The Lively Oracles of God

THE English coronation service has long been an object of my fascination. The script of this ancient pageant reads like a systematic demolition of the political principles held dear by Left and Right alike in the United States. There is no separation of powers: the Sovereign is the chief executive, the chief legislator, and the chief judge. There is no separation of Church and State: the Archbishop crowns the Sovereign; the Sovereign appoints the Archbishop. All men are not created equal, nor do governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed: the Sovereign reigns by right of blood and the will of God. While sadly much of the script can no longer be taken at face value (Parliament, and only the elected half of it, at that, is the real authority), even the words are enough to be noxious to a true son of Uncle Sam. But I have apostatized from the American civil religion long ago, and feel no guilt in pining for the Mother Country’s reactionary rites.

Someday when I have more time and more knowledge, I hope to produce a comprehensive coronation commentary. But for now I shall content myself with looking at a certain facet of the ceremony a facet that glitters especially brightly to a monoglot like me, since, by virtue of its uniquely late arrival, its history can be traced entirely in the vulgar tongue. As the old 1908 Catholic Encyclopedia explains,

The service for the coronation of the King of England even in modern times remains substantially the same, though English has been substituted for Latin and though many transpositions and modifications have been introduced in the prayers and ceremonies, all distinctively Roman expressions being studiously suppressed… the only new element introduced into the English rite since the Reformation is the presenting of the Bible to the sovereign.

Of course, our own presidential inaugurations feature Bibles as well. Though the custom is not constitutionally required, it would likely be political suicide to abstain, for it has excited much popular attention of late  witness the excitement in 2009 when Barack Obama placed his hand on a Bible once owned by Abraham Lincoln. (For his 2013 inauguration, Obama again used the Bible of his political predecessor, but stacked above it a Bible once owned by his alleged spiritual predecessor, Martin Luther King. One hopes that future presidents will not feel themselves obliged to crush their hands under the weight of ever-increasing stacks.)

But while the Scriptures feature in both events, they have rather different roles. In the inauguration, the Bible is used as an embellishment of the Oath of Office: by swearing while touching a book he considers sacred, the president-elect assures the onlookers he takes the oath seriously. In the coronation, however, the Presenting of the Holy Bible is unconnected with the Sovereign’s oath, which has already taken place. And the Bible’s relevance to the ceremony does not derive from the Sovereign’s own personal belief in it, for a third party declares it to be objective truth. The Bible does not serve as a declaration of the Sovereign’s faith  it serves as a declaration of the nation’s faith, which the Sovereign is admonished to believe and practice. One might even say that the two ceremonies are opposites in a sense, for while the inauguration uses the Bible as an instrument to ensure the President does his duty, the coronation regards the Sovereign himself as an instrument to carry out the word of God as revealed in the Bible.

The Presenting of the Holy Bible first occurred on 11 April 1689, at the unique joint coronation of William III and Mary II.  (They were considered co-sovereigns, instead of the typical situation of a ruling sovereign and a non-ruling consort.) William and Mary came to their thrones by overthrowing Mary’s father, the Roman Catholic James II, and Bishop of London Henry Compton accordingly set about to revise the coronation service to emphasize the Protestant nature of the new monarchy. Although Roman Catholics certainly claim the Bible as their own, to Protestants the book was a symbol of defiance against Papal tyranny. Compton invented the Presenting to assure Englishmen that their king and queen were, to use a modern term, “Bible-believing Christians.”  (Compton ended up performing the coronation himself, as Archbishop of Canterbury William Sancroft refused out of loyalty to the deposed king. It seems this refusal occurred at the eleventh hour, for the order of service as printed presumes the archbishop is involved.)

The 1689 Presenting is reproduced below, with my commentary interspersed.  I have retained the original spelling and capitalization, but expanded a few abbreviations.

Then shall the Dean of Westminster take the Holy Bible, (brought by one of the Prebends of Westminster and brought back by the Dean in the Procession for this purpose) from off the Altar and deliver it to the Archbishop who with the rest of the Bishops going along with him shall present it to the King and Queen, first saying these words to them

“Thus said the Lord of old to his peculiar People by the hand of his Servant Moses.

In contemporary English the word “peculiar” means “weird,”  but in the seventeenth century its meaning was more akin to “specially chosen.” The “Archbishop’s” line here recalls a number of biblical passages, such as “The Lord hath avouched thee this day to be His peculiar people” (Deut. 26: 18), and  “Ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto Me above all people” (Exod. 19: 5). The word resonates particularly well with the coronation site, since Westminster Abbey, being under the Sovereign’s direct authority and answering to no bishop, is considered a “royal peculiar.”

