by Stephen Ferguson | 15 September 2023 |
What many readers may not quite understand—especially American readers—is that when Charles Philip Arthur George Mountbatten-Windsor, better known as Charles III, was coronated in May, he was crowned not merely king of the United Kingdom, but of 14 other Commonwealth realms. These other realms include Canada, New Zealand, Jamaica, Papua New Guinea, and even tiny Tuvalu.
My own country, Australia, is a member of this special imperial club. This Briton and his crown is emblazoned on many of our institutions: Charles III is not merely King of England but also King of Australia. For outsiders who are not an Australian, New Zealander, Canadian, Jamaican, or a citizen of one of the realms, the place and role of this foreign-born king, who hardly ever visits us, can be a little difficult to fathom.
On the one hand, some argue that constitutional monarchies could produce freer societies. Steven Fry, comedian and close friend of Charles, gave a fantastic explanation as to why constitutional monarchies work, despite being “rationally stupid, weird ideas.” Fry explained how someone like Donald Trump could have been better restrained if America had its own king, a hypothetical “Uncle Sam,” who as a living flag exercised the constitutional role of counseling the head of the government.
Perhaps it is for this reason that Australia has not yet become a republic, despite one unsuccessful attempt in 1999.
Do we want this king?
On the other hand, while Australians might value constitutional monarchy, the choice of the House of Windsor as that monarchy is harder to accept. This particular British family represents colonial institutions that have historical ties to institutions responsible for some of the worst events in modern history. The crown symbol represented those who would send men, women, and children into the horrors of slavery, invent concentration camps, and engage in the wholesale extermination of entire tribes, nations, tongues, and peoples.
My own ancestors were not pious pilgrims escaping religious persecution, driven by manifest destiny to establish some new world, as Americans like to celebrate. Instead, my family includes people jailed for stealing pajamas from an Edinburgh market, then sent in chains inside an old wooden prison hulk to a great southern continent on the other side of the world.
In this new life, my family’s existence would cause the extermination and displacement of a pre-existing indigenous civilization. My family living there meant others died, all because an Eton-educated official in London decided he wanted to plant the Union Jack on as many pieces of land on Earth as he could.
An excellent piece by Aboriginal-Australian journalist Stan Grant explains some of the complexities of feeling that arose in some corners of Australia at the coronation. I suspect it is the same around the Commonwealth of Nations—those nations who were once part of the empire upon whom the sun never set. Grant says he is a Christian, and what particularly concerned him about the coronation of King Charles is this supposed connection with King Jesus the Christ:
But this is monarchy that has always fashioned God in its image. That believed in the divine right of King; the doctrine of discovery that meant a land not occupied by a “Christian” monarch was free for the taking. Some have suggested this week that this coronation is a deeply religious ceremony. Imagine: Christ, a brown-skinned man of suffering and sorrows. A man under occupation. A man persecuted and murdered by empire now invoked in a ceremony to crown a white king of empire. Is this my Christ? The Christ who promised to bring a sword against injustice? The Christ who told us what you do the least of these you do to me?
I think Grant raises an interesting point. Is Charles really a Christian king? What, if anything, does today’s coronation have to do with what Jesus of Nazareth did 2,000 years ago? If Charles is a king in imitation of Jesus, then to ask a more basic question: how did Jesus even become king?
The last time we saw a British monarch crowned was in 1953, when Princess Elizabeth Alexandra Mary became Queen Elizabeth II. As I understand it, this was the most viewed event in human history up to that time, with millions watching around the world.
A coronation, with its golden carriages, elaborate over-the-top royal clothes, its outlandish music and speeches, seems an odd occurrence in today’s modern secular age. It seems like something we would expect to be dreamt up by the Kardashian family for some new hit reality television series. It doesn’t seem like something we would expect from someone world leaders are meant to take seriously.
Like most of the world’s few remaining royal dynasties, British kings and queens are not merely secular rulers, but Christian sovereigns as well. At coronation, a British monarch becomes Supreme Governor of the Church of England (that is, the Anglican-Episcopalian church).
Becoming a monarch through the medieval rite of kingship involves a number of basic elements, including swearing an oath to uphold the law, being anointed by oil, having a crown placed on one’s head, being proclaimed sovereign, and having witnesses pay homage. The homage part of the coronation was particularly controversial, with all citizens of the 15 realms expected to swear public loyalty to Charles. Even my mother-in-law, a strong monarchist, thought that was a bit much and said she didn’t make the pledge of allegiance.
A would-be British monarch also wears a variety of regalia to the coronation: an imperial robe of purple velvet, the sword of state, chivalric spurs, orb, ring, dove sceptre, cross sceptre, and of course the crown jewels. The crown jewels include the controversial Cullinan diamond, the world’s largest, with a value estimated at $2 billion.
One sees parallels between this Christian rite and the biblical anointing of Israelite kings. But what about our King, Jesus Christ?
Despite numerous New Testament references to Jesus’ being a king and having a kingdom, when and how did He became king exactly? It is a two-step process.
