King Charles III meets Catholic delegation, other religious leaders ahead of coronation
OXFORD, England (OSV News) — England’s Catholic cardinal has pledged his church’s allegiance to King Charles III ahead of his May 6 coronation, as the new monarch praised the work of faith communities in national life.
“For so many years, we have observed your desire and unstinting efforts to explore and enhance the well-being of the entire human family, through your commitment to religious faith, protection of the environment and relief of poverty,” said Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster. “The Catholic community is profoundly supportive of these fundamental concerns, as we strive to offer our society, your kingdom, an education for young people that is rooted in faith and its consequent commitment to human dignity.”
The cardinal spoke while heading a 12-member Catholic delegation to a March 9 ceremony in London’s Buckingham Palace, during which similar pledges were made by the representatives of the Protestant Church of England and Church of Scotland and 27 other Christian denominations, as well as of Jewish communities, royal academies, city guilds and historic universities.
Cardinal Nichols said British Catholics remembered the “remarkable and unique role” played by the king’s late mother, Queen Elizabeth II, and would give “support and prayers” to Charles III, while also appreciating his “steadfast opposition to religious persecution.”
Meanwhile, the king paid tribute to the contribution of churches and other associations to the United Kingdom’s “national fabric,” and to advancing mutual knowledge and understanding.
“You underpin the very foundations on which our country is built and help construct a framework of excellence and achievement within which our civil society functions and our national narrative can be formed,” Charles III said at the ceremony, where “Privileged Bodies” historically allowed special access to the British monarch were in attendance.
“You remind us of an essential truth — that a nation’s wealth and strength can be found, beyond the size of its economy or its place in the geopolitical landscape, in the values it embodies: mutual respect, diversity, tolerance, fairness and friendship.”
Cardinal Nichols’ spokesman, Alexander DesForges, told OSV News he still awaited details of a role for Catholics in the upcoming coronation, but said the church and Vatican would count on continuing “joint collaborative work” with the king in areas from interfaith ties to volunteering.
Meanwhile, another leading Catholic said Charles III’s proven interest in religion was welcome “in the context of a very secular political establishment,” adding that the royal coronation ceremony, dating back a thousand years, had remained “powerfully and profoundly Catholic” in design.
Joseph Shaw, chairman of England’s Latin Mass Society, added that, “despite small changes after the Reformation, the ceremony is more deeply Catholic in symbolism and language than that of avowedly Catholic monarchs in other countries.”
“The idea of monarchy remains consonant with Catholic conceptions for the ordering of society under God. Whatever the personal limitations of particular monarchs, monarchy is something Catholics should cherish for what it represents.”
Charles III inherited the title of supreme governor of the Church of England, the official state denomination, with prerogative powers to approve its decisions, including the appointment of bishops.
He will be expected to open the church’s governing General Synod and maintain close ties with Justin Welby, the 105th Archbishop of Canterbury, as well as 42 autonomous churches making up the worldwide Anglican Communion, whose 85 million members make it the world’s third largest Christian denomination after Catholicism and Orthodoxy.
In previous statements as Prince of Wales, however, the king pledged to uphold his church’s role in “protecting the free practice of all religious faiths,” including the Catholic Church, which was forcibly suppressed and persecuted in the 16th century and allowed limited rights only in 1829.
In his OSV News interview, Joseph Shaw said Catholics understood the new king was constitutionally barred from “taking up political positions,” but hoped he would continue exerting a “cultural influence” and promoting interfaith understanding.
However, he added that the monarch’s place as head of the established Church of England was key to holding back “negative secularization,” and said he hoped Charles would not attempt to be “everything to everyone.”
“The monarch can appeal to the people over the heads of the political elites, and be a force for national identity and feeling which the elites wouldn’t be capable of providing,” Shaw, an Oxford University philosophy professor, told OSV News. “Although his Anglican faith differs from mine, it has its own coherence, which shouldn’t be diluted in some vague bid to represent everyone. The king has made his friendliness to Catholics clear, and can demonstrate this by helping maintain the British state’s spiritual dimension.”
The May 6 coronation, which will be open to 2,200 individuals, including government leaders and foreign VIPs, will formally confer royal titles automatically assumed by Charles III from his mother, and will be marked by a public holiday, street parties and a “Big Help Out” volunteering initiative.
The Protestant service, held for nine centuries in Westminster Abbey, will be organized, according to tradition, by the Duke of Norfolk, Edward Fitzalan-Howard — Britain’s highest-ranking noble and most senior lay Catholic — and will feature a Gospel choir and Greek Orthodox music in memory of the King’s Greek-born father, Prince Philip, as well as the Latin Veni Creator Spiritus used at episcopal consecrations.
The king will be crowned on a 700-year-old chair with the solid gold St. Edward’s Crown, and will be presented with the orb and scepter pictured last autumn atop the late queen’s coffin.
Holy oil for anointing the monarch and his queen-consort, Camilla, was consecrated March 4 at Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher by the Greek Orthodox Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem and was made from groves at the city’s Mount of Olives and Mary Magdalene monastery, burial place of Charles III’s Orthodox grandmother, Princess Alice of Greece.
However, Buckingham Palace sources said the religious ceremony, though “rooted in long-standing traditions,” also would be smaller in scale than that of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, with a shorter procession.
They added that the service would be representative of different faiths and community groups, in line with the king’s wishes, and said the traditional coronation oath to preserve the “rights and privileges” of Protestant bishops and clergy was likely to be modified.
In his March 9 address to the king, Cardinal Nichols said Britain’s Catholic community held “together in a common faith” people from “different nationalities, languages, cultures and customs.”
He added that the Catholic faith required “a particular concern” toward those “fleeing violence and poverty” and “trapped in human trafficking and modern slavery,” and said Catholics shared the monarch’s view that society could only thrive “through a clear collective commitment to vital principles of freedom of conscience, generosity of spirit and care for others.”
DesForges said it was expected the cardinal, who delivered a prayer at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral, would have a “speaking role” at the coronation “in accordance with previous royal occasions.”
“Things have clearly changed for Catholics here over the last century, with a slow process of integration,” the church spokesman said.
“This process was evident under the cardinal’s two predecessors and is still continuing today, and I don’t think there’ll be any shift from this, as Catholics play a fuller part in public life.”
Recent statistics show that Catholics make up around 13% of the United Kingdom’s 67 million inhabitants, with Anglicans at 14%, although religious affiliations have declined sharply across the country, with only around half of citizens declaring themselves Christian in recent surveys, compared to more than 70% two decades ago.
Queen Elizabeth II (1926-2022) made four trips to the Vatican from the time of Pope Pius XII (when she was still a princess) to Pope Francis. She also hosted St John Paul II in 1982 and Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 in the first British visits by reigning pontiffs.
The then-Prince Charles visited the Vatican in 1985, 2009 and 2017, as well as for the October 2019 canonization of St. John Henry Newman.
Jonathan Luxmoore writes for OSV News from Oxford, England.