Two Ways News is a weekly collaboration between Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen – a newsletter and podcast on a topic to encourage gospel thinking for today (subscribe at twoways.news).
In this episode (recorded in the days just before the coronation), Phillip and Tony talk about why we have public events like coronations at all, why they are like weddings, and why the content and symbolism of this particular coronation reveals a lot about the Bible’s distinctive view of human government.
Read on for an edited transcript, or click on play to listen to the whole thing.
The Coronation and the King
Tony Payne: Phillip, here we are in Australia, a long way not just from the events of the coronation but from King Charles himself, who is our official head of state. It all seems very distant, and (for many Australians) a reminder of the slightly strange fact that the King of Australia lives on the side of the world.
Phillip Jensen: It’s certainly very different from 1953, when Elizabeth was crowned queen. That felt like the dawning of a new age. We’d come through the war, having also just come through the Depression. Elizabeth’s coronation was enormous, and the build up to it was also enormous. But this time, in the Australian papers, it’s really only now, in the week directly before Saturday’s coronation, that the media is starting to talk about it.
And much of that talk is about disputes within the royal family.
TP: Will Megan be there? Will Harry be there?
PJ: But there’s also the question of whether we want a king. What does a king mean in Australia? And do we want a king who lives 10,000 miles away?
The media is also talking about the details and the symbols—about where the procession is going and who’s going to be wearing what, especially because it is said that Charles is intentionally reducing the size and importance of it compared to Elizabeth’s grand coronation. But then there are others who are questioning the whole thing—like Geoffrey Robertson, who wrote a piece arguing the coronation is a complete waste of time.
TP: I guess that’s partly because Robertson doesn’t want Australia to have a British king in the first place. But also, presumably, because Charles is already king, and a coronation is not going to change anything. What’s the point of having this massively expensive, symbolic ceremony?
PJ: Yes. And for Robertson, who is an atheist, the coronation is also objectionable because it is a Church of England activity of accepting the king. And well, the Church of England is so unimportant these days and so few people go. Why should the Church of England appoint the king, who’s already been declared king?
TP: For many people, it’s a Christian hangover from a bygone age; a religiously charged symbol of something they don’t want anyway.
PJ: Yes, in a way it’s like weddings. If we already live together, why do we need a wedding? And isn’t a wedding service just a religious hangover from another age?
But actually, a wedding is a very important thing to do and likewise a coronation is important. That is, we need a time and a place where we can articulate what this new social relationship is. That’s what weddings do. Sure, people can just live together. But a wedding spells out the nature of this relationship, for better or for worse, for as long as we both shall live, until death do us part. It actually sets out the framework of what we think our relationship is and will be. We may not keep it. But we then know that we are then guilty for not keeping it because we promised we would.
TP: And we promised it in front of everyone. It is a public covenant, a public set of promises.
PJ: Everybody knows how to treat us now because we are husband and wife. We are living together in a sexual relationship, and you might expect children to be coming along because we are in that relationship. And we want you to treat us as husband and wife and not come between us. A public wedding also tells other people in the congregation what they should expect in their wedding. It reminds us who are already married what we promised years ago, and it teaches those who are not yet married what they will be asked to commit to in the years ahead. It has a very important educational function.
TP: So the words of the wedding service—the promises that are exchanged, the shape of the whole ceremony and everything that happens—it teaches and expresses the reality of what marriage is, and looks forward to it taking place for this couple. There’s a real and true connection between the words and the reality. The wedding service is describing what is and what should be.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. Mind you, the words have been terribly distorted by Hollywood—in every movie I’ve seen with weddings recently the words are just nonsensical romantic sentimentality. There’s no promise that “I will”; at best it’s “I do”. And then also, the lavish trappings and symbolism—the wedding gowns, the flowers, the cars, and so on. These are now more important than the vows (such as they are). It’s about the lavishness of the spectacle and the reception, far more than the words that are being said.
And even the words that are said don’t mean what they mean anymore. Weddings are the only contract I know of where it is not in any way legally binding. So I promise “for better or worse”. But in fact, by law, all I’m promising is, “I’ll stay with you and I won’t get married to anybody else until I’ve left you for 12 months”. Well, that’s very different to the words I actually said. But thanks to the Family Law Act of 1975, in Australia, that’s all a wedding means.
TP: It is a strange contract. And certainly the words don’t match the reality. We’re going to get back to the words and reality of coronation in just a moment, but I know there’s another story you’ve been dying to tell about words and reality.
