31 December 2022

Does the King’s Christmas Speech Defend or Threaten the Monarchy?

Dr Ashenden, former Chaplain to Her late Majesty, casts a very critical eye at the first Christmas speech of His Majesty King Charles III.

Has King Charles sowed the seeds of the destruction of the House of Windsor?

Dramatically this year the King’s Speech refers not just a film about the recent history of the monarchy. It is the Monarch’s Christmas address.  It is the articulation of our new present. A different King and a different speech; not about an abdication but about a new reign, delivered at Christmas. This was a speech that set out to map the future. It’s intention was not only to celebrate the beginning of a new reign in an address to the nation, but to change the role of the monarchy to preserve the House of Windsor’s future.

But did it?

Unlike the earlier film The King’s Speech, the present King had no difficulty in talking to the nation. King George VI’s grandson spoke confidently and kindly. Coming out from behind the long shadow of his mother, he made the monarch’s Christmas talk very much his own from the first moment.

He didn’t sit in a chair behind a desk in the palace as she did. He stood confidently and spoke personally and personably to the camera and to the nation, in St George’s Chapel at Windsor.

A lot of time and attention will have gone into the construction of his first Christmas offering. And it showed. It was fluent and seamless. With deft skill and emotional intelligence King Charles ticked every single box that appeared to matter.

After paying tribute to his mother, he compassionately empathised with all his other subjects suffering from bereavement during this seasonal celebration.

He then laid claim to his mother’s mantle: “She believed in God and people, and so do I.”  And then, speaking on behalf of compassionate humanity everywhere, he paid tribute to all those who help their suffering neighbours. This will have pleased his many humanist and agnostic subjects who treasure the nice and the kind. 

He made much of thanking people, and during the speech different examples of neighbourliness followed one after the other. He certainly believed in people.

And then he turned as expected, to God. Or rather to the gods. For in his narrative the churches, mosques, synagogues and gurdwaras were also agencies of the extension of human compassion, and he complimented them all on their work for the suffering.

Then came the moment when he turned to his own belief in God. He talked in hushed and reverential tones of his visit to Bethlehem and his pilgrimage to the place of the manger where a star has been placed in the floor. He paid tribute to Jesus. “The light that has come into the world was born.”

His expansion of his belief in God was a good deal briefer than his longer celebration of the human spirit. But the really interesting question was how his pilgrimage to Bethlehem and his encounter with the Jesus of the nativity was going to develop? Which direction would he take? Was it going to be light or Light? Would he take this moment as Defender of the Faith to speak about the uniqueness of Jesus, the salvation of souls, the forgiveness of sins, the coming of God in the flesh, the Lamb of God, the Son, the Word, the transformer of souls and minds?

Would he speak as an insider or an outsider?

He slipped sideways into the world of comparative religion. “The power of light overcoming darkness is celebrated across different beliefs,” he said, as an outsider.

And now we understood why he had prefaced his journey to Jerusalem with references to synagogues, mosques, gurdwaras and churches. Because Charles has become, as he promised he would, “defender of faiths”; a celebrant of light in general not the Light in particular; not the Light from which as St John tells us all life as well as light in general flows.

Some people will welcome this as cultural “realpolitik”; others will wonder if the monarchy can dial down its own raison d’ etre without denying and undermining its own purpose and integrity.

Many will welcome this change from insider to outsider as a perfectly proper reflection of the powerful forces of social, cultural and religious change that have swept through and over our society during King Charles’s lifetime. It is a truism that the Windsors adapt with speed, skill and if necessary a certain ruthlessness.  They are the European monarchical survivors par excellence.

But there are some good reasons for wondering if this short-term strategy will have the intended effect.

Although the oaths that the monarch has been required to swear at the coronation have adapted since the abandonment of the Catholic faith, they were reworded to reflect the political reality and constitutional balance of the moment. The Windsors have fallen behind now. If Charles is really going to shift from being a Christian Protestant monarch, saving the schismatic Protestant establishment from the dangers of the Catholicism, spiritual and political, into a 21st century religious relativism, this is no small thing. It is not even a change of gear or shift of identity within a faith. It is the abandonment of that faith.

Perennialism is not Christianity. Multi-faith observance is not Christianity. The shibboleths of multi-culturalism are not Christianity.

But monarchy is a Christian concept. The integrity of monarchy is Christian integrity. In the profound and ornate semiotics of the coronation service, Charles’ inhabiting of the office of king will be accomplished by Christian liturgy, Christian symbolism, Christian oaths, Christian anointing and Christian prayer.

Let us leave aside for a moment the hollowing out of the centre of an institution where belief is only presentational and does not permeate into the heart of what it is.

Leave aside also the lack of integrity of making solemn oaths of one kind while believing something else altogether; (Jesus had a warning to offer about underestimating the reliability and integrity of one’s foundations) and turn simply to the dynamics of modern relativistic multi-culturalism.

The monarchy is already much more fragile than it looks. In fact its fragility may be inversely proportional to the successful choreography of pageant that it is sublimely capable of on dramatic public occasions. It is deeply out of step with the progressive culture that has captured our infantilised popular imagination. There is no less “inclusive, diverse or equal” an institution the world over. True, it is trying to hide this philosophical dissonance behind an energetic and very public adoption of causes beloved by the media-fed junkie public. It broadcasts its green and ecological passions with devotion and regularity. But will this be enough to save an institution that has become so at odds with its own roots, identity and integrity?

Second-wave Feminism might have a word of advice to offer. It was at the vanguard of our progressive culture until the sudden and not wholly predictable swerve into trans rights. Suddenly celebratory feminists like Germaine Greer, Suzanne Moore and JK Rowling who had ridden the crest of a powerful and popular revolution became public enemies overnight.

The revolution always eats its own tail.

The only constituency that can save the monarchy if progressive politics shifts any further towards the values of the Montecito sans-cullottes Meghan and Harry, will be the Christian constituency.

But in this country Christianity is buckling under the relentless daily assault that an increasingly hostile secularism is directing towards it. Today, you can be arrested on suspicion of praying in the environs of a closed abortion facility by the thought and now prayer police.

The King has chosen to look the other way. There is of course no such thing a “multi-faith”. It is a cosmetic shibboleth designed to hide the predatory intentions of one kind of philosophical absolutism against another.  It is a mechanism for undermining the distinctive and absolutist claims of non-relative religious movements so that they can be rendered increasingly irrelevant by an uncompromising secular rationalism.

If, while the King looks the other way, observant Christians are increasingly marginalised, ridiculed, persecuted and prosecuted in his multi-faith realm, when the next crisis comes that threatens to derail monarchy, the one group in his realm who might have fought for him and defended him, will have been rendered silent and impotent.

In abandoning the Faith that conceived, defined and sustained the concept of monarchy, King Charles may just have sown the seeds of the destruction of the House of Windsor.

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