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In the UK this week Justin Welby, the normally unflappable Archbishop of Canterbury, whose politics usually range somewhere between respectful status quo and mild woke, got his cassock in a bit of a twist. Anticipating Saturday’s Coronation, he invited the populace watching the ceremony on television to recite in unison the Homage of the People.
Here it is: “I swear that I will pay true allegiance to Your Majesty, and to your heirs and successors according to law. So help me God.”
So help me, there was such a howl of protest, you could have heard it in the Outer Hebrides.
You may think of the United Kingdom as a nation of ritual and royal deference, a country of Buckingham Palace tea towels and Pims cheers to the crown, with even drunken football hooligans pausing their pillaging as soon as the opening strains of “God Save the King” begin filtering out of the stadium sound system to yodel their pride along with their maniacal, monarchical brethren.
But in fact, most people just don’t care.
Not All Brits Want God to Save the King
Recent studies have shown that support for the monarchy veers wildly depending on one’s age group, with people 65 and older approving the most (70 percent) and the youngest, 18-34 demographic offering the most tepid support (39 percent). The average hovered just above 50 percent, but I think the reality is probably more nuanced, with few people wanting to round up the royals with pitchforks, but most just wanting to stop reading about their incessant in-fighting and annoying antics (with the exception of Daily Mail readers).
That’s why people were so grumpy about the pledge: It forced them to take a side. Either you were for the pledge or you were against it, and this nudged a lot of the againsters into the realm of the republicans. In popular British parlance, this was a royal “own goal.”
The Daily Beast’s “Royalist Correspondent” Tom Sykes commented that the oath idea probably seemed like “an easy win for inclusivity and modernity” but that “no one thought to check with the people first.”
Turns out they weren’t so keen.
One of those wildly unscientific online polls (in this case for ITV’s Good Morning Britain) reported that 86.5 percent of more than 164,000 respondents said they would not participate.
The anti-monarchist organization Republic claimed the oath was “an offensive and tone-deaf gesture that holds the people in contempt.”
So alarmed was the Palace by the blowback that they immediately threw the cleric under the double-decker bus.
“The Archbishop of Canterbury has gone off-piste on this one,” commented one royal aide.
Lambeth Palace, the Archbishop’s London pied-a-terre (actually a large complex with a clock tower dating to the 15th century), had to clarify that this was an “invitation” not an order.
In fact, the “Homage of the People” was intended as a more inclusive element of the ceremony, replacing the traditional “Homage of Peers,” in which a long line of hereditary peers and clergy knelt and made a pledge to the monarch in person.
A lot of those peers and clergy will still be in the nave on Saturday, but a people’s chorus will evidently not be heard from across the land.
Americans might shudder at the thought of folks being asked to recite an homage to the king, but I remember being made to recite the Pledge of Allegiance each morning in my US high school. I bristled at this vacant gesture, and as a fervent atheist of long-standing, refused to utter the words “under God.”
Eventually I stopped saying it all together, but I still felt obliged to stand with my class and even mouthed the words in case an Allegiance spy was watching. I’ve never liked reciting homilies in church.
But that was the screw-up of the Archbishop, reminding us of the literal meanings of the impending ritual. After all, he’s the one who’s going to be anointing the king with holy oil to signal the appointment from God, and that kind of drags the whole thing down for a lot of people into the realm of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
To quote Graham Smith, a spokesman for Republic, “This kind of nonsense should have died with Elizabeth I, not outlived Elizabeth II. In swearing allegiance to Charles and his ‘heirs and successors,’ people are being asked to swear allegiance to Prince Andrew too. This is clearly beyond the pale.”
Well it’s almost cheating if you bring Andrew into it. But I see his point; it does make the whole thing sound rather old-fashioned. But that’s the thing about this country — it’s old. The ceremony itself goes back over a millennium.
It’s not just a tea towel after all. It’s history.
J.B. Miller is an American writer living in England, and is the author of My Life in Action Painting and The Satanic Nurses and Other Literary Parodies.