Expect King Charles to embed new openness to all faiths in the UK

For the new monarch, being the defender of faith will be as important as being the defender of 'the faith’

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It has often been remarked that taking up the job he was born to inhabit at the age of 73 means King Charles III has served the longest apprenticeship ever observed.

This means the tests for the new British monarch can be easily identified. King Charles must connect with the people to become a guide in changing times. How he reflects the role of religion in society is one of the standout issues facing his reign.

There was a heavy hint of this in his first King's Speech just ahead of his formal accession. “Whatever may be your background or beliefs, I shall endeavour to serve you with loyalty, respect and love, as I have throughout my life,” he said.

People gather in tribute as the cortege carrying the coffin of the late Queen Elizabeth II passes by on September 11, in Ballater, Aberdeenshire, UK. Getty

There was more than a flavour of the famous pledge of lifelong service that Queen Elizabeth fulfilled in her long tenure on the throne. King Charles gave over the bulk of his speech to a personal tribute to his mother that was heartfelt and sincere, but the business end of the address was in the above quote. It was his personal manifesto to his subjects of what they could expect from his time as head of state.

Queen Elizabeth herself was deeply dedicated to her role as head of the established Church of England. She defined the role of that church as an institution that carved out the space for all religions in the country to enjoy the freedom to worship. In doing so, she went far down the road offering parity of esteem but held, ultimately, to the single foundation of the Anglican church as the prism for her religious interventions.

While the departed monarch was very identified with her own religion, King Charles has a long history of immersion in other faiths as well as his own. He has been very keen to show an openness not only to the tenants of other faiths but the variety of practice and the separate ethos that underpin religion.

This is an important distinction because the vast changes in British society under Queen Elizabeth were, in some ways, the most important element of her rule. This has seen the emergence of a multi-ethnic, cultural and religious society. King Charles was a keen student of the impact of these changes when he was Prince of Wales.

Now he gets the chance to embed new approaches in the institution of the monarchy, whose mission is to remain an emblem of British life.

Queen Elizabeth II with her husband Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, their son Britain's Prince Charles, and his wife Camilla, and their grandson Prince William, and his wife Catherine, on December 8, 2016, at Buckingham Palace, London. POOL / AFP

As far back as 1994, King Charles talked about carving out a role as a “defender of faith”. This would have been a subtle change in the coronation oath that included the line that the monarch would act as a “defender of the faith”, signifying the Anglican faith.

The coronation is an event that is likely to take place at a much later date, and it seems there will be no changing of the language when that sacred and opulent ceremony takes place. King Charles himself does not push for the vital “the” to be dropped. “It’s always seemed to me that, while at the same time being defender of the faith, you can also be protector of faiths,” he said at one point.

Many things have moved on since he first trailed these thoughts.

As was evidenced on accession day, the history of the current dynasty is tied up with the split between Protestant and the Roman Catholic streams. It is still a central part of the declarations and proclamations that the new monarch must make. And it is up to King Charles to craft the wider messages that include other religions as well.

What lies ahead for the UK is an exercise in building over the void left by the departure of Queen Elizabeth. The qualities she possessed allowed the nation to look to her for some guidance at pivotal times. This kind of reassurance stemmed from her ability to channel the national mood. There were several occasions when she got it horribly wrong, but for the most part she was a class act.

King Charles noted that one of the changes for him would be that he would not have the time or ability to devote to the charities and causes that he was particularly associated with as heir to the throne. It is, therefore, right that he can find a role in giving cohesion to the British ways of faith and identity.

The messages and gestures that he shapes and delivers in these areas have a crucial role for this monarchy. Divides have already been eroded in everyday life by time and familiarity.

The next step must be to embed new openness to all faiths in the system and how it communicates with the country. This leadership will be important on an international level, not least in the Middle East, where the structure binding together the Abrahamic faiths is a pillar of unity.

It will be just as important for all those communities in Britain that want a monarch serving them with loyalty, love and respect – whatever be the values and ideals that they cherish as individuals and as members of society.

Published: September 12, 2022, 4:00 AM
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