameras as for the late Queen.
    I have no doubt that many of your theological points will be correct – but there is plenty to be joyful about and celebrate in the present of the gospel and acknowledgement of the Christian faith at a central point of our national life in these secular times . There is much in the service where Christians can stand in unity, whilst understanding differences in love.
    Hopefully many will have been touched by the service and that positives will emerge and our nation changed.


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