When thy King sitteth upon the Throne of the Kingdom; he shall write him a Copie of this Law in a Book, and it shall be with him, and he shall read therein all the days of his life; that He may learn to fear the Lord his God, and to keep all the Words of this Law to do them, and that he turn not aside to the right hand, nor to the left, to the end that He may pro­long his days in his Kingdom, He and his Children.

This is a slightly-abridged quotation of Deuteronomy 17: 18-20. The full text includes a hope “that his heart be not lifted up above his brethren, and that he turn not aside from the commandment“; perhaps Compton removed it for sounding too much like a challenge to the Sovereigns, but perhaps only in the interests of brevity.

And accordingly afterward, when they made Jehoash King, they not only anointed and Crowned him; but they gave him the Testimony also, that is, the Book of the Law of God, to be the Rule of his whole life and Government.

According to II Kings 11: 12, the priest Jehoiada established Jehoash (also known as Joash) as king in this manner: “And he brought forth the king’s son, and put the crown upon him, and gave him the testimony; and they made him king, and anointed him; and they clapped their hands, and said, ‘God save the king.’

“To put you in mind of this Rule and that You may follow this Example, We present You with this Book, the most valuable thing that this World affords. Here is Wisdom ; this is the Royal Law ; these are the lively Oracles of God.

The Bible speaks of “Wisdom” so often I doubt I could give a particular citation for the word’s use here. But it might be interesting to recall that in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy the Deacon announces scriptural readings by exclaiming “Wisdom!” “The Royal Law” refers to James 2: 8: “If ye fulfil the royal law according to the scripture, ‘Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself,’ ye do well.” Although the word “oracles” sounds rather pagan, it is biblical. The exact phrase “lively oracles of God” never occurs in the Authorized Version, but Stephen’s speech to the High Priest in Acts 7: 38 mentions Moses receiving “lively oracles,” and three verses in the NT mention “oracles of God” (Rom. 3: 2, Heb. 5: 12, and I Peter 4: 11).

Blessed is He that readeth, and they that hear the Words of this Book, that keep, and do the things conteined in it. For these are the Words of Eternal life, able to make You wise and happy in this World, nay wise unto Salvation, and so happy for evermore, through Faith which is in Christ Jesus, to whom be Glory for ever. Amen.

“Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand” (Rev. 1: 3). A coronation is not a particularly apocalyptic event, so the final clause’s absence is understandable. “The Words of Eternal life” is from John 6: 68, where the Apostle Peter asks Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life.”  The final section is from II Tim. 3: 15: “From a child thou hast known the holy scriptures, which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.”

Anne (23 April 1702)

The Presenting of the Holy Bible at Anne’s coronation is nearly identical to that at William and Mary’s coronation; only three minor changes occur. “Our gracious Queen” is inserted before “thus said the Lord of old…” “To put you in mind” is replaced by “to put Your Majesty in mind.” And “that keep, and do” is replaced by “and keep and do,” bringing it in line with the biblical text.

George II (11 October 1727)

I was unable to find the text for the coronation of George I in 1714, so next I shall look at the coronation of his son George II in 11 October 1727. George II’s Presenting is nearly identical to Anne’s. “Our gracious Queen” is naturally changed to “Our gracious King,” and the “and keep and do” of Anne reverts back to the “that keep and do” of William and Mary.

George IV (19 July 1821)

The text for George III likewise eludes me, so I move on to the coronation of his son George IV on 18 July 1821. Sadly I cannot tell if the change first occurred with the son or the father, but this Presenting is drastically altered compared to the 1727 version. Everything from “Thus said the Lord” to “we present you with this book,” inclusively, is vanished away. “We present unto Your Majesty this book” is inserted to span the abyss. And the editor of this service changes “affords” to “affordeth;” it seems he thought it his duty to use Prayer-Book style verb-endings even when the original from 1689 had the newfangled “s.”  This new version therefore runs as follows:

Our Gracious King ; we present unto your Majesty this book, the most valuable thing that this world affordeth. Here is wisdom ; this is the royal law ; these are the lively oracles of God. Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this book ; that keep, and do the things contained in it. For these are the words of eternal life, able to make you wise and happy in this world, nay wise unto salvation, and so happy for evermore ; through faith which is in Christ Jesus, to whom be glory for ever. Amen.

William IV (8 Sep 1831)

The text of George IV’s Presenting is retained, except that “We present unto your Majesty this book” becomes “we present you with this book,” and “affordeth” goes back to “affords.”

Victoria (28 June 1838)

“Our gracious King” becomes of course “Our gracious Queen,” but all else from William IV’s Presenting remains.

