By Ruth Peacock
King Charles III has met 30 faith leaders to confirm his commitment to the Christian faith and his duty to protect the space for faith itself.
They gathered in the Bow Room at Buckingham Palace on Friday evening for one of the King’s first public audiences.
In his address to them, the King said: “As a member of the Church of England, my Christian beliefs have love at their very heart. By my most profound convictions, therefore – as well as by my position as Sovereign – I hold myself bound to respect those who follow other spiritual paths, as well as those who seek to live their lives in accordance with secular ideals”.
He said he had always thought of Britain as a “community of communities” and his duty was to serve in a way that reflected the world in which we now live and to protect the diversity of our country.
He was determined to protect the principles of freedom of conscience, generosity of spirit and care for others which were, to him, the essence of our nationhood.
Choosing to meet faith leaders so early in his reign is seen by commentators as confirming the importance he places on faith and his own personal spiritual journey.
The King, born to become supreme governor of the Church of England and Defender of the Faith, gave an early indication of his open thinking during an interview with Jonathan Dimbleby in 1994 when he floated the idea that his title should be “defender of faith”, not “the faith”, to reflect the nature of British society.
This was developed in 2012 when the Queen addressed a gathering at Lambeth Palace, saying that Anglicanism “has a duty to protect the free practice of all other faiths in this country”. And in 2015 Charles clarified that “defender of the faith” was compatible with being a “protector of faiths” more generally.
Journalist and author Catherine Pepinster told a Religion Media Centre briefing that both Queen Elizabeth and King Charles made clear their respect for all faiths, but arrived at their conclusions in different ways.
“I think the Queen was focused on, perhaps, remaining a unifying figure. Bringing people under the umbrella of the Church of England,” she said. “Whereas I think Charles has always had a slightly more exploratory personal search going on.”
Lord Singh of Wimbledon has known Charles for many years. He told the briefing that the King “sees faith more broadly than looking through it from one perspective of one religion. Faith really refers to commitment to an ultimate real reality. And that cannot be accommodated by any one religion. No one religion has a monopoly of truth. And I believe that is the way King Charles really sees it.”
He added: “I see no difference between ‘defender of the faith’ and ‘defender of faith’. When you say faith, you are translating the ultimate reality and understanding of it into different perspectives, and into different religions”.
Dr Hisham Hellyer, from the Centre for Islamic Studies at the University of Cambridge, told the briefing that Charles developed an interest in Islam quite early on. “He doesn’t really view different religions in the UK as ones that ought to simply be tolerated and respected. But, as Lord Singh said, he values them as part and parcel of what makes up the contemporary United Kingdom. And that’s quite unique.
“You find many different politicians and public figures, tolerating and respecting different ethnic and religious groups, by being very clear that ‘We’re the hosts, you have come as guests’.”
He said people in public life talked about how the West owed a great deal to the Islamic world because of Muslim Spain, algebra, architecture and law.
“King Charles says all that, but he also says that the West has a great deal to learn from Islam today — centring the sacred, respect for the environment, not being enthralled by materialism.
“In a time when Islamophobia is so mainstream in our country, in our continent, and in the West more generally, I think that’s very striking, to have the new monarch be so clear about that.”
Asked what difference this would make to the Church of England, Catherine Pepinster suggested some Anglicans, including bishops, would endorse this approach.
She pointed out that the King is patron of the Prayer Book Society and is known to be a “pretty traditional person” in the practice of his own Anglicanism.
She said: “The church will have to find a way to celebrate traditionalism yet find space for other denominations and religions. The coronation will be a real test both for him and the Church of England.”
At Queen Elizabeth’s coronation, the moderator of the Church of Scotland was the only representative beyond Anglicanism, she said. But she believed there would be many representatives of different faiths this time and she suggested people from other Christian denominations might be invited to take part.
There had even been suggestions that there would be an additional ceremony in Westminster Hall, where Queen Elizabeth has been lying in state.
Lord Singh said there had been ceremonies in Westminster Abbey, for example Commonwealth services, which had included readings from different religions.
“The greatest cause of conflict in the world today is different religions saying that we know the truth, we are the only ones. Both the late Queen and King Charles saw this differently. They saw parallel truths in different religions. They saw a wider view of religion.”
Dr Hellyer pointed out that research had shown there was a great deal of support for the established church, the formal connection between the Church of England and the state, among minority religious communities.
“That will surprise many people because, obviously, they’re not Anglicans, and they don’t want to be Anglicans. But they’re quite aware that if there’s going to be a religion public life connection, it will be the Church of England, and they’re quite happy with that, as opposed to its absence.
“And, of course, it helps that the Anglican Church is not a very hard, exclusivist sort of tradition.”
The panel was asked how they thought King Charles might progress this with vigour. Lord Singh suggested different communities should be recognised in ceremonies. Dr Hellyer suggested it would be important to consider how he will pass on the patronage of organisations doing valuable work.
Professor Ian Bradley, from St Andrews University, said he himself had previously suggested that a religious equivalent of the Privy Council should be set up, made up of representatives and leaders of all the faiths, which would monitor and convene their work.
But, he explained, King Charles was taking his mother as a model and would be cautious. He expected we would see relatively little change overall, including the question of establishment and the role of defender of the faith. “His own views are going to be secondary to how he understands the office, the calling of monarchy. I think we don’t want to have too many expectations of great change. But that might be one,” Professor Bradley said.
Faith leaders who attended the meeting included the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby; the Archbishop of York, Stephen Cottrell; the Dean of Westminster, David Hoyle; the Rev Helen Cameron of the Free Churches Group; Islamic scholar Dr Asim Yusuf; Bishop Kenneth Nowakowski of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy, based in London; and Lord Singh of Wimbledon.
View the briefing on our YouTube channel here