Thou Idle Ceremony? | Stuart Abram

Prince of Wales arrives at Waterkloof Airforce base in Pretoria on His official visit to South Africa.Photo: Prince Charles and British High Commissioner Nicola Brewer.South Africa.02/11/2011

“And what art thou, thou idle ceremony?
What kind of god art thou, that suffer’st more
Of mortal griefs than do thy worshippers?
What are thy rents? what are thy comings in?
O ceremony, show me but thy worth!
What is thy soul of adoration?”

Henry V, Act IV, scene 1

The death of Our Sovereign Lady The Queen saw the celebration of many ceremonies now unique to the monarchy of the United Kingdom. The Accession Council, a State Funeral, the Investiture of the Prince of Wales (now King Charles III) and, supremely, the Coronation have all and will likely take place within the next year (the most recent of these events took place in 1969 – for the present King). Of particular interest will be to what extent the religious and constitutional symbolism will change. Queen Elizabeth II’s Coronation (1953) was a sumptuous yet almost entirely Anglican affair, with bit parts played by the Church of Scotland and other Christian denominations (Roman Catholics, at the time, were still ordinarily forbidden from attending non-Catholic worship). Indeed, it may now be that much of the 1953 service is entirely foreign even to Anglican bishops, especially its more demanding or musical parts such as the Litany (the failure to adapt St Paul’s daily service of Evensong for the memorial service on 9th September perhaps suggests this). Yet what, changed or no, does all this ceremony mean?

Pondering the precise role of royal ceremony is nothing new, as Shakespeare’s words suggests. Yet the Bard places these words in the mouth of a usurper’s son, unsure of his own legitimacy while waging war against the French. Shorn of precise doctrinal meaning (the service at St Paul’s was unclear as to whether one prayed for the late Queen’s soul), the value of royal ceremonial is a mixture of the psychological and constitutional, showing an ideal form of State and people. Despite a century or so of democracy, the British people will be assembled representatively and hierarchically around their Sovereign with the clergy, nobility and judiciary allotted their traditional precedence. Festooned in a mixture of the quaint and absurd, what will be most striking will be how little has changed in a “progressive” direction. Despite the erosion of religion and the rise of a much more diverse society, those structures have changed relatively little. Indeed, the nobility will be larger (thanks to the Life Peerages Act 1958) and the judiciary more influential than in 1953. Only the clergy’s role has receded.

What is the ideal proposed by all this ceremony? Ordered hierarchically, the British ideal embodied in ceremony is not the Workers’ Paradise but, more simply, a society in which power is checked by its emanation from the Sovereign and personal rights underscored not by the abstract “rule of law” but rather buttressed by custom, law and the King’s peace. The ideal is thus focused on private property and public right; to quote Charles I, “A subject and a sovereign are clean different things”. Liberty, for the only formal saint of the Church of England, consisted in this “having of government” not in the sense of a large state, but of a sovereign power independent of external control. Sovereignty, property and liberty are inseparable. The King’s givenness, his “calling of God”, is the mark of this independence by which arbitrary power is stymied and prevented. Likewise, the enacting clause in parliamentary bills suggests this – the Lords and Commons advise and consent, for the wield and weal of power belong not to them but to the Crown whose dignity and authority is separate from party politics.

What of Henry V’s words? The king’s humanity is inseparable both from his sovereignty and his (metaphorical) divinity. At the Queen’s Coronation in 1953, the Archbishop of Canterbury asked her whether:

Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgements?

The tension between law, justice and mercy is one bound up with humanity and the competing imperatives of life. Henry V’s troubles are insuperable. He has no solution to his troubles, but only trade offs and gambling. Should Ruth Ellis have hanged? Should we imprison more criminals? Should we assist the Ukraine more or less? These are issues with no precise answer which are the very essence of sovereignty. While we (rightly) hold sovereignty to belong essentially to the people and nation, we (rightly) recognise that it must be separate to our capacities as private individuals. We entrust that power (eg with criminals) to the King’s Justice and to the Royal Prerogative of Mercy. Mercy and justice, in one sense, are beyond private power. We might elicit or demand them but, unlike the Islamic option for qisas, this is the judgement (in ideal) of an authoritative superior. Thus, justice is public.

The King is both the symbol and the legal source of that justice common to all but separate from each by which civilised life is made possible. It was not founded one day for all time but, like all life, it degenerates and regenerates, even if its first source and final destiny are unclear.

The orientation towards justice thus underscores our constitution and state. We know that in our finite world “justice” is, in part, a series of trade offs between desirable ends. Who is to judge the best or least worst combination of trade offs? As history has magnified the role of the State, that role has moved from the person of the King to his ministers and Parliament. The nation, through both democratic and non-democratic means, comes to its judgement through these means, combining both continuity and adaptability. To take one example, in the United States abortion has been both a constitutional right and not such a right. The US Supreme Court’s arrogation to itself of the sovereignty proper to government has caused instability and uncertainty on this matter. The proper debates have seldom been had, degenerating instead into the zero-sum game reminiscent of private litigation. In the United Kingdom, however, the matter is largely settled and women’s rights on this matter are clearer.

What of idle ceremony then? It is the ritual reminder of ourselves both as a family (albeit somewhat stuffy and crooked, as Orwell remarked) and as a polity of both the centrality and nature of justice in the res publica, the public things. The King is both the symbol and the legal source of that justice common to all but separate from each by which civilised life is made possible. It was not founded one day for all time but, like all life, it degenerates and regenerates, even if its first source and final destiny are unclear. It is human yet possesses, in its sovereignty, something of the prerogative of God (at whose behest it acts). It is the gift bequeathed to us from the ages and the gift we have to give to generations yet unborn. It is our birthright and our glory.


Photo Credit.

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