The coronation weekend has the theme of service …  but is the concept outdated?

Image credit: The Big Lunch CCLicense2.0

By Ruth Peacock

The theme of the coronation service is “called to serve” and it shapes the entire coronation weekend. People are asked to join their neighbours in the Big Lunch on Sunday and take part as volunteers on Monday in the Big Help Out to serve their communities.

This idea of service is rooted in the biblical understanding of the nature of kingship, to be proclaimed in the coronation with a prayer uttered by King Charles, appropriate Bible readings and an innovative greeting from people of all faiths declared at the end of the service in Westminster Abbey.

But in a Religion Media Centre briefing, hosted by Rosie Dawson, the panel discussed whether the word “service” was too antiquated to mean anything in 21st-century Britain, and whether the religious root of the idea was lost in an increasingly non-religious society.

The royal author and journalist Catherine Pepinster said the wording came with the liturgy, largely unchanged in a coronation service resting on 1,000 years of Christianity in the setting of an abbey also nearly 1,000 years old. The servant kingship of Jesus Christ — “I come not to be served but to serve” — was keenly felt by Queen Elizabeth II, and expressed in the foreword to William Shawcross’s book, The Servant Queen and the King She Serves.

Her framing of monarchy is shared by her son, according to Martin Palmer, chief executive of FaithInvest, who has worked closely with King Charles and his father, the Duke of Edinburgh.

He said “a great deal of what the King has done has remained under the radar. You have a man who genuinely in all the ways that he possibly can, and very quietly in many ways, has helped a huge number of things to happen. He is trying to make sense of a religious teaching.”

Zaki Cooper, formerly with the royal household and now working on the Big Help Out, said the event was intended to highlight, showcase and promote volunteering, giving people the opportunity to play an active role in promoting neighbourliness and community spirit. It was arranged as a conscious effort to illustrate the kind of service referenced in the coronation liturgy.

Much has been written about the faith representatives in the service, but the congregation will include many people representing the charities associated with the King and Queen. These include the Prince’s Trust and the Prince’s Foundation, representatives from charities the Queen supports, public service organisations and the emergency services, volunteers including British Empire Medal recipients and 400 young people representing charitable organisations nominated by the King and Queen, who will watch the service from the adjoining St Margaret’s Church.

Mr Cooper said King Charles’s commitment to service began a long time ago. He had spoken about volunteering in a speech to the Lords in 1975, and since then he had set up the Prince’s Trust, Step Up to Service and the I Will campaign.

He told the briefing: “We’re seeing a disproportionate interest and involvement from faith communities in this. People may have seen and heard some of the media coverage around faith leaders supporting the Big Help Out, but of course it’s not just about lofty words from the clerics. This is also about action. And that’s something that the faith communities are so brilliant at.

“One day is not a panacea that solves everything. We’re not suddenly going to enter a new glittering age. But what it does do is act as a springboard and a reminder for people to get involved in volunteering”.

Caroline Diehl, founder of the Media Trust, Together TV and more recently the Social Founder Network, said faith groups were to be much admired in their charitable work, but in recent decades there had been a shift and she did not think they were the biggest deliverer of volunteering.

Now, volunteering came from the grass roots, she explained, with people holding communities together, especially since the Covid lockdowns. This work was not best described as “service”, she said.

“I wouldn’t use the word service, but commitment to our communities, our people, our society. I think the word service is such a mistake. I think it’s so outdated. I love the word ‘together’, which is being used in the Big Help Out,” she added.

“I think if the King had done a call to say we’re going to bring people together, and this is going to be the campaign for the next 10 years of my reign, that — to me — would be better.”

Reviewing her decades of work with charities and the voluntary sector, she said research showed that words like “service” can be seen as “a little bit subservient — to twist the word, a little bit hierarchical, a bit patronising”.

The drivers for people volunteering, she explained, were a mixture of giving back — helping, supporting making a difference, changing things, supporting communities. But people also want to get something back from it — to make new friends or learn new skills.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, asked by the BBC what non-religious people would get out of the coronation service, said the commitment to service would be an inspiration for everyone.

This was possible, conceded Professor Abby Day of Goldsmiths, University of London. But she believed most people did not care about the monarchy or the Church of England, especially among younger people — Generation Z and millennials. The only religious imagery that had come up in research over the coronation was the idea that Princess Diana was an angel.

She said a conflation had occurred between religion and morality. It would have been better if the call to serve had not been delivered by King Charles as his brand had been tarnished over his early relationship with Camilla. “I think there’s still a very strong residual effect of that,” she added. “Among young people, they still certainly have the idea of Diana’s legacy and how badly she was treated by the adulterous couple.”

She questioned the moral importance especially to younger people, of the King’s role as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, pointing out its declining membership which, she said, had loosened bonds between people and monarch.

The call to serve, however, is not just uttered by Christians in the coronation service. In the abbey, after the order of service has ended, a group of people of other faiths will stand together to deliver a greeting to the King: “Your Majesty, as neighbours in faith, we acknowledge the value of public service. We unite with people of all faiths and beliefs in thanksgiving, and in service with you for the common good.”

Dr Hisham Hellyer, fellow of Cambridge University’s Centre for Islamic Studies, said that of all the innovations that the King was introducing, “I think this is one of the most symbolic in terms of trying very hard to bring in a recognition of the fact that our country is indeed a multi-faith country.”

The faith group is: Chief Rabbi Sir Ephraim Mirvis (Judaism); the Most Venerable Bogoda Seelawimala (Buddhism); Lord Singh of Wimbledon (Sikh tradition); Radha Mohan Das (Hinduism); and Aliya Azam (Islam).

Dr Hellyer said they were clearly religious voices connected to each tradition, but the question remained as to how representative they were to speak on behalf of a whole faith tradition. The Chief Rabbi obviously did, he said, but it was important especially for a coronation to have some representative value for others. He said including many voices in the Queen Elizabeth’s funeral was an imaginative way of doing it, but for the future he suggested there could be religious figures appointed to the Lords to represent a tradition, much as the bishops do.

Mr Palmer added that not even the Anglican bishops spoke for all Anglicans and there was a “fundamental problem, which is that we have no real sense of who has the authority to speak except in a purely historic sense”.

So how much impact would the emphasis on service have on Britain, and the global audience? Dr Hellyer said it would be a missed opportunity “if we don’t find some way to bring people together”. Mr Palmer said: “I think it allows us to have a really grown-up conversation about our own culture, and particularly about the role of a monarchy.”

Ms Diehl said it was an opportunity for the media to celebrate positive news and positive solutions, to go deep into the grass roots and get the positive stories about the way that ordinary people in this country are changing lives and changing our communities.

Ms Pepinster said the message of service would reverberate if media coverage looked at why there were guests from many charities and people of other faiths involved.

At first sight, though, the headlines would come from an event of rich pageantry that was spawning a whirlwind of lunches, dinners, receptions and meetings of global leaders, “spreading a bit of glitter and soft power”.

And she warned that, with Prince Harry turning up, some of the media might communicate the event as showbiz, treating the royals as “just another bunch of celebrities who provide headlines”. That was the risk.

View the briefing on our YouTube channel here >>


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