As a Christian, I have the most mixed of thoughts and feelings about the coronation service which took place on 6 May in Westminster Abbey.

The event was structured as a communion service, including the usual elements of prayers, Bible readings, a sermon, hymns and a final blessing. Woven into that matrix were the specific coronation elements, themselves all deeply Christian.

One of these Christian elements, which framed the whole service, was the theme of the reign of Jesus Christ as King of Kings, juxtaposed with his humble servanthood, culminating in his sacrificial death. This frame was introduced in the initial greeting, when the king was addressed by a child with these words, “Your Majesty, as children of the Kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings”, and the king responded, “In his name, and after his example, I come not to be served, but to serve”, echoing Jesus’ words in Mark 10:45. With these words the king declares his intent to imitate Christ.

Also biblical was the theme of anointing, which ran through the whole service like a golden thread. The word Christ, it must be remembered, means ‘anointed one’. This theme was reflected, not only in the actual anointing with oil of the king and queen, but also in the gospel reading, in which Jesus reads from Isaiah, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me…” (Luke 4:18). In Biblical understanding, prophets, priests and kings were anointed with oil, and it was the act of anointing which appointed the person to their office, but it also signified an impartation of the Holy Spirit – the presence of God – endowing the office bearer with divine power and authority for the task at hand. As the liturgy declared, it is no human hand, but God himself who “consecrated” Charles to be king.

The acclamations in the service of “God save the King”, “May the King live forever”, are also Biblical echoes, as is the national anthem “God save our gracious King!” which is a prayer, and an act of Christian worship, affirming that, as powerful as a king may be, his success is dependent upon God’s favour.

The coronation was constructed as a public enactment of a Biblical covenant between God and the monarch, during which King Charles made a series of solemn commitments to God, including to uphold the Protestant reformed faith as established in England. When he was presented with his ring, the Archbishop of Canterbury said to him, “Receive this Ring, a symbol of royal dignity, and a sign of the covenant sworn this day between God and King, King and people”. Note the twofold covenants: between God and king, and between king and people. In effect, from a Biblical and Christian perspective, the service was not only a covenant between God and King, but also between God and nation, as on the one hand the king promised as a self-confessed follower of Jesus Christ to guide his nation on Christ’s behalf and in accordance with Christ’s agenda, and on the other hand the nation promised to support and honour the King as one set apart by God for his God-given task.

As I watched celebration of power subordinated to service unfold, I was struck by how profoundly Biblical it all was, formed over centuries by Christian understandings of God’s holiness and sovereignty. None of it was uniquely Protestant: the English tradition of Christian coronations commenced centuries before the Reformation.

If you disbelieve in the Christian message, all this might leave you cold. It might seem ridiculous. It would surely seem but empty pageantry: an eccentric, if splendid, spectacle reflecting pride and pomp. No doubt many disbelievers who watched it all unfold were incited to the republican cause.

On the other hand, if you believe, as I do, then the ceremony is both very meaningful in a way that is true, and it must be seen as spiritually binding for Charles, and indeed for his nation. If Christ is indeed King of Kings, and ruler of the universe, then to promise him service, in such an elaborate, public and explicit way, is to bind oneself irrevocably to Christ’s example, his cause and his authority. This was the whole point of the liturgy: to put the king in his place as a servant of Jesus. Generations past thought it good for the nation to dedicate sovereigns to this calling.

This is not an arrangement to enter into lightly. Based on these promises, a God who actually exists – far from being, as the atheist may believe, a figment of the imagination – would expect faithful obedience from a king. The Bible’s understanding of such covenantal agreements is that they come with blessings to those who keep faith, and curses for those who do not, so making such promises is a solemn and potentially dangerous act.

As I watched and pondered on all this, two dissonant misgivings preyed on my thoughts. One is that King Charles’ power is not actual, but symbolic and ceremonial. Well may he “reign over us” but he does not actually rule. That prerogative belongs to Parliament and its ministers.

The King has, on behalf of his nation, made most solemn promises to God to be a servant to all, but he does not hold in his own hands the power to fulfill these promises. The vows he made are inherited from an ancient ceremony, and drawn from another era, when sovereigns did actually reign, and the nation was united in professing the Christian faith. Is it prudent to make promises to an almighty God which one does not have have power to keep? How, for example, is Charles in a position to defend the faith of the Church of England?

In reality, King Charles does not rule, even over the Church of England, despite being known as the head of that church and the “defender” of its faith. If the King of England ruled over the Church of England, he would appoint its bishops, but he only does so in name only, without any power of choice.

Read it all at Mark Durie Blog