The Meaning of a Coronation: In Conversation with Bishop Ralph Spence

 on May 18, 2023

On May 6, 2023, King Charles III will be crowned as reigning British monarch, an occasion not seen since Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. The inauguration of a new sovereign, while seen as a secular act, is steeped in ancient symbolism, says Bishop Ralph Spence. Bishop Spence, renowned in the world of vexillology, the study of symbolism, flags, and heraldry, says that heraldry, which will be on full display at the coronation, is not as trapped in a later time as one might think. It will be key, says Bishop Spence, to understanding the symbolism in every moment of the coronation.

While a coronation includes many elements, such as the seating of the sovereign, and the swearing of the oath, the most symbolic element for most people is the investiture, which includes the crowning of the sovereign. But, says Bishop Spence, for Christians, “the most sacred moment of the coronation service is not putting the crown on the King, it’s the anointing of the sovereign, which of course goes back to Old Testament days.” The crown is a secular act, says Spence, but the anointing is a holy one.

There are, of course, other symbols on display at the Coronation, most notably the sceptre and the orb. The sceptre, says Bishop Spence, is a sign of authority, “very much like how a Bishop has a crosier, which signifies a Bishop’s pastoral authority of a diocese.” The orb that King Charles III will be given is a deeply religious symbol, which signifies to the sovereign that “God is above any earthly Kingdom,” says Bishop Spence. “It’s a reminder, when the sovereign carries the orb, that the King of Kings is above them.”

A coronation, says Bishop Spence, is not unlike a service of ordination, especially when it comes to the homage, which is one of the final moments in a coronation service. The homage, says Bishop Spence, is “a recognition that we all take vows of service. It isn’t seen as ‘I’m your servant’ but rather, you’re making an homage to serve the crown, which serves everyone. “So, you’re pledging your service to your nation,” says Bishop Spence. “We don’t pledge allegiance to a flag, but to a person, who represents us all.”

Bishop Spence also noted that viewers can expect many different faiths to be a part of this service in Westminster Abbey, representing the multifaith reality that we live in, in particular the faith traditions of Commonwealth countries. “It’s interesting,” says Bishop Spence, “that in this place, that is the symbol of royalty, and of the British, we will see multifaith aspects in the service, recognizing the multinational nature of the Commonwealth. That’s exciting.”

This coronation service, according to Bishop Spence, will uniquely reflect the evolution of empire, a group of colonies that have become independent states, who all run their own affairs independently but yet can come together for the good of all. “The word commonwealth isn’t an accident,” says Bishop Spence. The coronation of King Charles III will occur at Westminster Abbey on May 6, 2023. A service of evensong celebrating the coronation of King Charles III will occur at Christ’s Church Cathedral in Hamilton on May 7 at 4PM.

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