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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Jeffrey L. Falick

POMP AND CIRCUMSTANCE, CORONATIONS AND DEMOCRACIES

Some of you might have heard that I am what is called an “anglophile.” It's true. I have always had a fascination for all things England. (I attribute it to my Jewish but very British great-grandmother of blessed memory.) So naturally I was one of the many who tuned in (streamed in?) to the coronation on Saturday. I actually watched a recording because sleep and Torah class took precedence.


As you’ve probably heard, the ceremony was considerably slimmed down from the four-hour 1953 coronation of Elizabeth II to just a bit over an hour. Aside from some much-needed wider participation from non-Christians and even a nod to non-believers, it was every bit the anachronistic religious spectacle I expected. But anglophile and student of religious history and spectacles that I am, I was absorbed by the ways it reflected England’s weird history of intermingling religion and state.


First, some background. As in most European kingdoms throughout Christendom, the English monarchy was always thoroughly intertwined with—and at times at odds with—Catholic religious authority. Yet unlike most other kingdoms, England’s monarchs, and ultimately its people, rid themselves of their turbulent priests rather precipitously.* It started, of course, with Henry VIII whose primary concern was to annul his marriage. But it aligned him with those who wanted to rid themselves of what they saw as the repressive foreign influence of Rome.


England was not alone in challenging Rome. The Protestant Reformation was a pan-European phenomenon. Yet England’s reformation was different in a number of ways. One of these was just how political it was. What began with leaving the Catholic Church (after some backsliding with Mary I) soon led to a massive British-Isles-wide civil war culminating in the beheading of King Charles I in 1649. To this day historians find it difficult to sum up all of the elements of that war. The best explanation I can provide in this space is that it was fought between Parliament and the king and was simultaneously about religious freedom, monarchical tyranny, the divine rights of kings, and the supremacy (or not) of Parliament. In other words, a lot of things.


After the war England became a (short-lived) republic ruled by a very repressive Protestant Parliament under “Lord Protector” Oliver Cromwell.** Before a dozen years had passed, Cromwell died and the monarchy resumed under King Charles II. Though he was a much more pleasant sort than Cromwell or his father, he still insisted upon his divine right as king. Even so, it was Parliament who called him back and it would be Parliament that would ultimately win the power struggle.


What happened next is probably my favorite historical event of all time. Just like the British Civil War it was all about religion and yet ultimately not about religion at all. Here’s what happened.


Throughout his reign, Charles II, though publicly a Protestant, was suspected of being a secret Catholic. But as long as he followed Parliament’s official Protestants-only policy for kings, he was welcome to reign. The same would not be true of his only heir, his openly Catholic brother James. So when Charles died, leaving the throne to that brother, Parliamentary power was put to the test. And that’s when what seemed to be a religious power struggle—even to the participants!—became a signal moment in the history of democracy. After four short years under King James II, Parliament had enough, leading them to do the bizarrely unthinkable by inviting rival Holland’s William of Orange to invade their country! Following a swift “surrender” William and his wife Mary (James’ suitably Protestant daughter) were jointly offered the throne on condition of accepting a Declaration of Rights, framed by Parliament, which forever limited royal power. It spelled the beginning of the end of the divine right kings, ushering in the era of the democratic constitutional monarchy. Historians call it “the Glorious Revolution.”


Many of its consequences were on display last Saturday morning.


With every one of its pompous anachronisms, Charles III’s coronation service managed to preserve the pretense that the king is somehow both God’s chosen ruler and simultaneously completely subservient to Parliament. The oaths that he took were required by acts of Parliament. Every word he said (and he didn’t say many) dated back to some incident during the tumultuous years from Henry VIII to the Glorious Revolution when England’s monarchy descended from absolute power to symbolic ornament.


Many have argued that the time has come to complete that journey, to take the monarchy to its natural end. The humanist in me completely agrees (though I do see the wisdom in practical tourism-driven economic arguments for keeping it around a bit longer).


However, if they should abolish it, there is one spectacle that I will very much miss. Though it takes place rather frequently compared to jubilees and coronations, it receives almost no attention outside of England.


It happens during the State Opening of Parliament. Like other royal affairs, it’s comprised of a display of coaches and trumpets and regalia accompanying the monarch from Buckingham Palace to the throne in the House of Lords. Once seated (it takes a while!) and with a wave of the royal hand, the sergeant-at-arms (currently Sarah Clarke and officially known as the Lady—or Gentleman—Usher of the Black Rod) is dispensed to walk down the corridor between the Houses of Lords and Commons.***


With what ensues, the entire history of monarchy versus democracy is wondrously on display.


Just as Black Rod (as the office-holders are affectionately called) approaches the Commons, the door is slammed shut. It’s not personal. It’s done in remembrance of an incident in 1642 when King Charles I’s soldiers broke into Parliament to arrest its members. Slamming the door in Black Rod’s face is the House of Commons’ way of reminding everyone just who is really in charge.


Employing the eponymous black rod, she knocks three times (the door bears the scar) at which point it is opened and she enters. A bunch of bowing ensues, after which she relays the monarch’s “command” that the “honourable House … attend the House of Peers.” As Black Rod departs, some anti-monarchist Members of Parliament always heckle. And then all of them, led by the Prime Minister and cabinet, slough down the hallway to the “Lords” where they stand behind a wooden barrier near the entrance to the gathering of be-robed “Peers” to join them in hearing what will now be called “The King’s Speech.”


Except it’s not the king’s speech. Not at all. It’s entirely composed by the Prime Minister’s office. The monarch does not even control the words coming out of her or his mouth. Those elected representatives don’t look like much as they stand huddled behind a blockade at the entrance to the grander room. But it is they who are running the show. It is they who slam the doors.


Every time I see it I get chills.


Democracy is a precious thing, something that we and other nations fought hard to earn. It may well be time for British royalty to call it a day, but we who continue to benefit from centuries of bloodshed would do well to remember that the right to slam the door in a tyrant’s face should never be underestimated or unappreciated.


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* A reference to a quote attributed to Henry II whose aides did, indeed, rid him of the “turbulent priest” Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury in 1170.


** Though Jews have him to thank for reopening the doors to England, locked since the expulsion of 1290.


*** Sarah Clarke is the first woman to hold the office.

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