Charles III, the new head of the church?

The title of Defender of the Faith, traditionally held by the British king, emphasizes the privileged position of the Church of England. Photo by Alastair Grant, POOL/AFP

Considerable attention is now being paid to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. and the immediate recognition as king of the current Prince Charles, to whom the local media gave an honored version of the name Karel, third in order, on the very first day. In the United Kingdom, a change in the post of head of state does not, as is well known, mean a change in policy.

In the British system, although in Parliament, the monarch sits in all splendor on the throne on the steps above the House of Lords, above dukes, barons, spiritual lords (Anglican bishops), above hereditary and elected members of the House of Commons or members appointed on the initiative of the Prime Minister. They are colorfully dressed at ceremonial meetings. However, their decision-making right is practically minimal.

The House of Commons has the decisive word, in which His Majesty’s Government — all members of the government’s political group — sit on the right hand of the Speaker, and His Majesty’s official opposition and other opposition members sit on the left. When the program of government is presented, it is read by the King in the House of Commons, while the MPs, literally members of the House of Commons, stand behind a thick white line on the floor which they cannot cross. However, a statement submitted by one of those humbly standing at the back, the Prime Minister, is read.

The new monarch is said not only to be a supporter of homeopathy as a complementary medicine, which would be his private opinion, but also to support the care of the environment and is a supporter of organic farming. It supports action against global climate change. Perhaps some of his attitudes indicate a more social than market orientation. He has so far kept aloof in his role as heir to the throne, although he has recently spoken out politically, namely in support of Ukraine against the Russian invasion. This is also interesting considering Orthodoxy, which was the original religion of his father before he converted to Anglicanism in connection with his marriage to Elizabeth.

British society has an increasing distance from religion, even though it is still far from catching up with the Czechia and Estonia in secularization. Without religious affiliation, only a quarter of the population should be there, but only ten percent are reported to be practitioners, i.e. more or less regular participants in religious services. Still, the official confirmation of a new monarch is a religious ceremony. The coronation will take place on an as-yet-unannounced day, although even without it, Charles III. the King of the United Kingdom, the Norman Duke, i.e. the head of the two Channel States (Jersey and Guernsey), the Lord Proprietor and Head of State of the Isle of Man, and the King of fourteen other overseas states.

Coronation as a religious ritual

The ceremonial introduction to the royal function is thus carried out in a church manner. Regardless of any private philosophical or religious interests of the king, it is a ceremony of the Church of England. In Westminster Abbey, the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns the king with the participation of other bishops. The anointing of the forehead, hands and chest in the place of the heart with chrism, a mixture of oil and balm, gives a particularly sacred impression. Elizabeth II. she was to be hidden from the eyes of those present during this act at her request.

The king has the title of Defender of the Faith. The definite article “the” stands for one particular faith, namely Anglican. It is reported that today’s monarch previously proposed the title without a member, i.e. protector of any faith.

It is paradoxical that this title in the Latin version as defensor fidei was received in 1521 by King Henry VIII. from Pope Leo X in recognition of the book Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (Confirmation of the Seven Sacraments), in which he defended the sacramental nature of marriage and the sovereignty of the Pope. The book was understood as a polemic with the Lutheran Reformation, which began to assert itself in the territory of today’s Germany from 1517.

The same monarch, however, had the Acts of Supremacy approved by parliament in 1534. The Pope’s rule over the Church of England ended. It was related to the policy of Pope Clement VII. against Spain, which was at enmity with England. The Pope refused to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon. The law, still in force today, states that the king is “the only supreme head of the Church of England” and that he is entitled to “the honor, dignity, majesty, privileges, authority, immunity, beneficence, and property appropriate to his dignity”.

Thus, the monarch remained the protector of the faith even after the separation of the Church of England from papal sovereignty. This created a separate Church of England, whose beliefs, ceremonies and organization are halfway between Catholicism and Protestantism. However, these titles do not mean actual power over Anglicans in the United Kingdom.

The diversity of churches in the United Kingdom

Ecclesiastical conditions are different in the historical countries of the United Kingdom. Anglicanism prevailed in Wales, but today the church there is independent of the Church of England and the (perhaps only formal) sovereignty of the king. In Scotland, the direction that took over the initiatives of the Swiss Reformation in Anglicanism prevailed, and the result was a Presbyterian Church similar in style to our local Evangelical Church of the Czech Brethren. It is noteworthy that if the monarch resides in Scotland, like Elizabeth II. until his death on September 8 at Balmoral Castle, is a member of the Presbyterian Church. He has no particular defined position towards her, although he is mentioned as a protector of her safety.

In Northern Ireland, the Catholic Church is strongly represented, to which — similarly to the Republic of Ireland — Irish people subscribe, and the Presbyterian Church formed by the so-called Dublin Scots. Information about their numerical ratio varies in different sources, but Catholics seem to be the most numerous denomination.

From the territory of the present-day United Kingdom, the Anglican branch of Christianity, with about a hundred million members worldwide, spread to the entire territory of the former British Empire, over which, as they liked to say, the sun never sets. Thirty-eight churches in the countries of today’s Commonwealth, but also in the USA under the name of the Episcopal Church, make up the world Anglican Communion. The churches are independent. The king has the title of protector of the faith in New Zealand and also in Canada, where it is not only understood in relation to the Anglican Church there.

The first among the equal bishops of the entire community is the Archbishop of Canterbury. He usually convenes the Anglican bishops for meetings once every ten years, but they are not binding in nature. In the Anglican Communion, there is considerable tension between the more liberal churches of the British Isles, the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand and the more conservative churches, for example, on the African continent. The disputes are about the priestly and episcopal ordination of women and about the church’s relationship with LGBT+ communities.

Specifically for England, but not for other Churches of England in the British Isles, bishops are effectively appointed by the Prime Minister, albeit on behalf of the King. The Royal Appointments Commission, made up of bishops, priests and lay people who are virile or elected members of the Church’s General Synod, will propose two candidates to the Prime Minister. After discussion in parliament, he “advises” the king on the appointment, and the king, through the prime minister, sends the name of the chosen one to the deans and canons of the vacant diocese, who “elect” the appointee.

The state position of the church, unusual in the countries of the European Union, is also manifested in the fact that both English archbishops (from Canterbury and from York) and twenty-four other bishops sit in the Upper House as spiritual lords. They may not be members of political parties, but sit on the government side closest to the entrance to the chamber, or outside of both parties. Crossbenchers, i.e. lords from outside political parties, still sit more or less facing the chairman.

Catholics, who according to various sources are roughly as represented as Anglicans, relatively more numerous Methodists and Baptists, as well as Unitarians, who also live more here than in continental Europe, are outside the royal competence in the United Kingdom. Jews on the islands were not affected by the Holocaust, nor did such a significant exodus to Israel take place here, which is why they have a stronger presence there than on the continent. And finally, a few percent are Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists originally from countries that were once under British rule.


Source: Deník referendum by denikreferendum.cz.

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