PJ: Ah yes. I’ve noticed that there’s a growing range of non-binary t-shirts that you can buy online. Some of them have a definition of what non-binary means, others have the symbols of male and female but with all kinds of other little circles and arrows and crosses mixed up in different ways. Others are about pronouns–about not using ‘him’ and ‘her’, but ‘them’ and ‘they’, and so on. They’re all promoting the idea that gender is now non-binary, and letting you advertise your support of this fact on your t-shirt.
But the thing that amuses me enormously is that you can buy them only in male or female sizes and fittings. They don’t offer other genders when it comes to sizes or fittings (the female ones have much shorter sleeves). And so reality bites back.
When words lose touch with reality, it becomes nonsense. It’s a very serious thing when you detach words from reality.
TP: Let’s come back to the coronation of the king, then. What words are being spoken? And what realities are those words trying to describe or celebrate or put forward about the nature of kingship?
PJ: Well, one important thing is that it’s God who appoints the king, whether the king knows it or not. Romans 13 says we are to submit ourselves to all authority, because God is the one who appoints all authority in his world. So the king may be an atheist, but he is still appointed by God, whether he believes it or not. The coronation is talking about God’s appointment of the king. And it’s only by God’s appointment that there’s any chance he will reign in the righteousness that is required to make government work.
One of the very first things that happens in the coronation is that the Bible is placed in the king’s hands. Of course, it’s all about ceremony; the Bible will be a special edition of the King James Version, and it will be taken away from him as soon as the service is over. But what is said about the Bible is wonderful and extraordinary:
Our gracious King, to keep Your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the gospel of God as the rule of life for the whole life and government of Christian princes, we present you with this book, the most valuable thing that this world affords. Here is that wisdom; here is the royal law. These are the lively oracles of God.
That’s a terrific statement. And it’s a powerful symbolic communication as well—that the very first thing that happens is that God’s word is put in his hands, by which he has to live and on which he takes an oath. And so the place of God’s word is central.
Even so, we’re not expecting him to implement them, although the words of the service go on expecting him to implement them. He is to rule with justice and righteousness and mercy. These are wonderful words for an understanding of the Bible’s teaching about a king. Psalm 72 is a terrific psalm about endowing and giving to the king righteous judgments and justice, because it’s only from God that we get that sense of righteousness and justice, which lies at the heart of government. The fundamental activity of government is justice and righteousness. Without God, you really don’t have that spelled out.
And so we’re praying that the king will follow the Bible by ruling with justice and righteousness. That’s very important to articulate for him and for us listening in, to know what to pray for him—because we should pray for him. It also tells us what to look for and expect from our monarch. The fact that some of them are no good at doing it doesn’t change the hope and expectation of our community. It’s teaching us and articulating for us our hope and expectation of government.
TP: As Psalm 72:1-4 says:
Give the king your justice, O God, and your righteousness to the royal son!
May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice!
Let the mountains bear prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness!
May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the children of the needy, and crush the oppressor!
PJ: It’s a terrific Psalm. It’s about Israel and Israel’s king, but it’s fundamental to what a king should be and should do. Of course, it’s not talking about a constitutional monarchy, such as we have, let alone a titular head of state 10,000 miles away from us. But it is still articulating our right expectation for what a government should do, of which the king is the titular representative at this stage.
TP: It strikes me how similar it is to Romans 13—how the expectation of what (in that case) a completely pagan Emperor is and ought to is very similar to what the Israelite King should be (although in a more explicitly God-oriented fashion in the Psalm). I think that’s the kind of way the Old Testament structures of kingship and nationhood function in the Bible. The Old Testament isn’t a charter for a kind of a Christian reconstruction, a Christian nation-building program, as if we should institute the kingdom of God on earth by having a Christian king imposing a Christian law. It’s not that—but it does teach us the nature of true government and kingship, in the way that God established Israel’s king to rule with righteousness and to deliver the needy. It’s what kings should be and should do.
PJ: Yes, one of the problems is that I think the people of England think they are God’s kingdom, just like the Americans do. I think Australians might be spared from that hubris, although it’s not a great credit to us that we’re spared of it. We must be careful not to read the king of Israel as being just like the King of England or the King of Australia; we don’t want to go down that kind of reconstructionist line. However, I agree with you that all that is best and right and just is seen in the law of Israel. There’s that passage in Deuteronomy 4—when the peoples around Israel see the people of Israel obeying the law, they will say, “What a great God these people have. And how true and just are their laws. What nation ever had such laws as these.”