- Typified in the Old Testament examples of Saul and David: first, when anointed (literally, to become a Messiah, or Christ), a person became a prince or captain (Heb. nagid). (1)
- Later, with the completion of the ceremony and with endorsement of the people and elders, an anointed one became fully king (Heb. malek). (2)
The dangerous request of James and John
So when did Jesus become king? Which is to say when did Jesus become “the anointed one” or “the Messiah” or “the Christ”? First at His baptism, but then by His crucifixion, of course! (3)
The best evidence for this is the squabble between James and John, found in Mark 10:37-40:
‘When you sit on your glorious throne, we want to sit in places of honor next to you, one on your right and the other on your left.’ But Jesus said to them, ‘You don’t know what you are asking! Are you able to drink from the bitter cup of suffering I am about to drink? Are you able to be baptized with the baptism of suffering I must be baptized with?’ ‘Oh yes,’ they replied, ‘we are able!’ Then Jesus told them, ‘You will indeed drink from my bitter cup and be baptized with my baptism of suffering. But I have no right to say who will sit on my right or my left. God has prepared those places for the ones he has chosen.’
The cryptic meaning of this passage is fulfilled in the crucifixion scene of Mark 15:21-32. The cup Jesus had to drink, and which James and John would eventually drink, was suffering and death. The two who were granted the honor of sitting on Jesus’ left and right, chosen by God, were none other than the two thieves.
Thus, the throne of glory was actually the cross itself. No wonder Jesus exclaimed John and James didn’t know what they were asking! The parallels continue:
- Jesus’ coronation crown was the crown of thorns. His coronation robe was the one of purple placed by mocking Roman soldiers.
- Jesus was also paid homage as king: Pilate and the Roman soldiers, representing the greatest earthly power at that time, sarcastically hailed Him “King of the Jews.” They even confirmed it by a sign written in three languages nailed to the cross.
- Therefore, whilst Jesus’ opponents played out the rite of kingship as a jest, they unknowingly participated in the real thing. Thus, the cross is the paradoxical moment when Jesus came into His glory.
- Jesus’ actual anointing – the act that made Him the anointed one, or king – was done by none other than Mary Magdalene. She alone is recorded as anointing Jesus with oil. Given that this role is usually reserved by the most senior and expected religious leader – usually by a prophet such as Samuel – this choice says a great deal about both Jesus as king and His kingdom.
The cross is foolishness
Why then does the Bible portray the coronation of Jesus as such a farce, the opposite of the splendor we saw at the coronation of Charles III? This is probably best explained in 1 Corinthians 1:18 when it says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”
Jesus’ own coronation was an inversion of expectations, just as His kingdom of heaven is an inversion of the world. Jesus became king in a sort of cosmic joke, a pun that turned out to be the truest statement in the history of the universe. Through its absurdity, Jesus was turned into a true conqueror of the world, the real Emperor, who didn’t live in Rome but nonetheless had His own triumphal procession, as made clear in Colossians 2:15:
And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.
Why? Jesus could not defeat Satan’s claim to being “Prince of this world” with the sort of power this world considers powerful, in pompous displays of prideful majesty. That is what the first Adam tried, seeking selfish glory to become like a god. Instead, the second Adam had to do the reverse: by being a God who would surrender to the mocking insults of His captors.
(Interestingly, whilst Satan is described as prince, the Bible never attributes to him the title of full king. The implicit suggestion might be that Satan was only ever a temporary ruler, lacking full legitimacy.)
As the Apostle Paul explains in passages such as Galatians 3:13 and Romans 5:17, the first Adam took from a tree and gained death for humanity, whilst the second had to die on a tree to gain life for humanity. It was this absurd power of the cross the Apostles later understood and embraced, empowering twelve men to eventually change the world.
Will Charles III be a Christian king, or not?
Charles III finds himself at a precipice. Despite his waiting longer than any other crown prince in history, many people thought he didn’t deserve the crown. His very existence as a so-called Christian monarch is being called into question. A claim to any connection or analogy with Jesus Christ—that is, Jesus the King—makes as much sense as asking Megan and Harry to become the next American royal family.
Yet if Jesus’ own coronation represents anything, it represents the power of subverting expectations. If there is any man on earth who fairly represents the power of an eccentric kingdom, where up becomes down and down becomes up, it is Charles.
For decades, he was a man who was mocked for some unusual beliefs and practices, including one claim that he eats a boiled egg with every meal. Charles is also an avid environmentalist who joked about talking to plants, who promoted religious tolerance, made a successful business selling whole foods produced from his organic farms, practices intermittent fasting, and made enemies with modernist architecture by trying to protect heritage buildings within walkable cities. We now accept some of these ideas as orthodox norms, demonstrating the man was in fact ahead of his times.
In that spirit, I wished His Majesty all the best on his coronation day. Despite the monarchy’s tarnished legacy, I have hope my king will do his very best to represent, and reflect, my King of Kings. I swear allegiance to my king according to the law – both of them.
(1) 1 Sam. 9:16; Strong’s Concordance at , also translated as ruler, leader, or captain.
(2) 1 Sam. 11:14-15; 2 Sam. 5:3-4; Strong’s Concordance at . Consider, for example, that during Saul’s reign, whilst there was only one functioning king, there were two legitimate princes, with David also concurrently being anointed.
(3) Joel Marcus, “Crucifixion as Parodic Exaltation,” JBL 125 (2006): 73-87.
Stephen Ferguson is a lawyer from Perth, Western Australia, with expertise in planning, environment, immigration and administrative-government law. He is married to Amy and has two children, William and Eloise. Stephen is a member of the Livingston Adventist Church.