With the death of Queen Elizabeth II the United Kingdom and a watching world are preparing for a lot of royal pageantry. It's a pageantry that comes with a lot of history and even a little bit of theology. This morning in London, according to an old tradition dating back centuries, King Charles III was officially proclaimed King in the presence of the Ascension Council. For the first time in history people were able to view the event and the simple but profound process by which this is done. With impressive activities and ceremonies the proclamation of the new monarchy will be made throughout the country.
One of the first things King Charles III did — and it was his stated intention to do so at the first opportunity — was to make a formal oath to the security of the Church of Scotland. He did so in the following words:
I, Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled “An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdom for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.
What does all of this mean? As King of the United Kingdom, Charles III bears the title “Defender of the Faith.” As such, he is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. By and large this position is mostly ceremonial and symbolic. However, even as the titular head of the Church of England, King Charles III will appoint high-ranking members of the church.
Historically, this position for the British Monarchy dates back to the Act of Supremacy in 1534. That act confirmed the king’s supremacy over the church. By 1536 King Henry VIII — who wanted out of his first marriage — broke with the Catholic Church and declared the Church of England as the established church and named himself the supreme head.
An "established" church is a church that is officially endorsed by the state – government sanctioned religion. This isn't to be confused with theocracy, but simply means that a state is not secular and has an official religion. This may seem strange to Americans who value the First Amendment and the freedom of religion. The First Amendment says: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." What has been true of the federal government since 1791 became true of every state by 1833. This has not, however, been true in the United Kingdom. Still today the Church of England is the established church in England, and the Church of Scotland in Scotland.
In the decades that followed King Henry VIII’s daughter Mary I repealed the Act of Supremacy in allegiance to the pope, and only a few years later her younger half-sister, Elizabeth I oversaw Parliament’s passage of the Act of Supremacy 1558 which restored the previous act. Elizabeth I also imposed the Oath of Supremacy which gave the monarch the title of Supreme Governor and not Supreme Head — an oath that saw decline with the Catholic Relief Act of 1829. Nevertheless, even today the British Monarch retains the title of Supreme Governor.
Theologically, this role expresses a particular view of Church-State relations. Painting with broad strokes, this view has been sometimes coined as “Erastianism” after (and perhaps unfairly so) Thomas Erastus (b. 1524, d. 1583). Richard Hooker (b. 1554, d. 1600) gave significant defense to the view in his massive work Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie. Loosely defined, Erastianism is the doctrine that the state is superior to the church in ecclesiastical matters.
This doctrine is present for the Church of England in the 39 Articles which defines royal supremacy in Article 37:
The King’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and in other his Dominions, unto who the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction […] Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain within the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers. The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this Realm of England.
With his ascension to the throne King Charles III now fulfills the title Defender of the Faith, and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
However, King Charles III’s relationship to the Church of Scotland is different. The established church in Scotland — the national church — is Presbyterian. Historically, Presbyterianism maintained the magistrate’s responsibility “to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed” (Westminster Confession of Faith (1647) 23.3). However, Presbyterianism rejects the doctrine that the state is superior to the church in ecclesiastical matters, and testifies that Jesus Christ alone is King and Head of the Church. Therefore, the British Monarch is not the Supreme Governor of the Church of Scotland, and when attending services in Scotland the monarch does so only as an ordinary member.
This difference between the Church of England and the Church of Scotland was important in the unification of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland into Great Britain. It was important, in part, because each was the established church of their respective kingdoms and they differed in worship, discipline, and government. Would a unified kingdom necessitate a unified established church? So, prior to the Act of Union 1707, the Parliament in Scotland passed the “Act for Securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” which ensured that the worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland would be unalterable through union with England.
Today, as King Charles III officially ascended the throne, he immediately took an oath to secure the Church of Scotland. He affirmed that as the Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England, he will not and cannot alter the worship, discipline, and government of the Church of Scotland, but will maintain and preserve its Protestant religion and its Presbyterianism.
Practically speaking, given the current state of the Church of Scotland and uncertainty of King Charles III’s sincere commitment to Protestantism, today’s pageantry may prove to be mere formality and tradition. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of the Church, has taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come,” which, in part, is a petition that the church would be “countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 191).