And so Israel’s laws express the way the Creator of the world has created humans to live. And so we can draw from Israel’s king what is to be expected of a godly king. I think the coronation service–in its words–does that. But many of its symbols, the pomp and splendor of it all, are slightly contrary to the words that we’re saying. And the changes that I see that are being brought in for this particular coronation–all about the king not being served but serving–is made into a nonsense by the pomp and splendor that goes along with it. The ultimate King had nowhere to lay his head, but this king has more wealth and prosperity on display than you will ever see anywhere. But that’s why people watch it on television. And again, you see, it’s like the wedding—the $10,000 wedding dress is more important than the words she’s saying, when in fact that word she’s saying really matters most, and the dress is totally unimportant.
The gold orb that is put in the king’s hand—it’s got a cross on top of it. The sceptre that is put in his hand—it’s got a cross on top of it. The crown that is put on his head—it’s also got a cross on it. Each of those symbols is about living under the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, living under the assassination of the King of kings, the one who came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. That last little bit of the verse—about Jesus’ sacrifice—has been left out. Mind you, his sacrifice is still remembered in the coronation service, in the Lord’s Supper.
TP: Yes, there are ironies. The Bible that is put into his hand is described as the most valuable thing that this world affords. But of course, Charles will receive it while draped in millions of pounds worth of gold and precious gems.
And of course, the other thing that Psalm 72 does in painting such a glorious picture of the rule of the son, is to point us to David’s greater Son. It points us to the ultimate failure of all human kings to judge and to deliver.
PJ: Yes, that’s true, even in Israel’s greatest two kings: David and Solomon. David was a certain embarrassment, but he was the great king. Solomon was an even bigger embarrassment. As he gets older, it gets worse and worse, and he places a heavy yoke upon the people and so leads people astray. And it only gets worse from there, as you read 1 and 2 Kings.
TP: It’s a sad catalogue of failure.
PJ: Yes, it’s depressing, really. In 1 and 2 Kings, you’re supposed to be looking for David’s son, but David’s son keeps on being a dud. And basically, it’s preparing us for David’s greater son. That’s what the first Christian sermon is about, from Peter on the day of Pentecost. He quotes Psalm 110, about David regarding the Messiah as his own Lord, and God placing everything under his feet, which Peter sees is fulfilled in the resurrection and ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, by the Lord Jesus Christ. There’s that wonderful climax that his sermon comes to in verse 36, it: “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified”.
TP: So in a sense, the coronation also points us to the fact that our human governments will always fail, that they will never achieve the vision of kingship and justice and righteousness and defending the poor that the Scripture points out as the nature of true government.
PJ: Yes. I was thinking of Psalm 146. Don’t put your trust in princes, because they die. But the great King died for our sins, and rose again as a victorious ruler forever. And so the fulfillment of the promises of God centre on the true King of kings. And of course, because the king is resurrected from the dead, he’s different from all kings, for they do not rise from the dead. We’re not to put our trust in princes, because they all die. And so while we call out ‘long live the king’, the anomaly is that he’s not going to live so long that he never dies.
The phrase comes from the appointment of Solomon as king by Zadok the priest—and the people all rejoiced and shouted ‘long live the king’. (No doubt Handel’s rendition of ‘Zadok the Priest’ will be played at the coronation.)
We want the king to live long, but only the Lord Jesus lives as God’s promised forever-king.
TP: And he brings in a kingdom of justice and righteousness that lasts forever.
PJ: By his death–that’s the crazy part, isn’t it? He doesn’t bring it in by a big procession and heraldry.
TP: He comes into Jerusalem on a donkey to be assassinated. And yet out of that assassination, we find the true value and meaning not just of service, but of righteousness and justice, of forgiveness and mercy.
PJ: Yes, and as Dominion by Tom Holland points out, it’s a whole value system that is so contrary to the world’s values system of power and might and authority being exercised through cruelty. It’s just a completely different kingdom.
TP: And long live that King!
PJ: Long live that King!
That is what we’re going to look at, at the King’s Birthday Conference this year, on the afternoon of June 12. My brother Peter is going to be joining me in a couple of sessions as we explore what it means to say “long live the king”? We’re using the King’s birthday weekend and the king’s new appointment to be looking at the whole issue of our relationship with the government and the state, especially at a time when I think most Christians in the Western world now feel less included, less accepted, less wanted, in the state, in the government, and in the society. How do we now relate to a world that is shifting in its power authority structures away from us?
TP: The King’s Birthday Conference is going to be held here at Moore College on June 12, starting at 1:30pm. Follow this link for the conference details and how to register.
PJ: For those outside of Sydney, we are live-streaming it. And there are special rates for groups who want to come together and watch it together.
TP: We look forward to seeing you there.
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