Fr. Christopher’s Letter

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

There have been reports that King Charles will be modernising aspects of his coronation on May 6th, reducing the length of the service from the three hours of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation to something like one hour. But it will still be a religious service, taking place within a Eucharist.  The form of the coronation has its origins in the coronation of Edgar as King of England by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dunstan, at Bath Abbey in 973. There have been many revisions of the service since 973, but there remain parts which go back thousands of years before that.

The most sacred of these parts is the anointing of the King, so sacred that it will not be televised.

We have evidence for the anointing of a King in several places in the Old Testament. For example, in 1 Samuel 10:1, Samuel pours a phial of oil over Saul’s head, telling him that God has appointed him ruler over his people Israel. In 1 Samuel 16:13, Samuel takes a horn of oil to anoint David as King. In 1 Kings 1:39, Zadok anoints David’s son Solomon as King. And in 2 Kings 9:6, a young prophet sent by Elisha anoints Jehu as King of Israel. Anointing marks the person anointed as being set apart for a holy purpose, chosen by God.

The fullest description of the Old Testament process of anointing kings is in the anointing of Solomon by Zadok the priest. There we are told that Zadok took the oil ‘from the tent’ (i.e., the tabernacle), showing the sacred nature of the act. It is perhaps for this reason that words based on I Kings 1:39 have been sung at the anointing of the monarch ever since 973.  In 1727, for the coronation of George II, George Frederick Handel composed a magnificent setting for the words and his anthem Zadok the Priest has been sung at every coronation since then. The words sung (with many repetitions and variations) are

Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king.

And all the people rejoiced and said:

God save the King! Long live the King! God save the King!

May the King live for ever. Amen. Alleluia

For a man who by name figures so centrally in the coronation we know next to nothing about Zadok. He is listed as a priest among David’s officials in 2 Samuel 8:17, and was clearly important to David, for when David fled Jerusalem following a rebellion Zadok went with him, Zadok and the Levite priests carrying the ark of the covenant; he was subsequently charged by David to take the ark back into Jerusalem. We hear no more about him until the anointing of Solomon, and little of any significance after that.

The book of Exodus gives instructions for making holy anointing oil; a ‘hin’ of olive oil (just over a gallon) is blended with fine spices. The oil being used to anoint King Charles has been specially made with olives from the Mount of Olives, further making a link between the coronation, the Bible and the Holy Land. It is blended with sesame, rose, jasmine, cinnamon, neroli, benzoin, amber and orange blossom.  The oil was consecrated in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church of Jerusalem and the Anglican Archbishop in Jerusalem.

Being anointed is not, however, the prerogative of kings and queens. Before we hear about the anointing of kings, the Old Testament tells us in Exodus 28:41 how Aaron and his sons were anointed, ordained and consecrated to serve as priests, and many priests are still anointed on the palms of their hands at their ordination. Every year at his Chrism Mass our Bishop, together with his priests, consecrates the oil of Chrism to be used in our churches, and, in our parish, people are anointed with that oil of chrism at their baptism and at their confirmation. Just like the anointing of the King and Queen at the coronation, we should recognise just what a sacred part of the baptism and confirmation ceremonies that is.

I am sure we will all wish to join our voices with those of the choir singing Handel’s anthem on May 6th when they proclaim “God save the King! Long live the King!”


Fr Christopher

%d bloggers like this: