Maundy Thursday may give us a clue about Prince William’s beliefs

Prince William opening The Passage, Westminster in 2016. Image credit: © Mazur/ CCLicense2.0

By Catherine Pepinster

With the first week of Lent now under way — it was Ash Wednesday this week — the thoughts of King Charles will be turning to one of the key ceremonies that a monarch undertakes each year: the Maundy Thursday service.

It’s a church ceremony, the day before Good Friday, in which gifts are distributed by the monarch to represent service, just as Christ symbolised his service by washing the feet of his disciples before they shared a Passover meal, an event known to Christians as the Last Supper.

But with the King undergoing treatment for cancer and his decision to cut public duties while it continues, it seems unlikely that he will be able to take part in Maundy Thursday. This will come as a blow to the King. After all, the ceremony, with its theme of service, is integrally linked to the coronation, which is also about the monarch’s service mirroring the service of Christ. The link between the two ceremonies is reinforced when Handel’s anthem, Zadok the Priest — which has featured at every coronation since George II’s — is sung at every Maundy Thursday service.

If the King is not able to attend, then the most likely person to stand in for him is Prince William. When Queen Elizabeth II could not take part in the 2022 Maundy service, Charles deputised for her.

Charles, like his mother, has a strong Christian faith. But for some time now, there has been speculation about William, now Prince of Wales. Is he like his grandmother, with her strong, simple faith, expressed in her love of the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer? Or is he more like his father, with his strong faith but also an insatiable curiosity about all religious faiths?

Little is known about Prince William’s beliefs. He was given an Anglican christening as a baby and then later confirmed in the Church of England while a schoolboy at Eton by his father’s friend, Richard (now Lord) Chartres, then the Bishop of London, who went on to preach at William’s wedding to Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey in 2011. During his sermon he read out a prayer the couple had written together, including these words:

“In the busyness of each day keep our eyes fixed on what is real and important in life and help us to be generous with our time and love and energy. Strengthened by our union help us to serve and comfort those who suffer. We ask this in the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Last year William paid tribute to his father at the coronation concert at Windsor Castle when he said: “For all that celebrations are magnificent, at the heart of the pageantry is a simple message: Service.

“My father’s first words of entering Westminster Abbey yesterday were a pledge of service. It was a pledge to continue to serve, because for over 50 years, in every corner of the UK, across the Commonwealth, and around the world, he has dedicated himself to serve others — both current and future generations and those whose memory has not been neglected.

“Take the natural world. He warned us of the risks for our planet’s health, long before it was an everyday issue. Or the Prince’s Trust, which has supported over a million young people, many from disadvantaged back to realise their own missions.

“And perhaps, most importantly, of all, my father has always understood that people of all faiths, all backgrounds, all communities deserve to be celebrated and supported.”

For all his admiration of his father’s work on interfaith, so far William has not shown any sign of following his father on the issue, while the King and the prince do have a mutual interest in the natural world and climate change.

What Prince William seems to appreciate most when it comes to faith, is faith in action. By the time Charles was in his forties —William is now 41 — he was regularly giving lengthy speeches about religion and ethics.  That is not William’s way.

Where there is evidence of his interest in faith, it is in his strong connections to religious organisations that work at the grass roots, helping those who are homeless. About such things, he is passionate.

His charitable commitment has not, however, been enough to prevent speculation that William has so little Christian belief that he might cut ties with the Church of England when his time comes and not take on the title of Supreme Governor of the Church of England, which all monarchs have done since Elizabeth I.

He could hardly do this unilaterally, for the British monarchy and the established church, the Church of England, are so bound up together that he could not become king without being “in communion with” the Church of England, according to the Act of Settlement, 1701.

Constitutional experts Robert Hazell and Bob Morris wrote recently that: “However right in principle, removing the restriction on the monarch’s freedom of belief would in practice raise questions about the new changed constitutional status of the Church of England together with the roles of parliament and the monarchy.”

For now, the focus of the royal family — and of the prayers of members of the Church of England — will be the King’s health, rather than the future of the relationship between Anglicans and the monarch.

Yet the links between church and head of state are unavoidable — writ large on Maundy Thursday, whether the King presides at the ceremony, or the Prince of Wales steps in.

Catherine Pepinster is the author of Defenders of the Faith: the British Monarchy, Religion and the Coronation 


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