Sacred Traditions in Secular Britain – What plans for the next coronation reveal about the relationship between religion and tradition

In this blog post, Charlotte Hobson explores British sentiments around the sacred using the Monarchy as a case study, asking: who wants a Christian coronation?Hobson

The word sacred is often associated with religion but its use need not be limited in this way. Sacred values come in many forms – two common examples are the notions of equality or justice. They are non-negotiable and fundamental to an individual’s world view and way of life, causing dispute and disruption when threatened or challenged. In this blog I will explore the idea that traditions are held sacred in British society, with reference to attitudes concerning a modern-day coronation ceremony and its contents. On the basis of a small qualitative research project, I propose that the public’s desire to retain explicitly Christian traditions and rituals in the next coronation – despite declining levels of religiosity – is evidence of widespread reverence for sacred tradition rather than, ironically, sacred religion

On the 2nd June 1953, Queen Elizabeth II was crowned in a spectacular ceremony, captivating the nation’s attention. 65 years later at age 92, she remains the figurehead of an historic monarchy and the quintessential symbol of Britishness. Tentative preparations for the next monarch’s accession are being considered and although it feels almost taboo to discuss the crown passing on, conversations on the topic provide interesting insights into the relationship between religion and tradition in Britain.

Traditionally, British coronations symbolise the ‘conferment of God’s grace on the head of state and the symbolic deference of all earthly power to a higher, spiritual authority’, however recent decades have witnessed dramatic declines in British Christian belief and participation. Although Christianity retains some cultural significance, well-documented ‘nosediv[ing]’ popularity levels have led some to argue that the next coronation should avoid all associations with religion. Public opinion apparently disagrees. In 2015, religion and society think tank, Theos, published a report revealing that most Brits (57%) would rather the next coronation be Christian than secular (23%) or multi-faith (19%).

As a result of using purely quantitative methods, reasons behind this preference remain unclear. I endeavoured to explore this by interviewing 10 members of the British public. Participants ranged in age, gender and socio-economic background but all identified as either ‘Christian’ or ‘non-religious’. A more representative sample was not possible due to limited time-frame and resources but focusing on this sub-group still revealed some important themes worthy of future research.

Most notably, my interviewees highlighted that there is a difference between wanting a religious coronation ceremony and wanting to perform traditions possessing religious roots – the vast majority of people that I spoke with were in the latter camp. Coronation rituals were often separated from their intended religious meanings and their worth calculated with this in mind. Apparently, traditions were not viewed favourably because of their Christian nature but almost in spite of it. For most, the ceremony wasn’t perceived as a religious event and even after viewing video clips of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation – resplendent with explicitly religious imagery, objects and language – when asked if any alterations should be made for future coronations they fixated on notions of respecting history and preserving tradition which make such events ‘more official’ and ‘authentic’, adding ‘significance’ to and ‘respect’ for the ceremony. Implied in this is the notion that religion doesn’t – at least not to the same extent.

This is perhaps partly down to religious illiteracy – participants not recognising certain rituals as having religious meanings and therefore not discussing them in this way – however it also indicates the extent to which traditions are revered in and of themselves; perhaps even that for many they are sacred in a way that religion is no longer.

For my participants, retention of historical coronation traditions was of central importance. A cursory glance at wider society suggests that this is true in other contexts too and that therefore, perhaps ‘tradition’ in a general sense, and not just those concerned with coronations, is sacred. According to the Church of England, being ‘traditional or conventional’ increases the attractiveness of potential wedding venues and wedding traditions are more influential in shaping celebrations than faith, religion or spirituality. Some national traditions also possess explicitly religious overtones and yet – as with the coronation traditions – are perceived positively and engaged with annually by the vast majority of our increasingly non-religious country; e.g. singing the National Anthem, remembering the fallen on Remembrance Day and the celebration of Christmas and Easter. Although participation is rarely consciously motivated by a desire to preserve these traditions, this doesn’t mean that they aren’t viewed or treated as sacred. In fact, many sacred values ‘have the potential to erupt as sites of struggle but for much of the time lie dormant and, as such, invisible’; it isn’t until the value is threatened that its significance, and sacredness, becomes clear. Were someone to remove all religious references in the National Anthem, religious symbolism from war memorials, or references to Christianity from Christmas celebrations, there would be (and with the latter, there is annually) outrage. Rather than evidencing continuing religiosity or ‘desecularisation’ in Britain perhaps the desire to continually perform rituals and sing words that no longer hold religious meaning for many Brits reveals the extent to which participating in traditions themselves is meaningful. Moreover, the discomfort associated with altering said traditions reveals their ultimately non-negotiable, and therefore sacred, nature.

This being said, traditions aren’t always fastidiously treasured. Where they clash with other sacred values we often celebrate their adaptation – the Royal Wedding between the Duke and Duchess of Sussex earlier this year was praised for its lack of tradition and the resulting inclusivity. My participants noted a possible clash between a coronation ceremony that elevates Christianity above other faiths (as it has done traditionally), and the values of religious tolerance and pluralism. Such discord necessitates compromise, however, rather than scrapping explicitly Christian traditions 8/10 interviewees suggested making space for other religions to contribute as well, shifting the coronation from being an expression of Christianity’s dominance and exclusive truth to a reminder of Britain’s history and a reflection of British society. In this way, the clash is averted, the performance of historical Christian rituals is made acceptable, and the fundamental, non-negotiable nature of historical tradition which often lies ‘dormant’ is highlighted.

It seems that for the participants in this pilot study, traditions hold a sacred quality. In this way, the apparent paradox highlighted by the Theos report – that a majority non-religious country favours an explicitly religious coronation ceremony – is somewhat resolved; public support for a ‘Christian’ coronation is not necessarily based on personal religious convictions but on a reverence for preserving and respecting centuries-old, sacred, traditions. This model is apparently applicable to other national traditions and offers insights into the relationship between a community and its religiously-conflicted performance of historical traditions.

Charlotte Hobson completed a BA in Theology at Durham University followed by an MA in Religious Studies at Lancaster University and then spent 6 months working as a Research Assistant Intern with Theos. Her academic interests revolve generally around the rise of non-religion in Britain and how this is altering various aspects of society – with a specific focus on the non-religious identities of young people and how these are being formed. Having recently completed her post at Theos, she is now hoping to pursue a PhD in this field in the near future.


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