Earlier this year, when Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was ordained as God’s official representative upon Earth and given the name Pope Francis I, the enlightened members of liberal Great Britain, especially here in cosmopolitan London, could barely contain the muffled sounds of laughter at the whole archaic ceremony. Disdainful mockery was the most common tone expressed in the pubs and the opinion columns. The white hat, the extravagant wealth, the adulation lauded on him by followers; it all seemed very silly to us Brits. Despite being a Christian nation, we’d prefer if faith was expressed in a far more understated manner.
Ideas like papal infallibility or the papacy being an office ordained by God, appear so clearly to be anachronistic hangovers from the middle ages, relics that have no place in our own “rational” era, that they need not to be paid much attention. I mean could you imagine us, the people of Charles Darwin and Richard Dawkins accepting the authority of an institution that openly states that it owes its rule solely to the will of God? Would we, the creators of ‘Monty Python’ and ‘The Office’, lend our support to a display of opulence and pageantry, where the leader was anointed with holy oils to symbolize the commencing of their reign? Or watch respectfully as the crimson robe is removed and replaced with the anointing gown, then followed by the arrival of the stone of destiny to be placed under the chair on which the anointed is sat? Imagine us accepting the authority of this ruler and agreeing with their divine right to rule until death (or in rare cases, their abdication). And until that point of death or abdication, if any mere mortal should by-chance cross the path of the chosen one, could we accept that we should bow to them, speak only if spoken to, stand when the God’s chosen ruler stands, sit when sit when God’s chosen ruler sits, and under no circumstances ever try to touch them? (I’m looking at you here Michelle O).
As you may have guessed, the above rituals actually are not part of the inauguration of the Pope but off the coronation of the British monarch.
This week we celebrate/endure the 60-year anniversary of the coronation of Elizabeth II, the last in this long-line of cousin-fuckers to claim dominion over the subjects of this land. A paradox of this age of austerity afflicting Britain is that it has also coincided with a resurgence in Royalist fervour. The last three years, with first the royal wedding, the Jubilee, and then the royal pregnancy, have given many a long-suffering pleb the opportunity to break up the daily routine of job applications for breakfast, loss of living standards for lunch, and malnutrition for dinner, with the chance to indulge in some serious flag-waving. After years of being deeply unpopular, the Royals are back en vogue again, from Harry the lovable idiot to Phillip the cheeky old racist and of course no-one can forget our future-Queen Catherine, the fairest of them all, who sprinkles magic dust wherever she walks. Yet off all the Royal occasions, I have to admit the coronation is my favourite. It perfectly captures the ridiculousness of the Monarchy when juxtaposed with modern human experience in Britain. Try to watch the Queens’s 1953 coronation below and in the middle of it switch to the scene of King Joffrey from Game of Thrones and see if you can decipher which one looks the more medieval.
Even as an embittered republican, I grant that it was hard to be against the wedding or the Jubilee. Because who could begrudge two love-struck kids their special day or an old lady celebrating her long-life?
However the coronation does not tug on the heart strings in the same way, (and that’s mostly because it can’t be celebrated ironically by hipsters). The show of wealth is just too ostentatious, the religious ritualism too mystical, and the odes of fealty demanded too draconian for the coronation to be dismissed as ‘just a laugh.’
After all, how can the idea of the Pope be so regularly mocked by those who unquestionably accept a hereditary monarch? Just as the Queen is the head of the Church of England, so is the Pope the ruling sovereign of Vatican city. And at least he is elected (although it must be said, nomination by a clandestine college of Cardinals before emerging in puff of smoke isn’t exactly what John Locke had in mind). As the Pope draws its legitimacy from the legacy of St Peter, the British monarchy traces its genealogy King David of the Old Testament. If there is no place for a Pope in today’s world then there is no place for a monarch too, even if it remains only symbolically and doesn’t hold any real political power. The monarchy is a symbol for permanent hierarchy, pre-determined by God, on which human efforts or achievements can do nothing to alter – the direct opposite of what a modern democracy is supposed to be.