May 6, 2023, marks Coronation Day in the United Kingdom. Charles III became King the moment that his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, died in September last year, but his formal crowning in Westminster Abbey—where sovereigns have been enthroned for a thousand years—has had to wait till now.
Most of us have not seen such an event before. Elizabeth’s long reign, the longest of any British monarch, means that you must be in your mid-seventies if you are to have any firsthand memories of the last such occasion when a sovereign was formally enthroned. None of the people who organized that previous ceremony are alive today. We may have seen television images of it, but almost the only person present in 1953 who will attend the 2023 coronation is Charles himself. He and perhaps one or two of his older royal cousins provide a living link between that ceremony and this one.
What does it all mean—and particularly, what does it mean for Americans, who might be inclined to consider the coronation of a King as irrelevant?
I am myself an American, but one with a deep connection to, and affection for, the United Kingdom, which I’ve visited regularly over the last fifteen years. I was in England when Queen Elizabeth died, and was deeply moved by the genuine quality of national mourning.
Of course, the British monarch has a particular connection to the Church of England, the Anglican Establishment, and constitutionally cannot be a Catholic. Nonetheless, Elizabeth was Queen of all her people, including Catholics, and every Catholic parish in the country held a Requiem Mass for her. I had the privilege of attending one at the Oxford Oratory as well as at the small parish church of Our Lady of the Rosary.
At these Requiem Masses, it struck me that this was no mere formal act of acknowledgment of the death of a head of state, but an objective recognition of the fundamental equality of every soul before God. We were praying for the repose of the soul of a fellow Christian—one who had a uniquely public vocation as the sovereign, to be sure, but whose living out of this vocation was no different in God’s eyes than that of any other person.
This theme came to the fore at Queen Elizabeth’s funeral. Again and again, her commitment to duty was praised, by commentators and by ordinary people on the street—a virtue not commonly recognized as such, especially not in our modern Western culture, but one whose quiet beauty had become unmistakably visible in her life.
From the beginning of her reign to its end, Queen Elizabeth saw her role in terms of service. As a constitutional monarch, she could not shape the policies and legislation of her kingdom—that was for Parliament to do. Her role was to be strictly neutral, to be the sovereign of every person, not just those who supported this or that policy or politician. Her prime ministers, from Winston Churchill onward, came from various political parties, but all met with her, week by week, and were able to gain the benefit of discussing the issues with someone who had no agenda but did have—as time went on—decades of experience, knowing that what they discussed was absolutely confidential. Perhaps her most important role was simply to be a presence above the fray: to remind people that there is more to life than politics. By carefully avoiding association with partisanship, she served her people as a point of genuine unity. We Americans lack this as a nation; we have no person who can serve in this way, only abstract principles such as “freedom” or “democracy,” or impersonal things such as the flag and the Constitution. The Queen’s power was not legislative or political, but personal and moral. She reigned, she did not rule. And it was precisely in the ongoing, day-to-day, year-to-year, decade-to-decade practice of service to her people that Queen Elizabeth showed what it meant to live a life characterized by duty. It didn’t mean she always got things right; it meant that she put her vocation as Queen first.
And that brings us to the powerful paradox embodied by the modern British sovereign.
In their unique and privileged position, both Queen Elizabeth II and now King Charles III are, in a sense, profoundly democratic figures, whose vocation provides a model for every person, and especially every Christian.
I mean ‘democratic’ not in the political sense, of course, but in its meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary has it, “of or relating to the common or ordinary people.” Charles III is the new sovereign simply and solely because he is the eldest son of his mother. He does not deserve this role; nor did his mother; nor will, in time and God willing, his eldest son, Prince William, and grandson, Prince George. It has nothing whatsoever to do with their intelligence, aptitude, skill set, or even their desire to be the sovereign. They are simply ordinary people, with ordinary tastes, abilities, and interests, born into a family with singular privileges and equally singular responsibilities.
In the world of politics, even in democratic societies such as the United Kingdom and America, the elected men and women who make decisions are not ordinary. The very fact of getting to the position of president or prime minister means that these people have something exceptional—talent, drive, intellect, money, connections—something that the average person does not have. They have chosen this career, for any number of reasons, from the honorable and high-minded to the egocentric and mercenary. They have sought it out, and in that, they, too, are different from the average person. The Royal Family, in being placed as they are only through the happenstance of birth, are in that sense, if in no other, identical to any other family. They represent the sheer “givenness” of existence.
It is indeed possible for a monarch to opt out of this given role, as did Queen Elizabeth’s uncle King Edward VIII in his abdication. But it is impossible to opt in. The vocation can be rejected, but not seized.
In this way, the coronation of King Charles III is a picture of vocation and an invitation to each of us to consider our own calling. To be in the Royal Family is no easy thing, and not every member of the family has handled the balance of privilege and responsibility with the grace or moral clarity that we would hope for—but then, is that not the case with any and every family? Charles has certainly weathered difficult times and has not always been a picture-perfect prince; but this very imperfection is perhaps a more realistic picture of living out one’s vocation than we might initially suppose. Celebrities can be ‘cancelled,’ politicians voted out of office and into oblivion, media figures can be ‘deplatformed’ or hounded out of their jobs for offending the public—sometimes for going against current norms in the smallest of ways. But to be the sovereign, or indeed to be in line for the throne, means carrying on, in the public eye, even when the obloquy is unceasing, whether the criticism is justified or not, in season and out of season. Part of the witness of King Charles III, already evident in his words and actions, is that he understands this. He has served patiently for many years already, and bears the burden of taking up his role as sovereign precisely when he is also grieving for his beloved mother. He may or may not feel adequate to the task, but he has stepped forward to do the work that has been given to him to do: to be King.
No one else has that vocation, but each of us has some vocation that is given to us, and to no one else in exactly the same way. We are, each of us, born into particular circumstances and with particular talents and aptitudes that are given to us, not chosen or earned; what will I do with the gifts that have been given to me?
We will all fail and fall occasionally (or often) to a greater or a lesser degree, with more visibility or with less. Our vocation does not vanish simply because we have failed to live up to it. Most of us will, at some point, wrestle with the constraints in which we find ourselves and be tempted to imagine alternative paths: What if I had grown up with better or different opportunities? What if I were a man instead of a woman, or a woman instead of a man? I wish I were more beautiful, or more intelligent, or more athletically gifted, or younger, or older. And so on. It is indeed tempting to dwell on these what-ifs, but this is an insidious distraction from living out our vocation.
No one in the world, no one in history, has been born into your particular place in life, or into mine. Your vocation, and mine, are in their own way as unique as that of King Charles III. Part of his vocation is to embody the very principle of vocation to the world, a world that has become dazzled and disoriented by the multiplicities of choice in our lives, such that we can lose sight of the beauty of being precisely the person whom God made us to be.
God save the King!