Edward VII (9 Aug 1902)

Edward’s poor health demands that many parts of the ceremony be shortened, and the Presenting does not escape curtailment: Everything after “lively Oracles of God” is deleted, reducing the text to a mere two sentences:

Our gracious King ; we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this World affords. Here is Wisdom ; This is the Royal Law ; These are the lively Oracles of God.

There was some controversy over the physical copy of “this Book” to be used in the ceremony. The splendid copy of the Scriptures offered  by the British and Foreign Bible Society as a gift to His Majesty,  in accordance with the Society’s Evangelical Protestant principles, did not contain the Apocrypha. But Archbishop Temple, in accordance with his High Church Anglican principles, refused to use an “incomplete” Bible at the Coronation. The Society was therefore compelled to give its Bible to the King only as “a memento of the coronation,” which he graciously accepted, and an Apocrypha-inclusive Bible was commissioned to meet the Archbishop’s requirement:

The work was executed at the Oxford University Binding House, and the volume, which is of large quarto size, was presented jointly by the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. The binding is of royal red levant morocco, polished, and a border of Tudor roses on the covers encloses a beautiful design, within which, on the front, are the Royal arms, and on the reverse the arms of Edward the Confessor, of the two Universities, and of Westminster Abbey. The design is in gold, and the edges are solid gilt, while the doublure, or inside of the cover, is of russia leather, the rose, thistle, and shamrock being utilised as ornaments both on the inside and outside of the cover. 

George V (22 June 1911)

The text of the Presenting is not altered, save in the de-capitalization of “world,” “this,” and “these” in the offical Order of Service.

George VI (12 May 1937)

The text of the Presenting is not altered.

Elizabeth II (2 June 1953)

For once, the text of the Presenting is lengthened: After “Our gracious Queen” is inserted “to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes.” Far more significant than the change in the text, however, are the changes in the rubrics surrounding the text  changes which affect both the scene and the cast.

Hitherto, the Presenting has occurred in the middle of the ceremony, between “the putting on of the Crown” and the Benediction. Now it is transferred to the opening of the ceremony, between the Oath and the Beginning of the Communion Service. No longer must the Sovereign “put down the two scepters and then return the Bible to the archbishop and take the scepters again,” as a contemporary newspaper put it. But while the move ends one form of awkwardness, it creates another, for the Queen now “receives” the same Bible she has relinquished only a few moments earlier, after having laid her right hand on it during the Oath. One wonders why the Presenting is not inserted before the Oath.

The other rubrical change reflects ecclesiastical and national politics: Elizabeth II is to be Queen of the entire United Kingdom (to say nothing of the Dominions overseas), and not just England. Should the coronation ceremony be conducted exclusively by clergy of the Church of England, it might raise questions about its suitability for the other regions over which she reigns. While there has been no Scottish involvement in the Coronation before 1953, discussion both favouring and opposing the possibility thereof can be traced back quite far. In 1821, two Scottish Peers had unsuccessfully claimed the right to carry the Scottish Crown before George IV, but later commentary mostly focused on the religious angle. In 1902, F. C. Eeles argued for a purely Anglican Coronation in his The Coronation Service: Its History and Teaching, as 

The part of that service which conveys the grace of Consecration, in which we believe, can be nothing to Presbyterians; it stands or falls with that doctrine about Orders, which we accept and they reject, and it is nothing to them. If any of them believe in it on theological grounds, it also follows that they must believe, on the same grounds, that our service is sufficient. But, generally speaking, it is correct to say that they do not hold the Church’s doctrine as to the ecclesiastical character of the King any more than they hold it as to the ecclesiastical character of the bishop. If there is any demand for an inauguration function for Scotland, let that be a civil function, in which not only Presbyterians but all may feel they have a part. 

In 1911, the Scottish Antiquary reported that 

More or less vague expressions have been heard north of the Tweed with a view that, theoretically, Scotland should be represented more fully than it is in the ceremony of crowning the King of the United Kingdom… A pamphlet was recently circulated entitled “Claims of the Church of Scotland.” The writer also presented a petition to the General Assembly of this year. One of his objects was to induce that house to claim that a part in all “imperial ceremonies” into which offices of religion enter, the Coronation included, should be assigned to the Scots Church as an “Imperial” institutionwhich neither it nor the Church of England is in any legal senseeven though the ceremonies in question should be enacted furth [outside of] of Scotland.

But widespread debate does not seem to have arisen until the mid-1930s, as plans developed for the next Coronation: first for Edward VIII, and then after the Abdication, for George VI. Much of this discussion can be seen in the archives of the Glasgow Heraldfrom whose pages all of the following newspaper excerpts are taken. On 6 November 1936, the Herald reported that

The possibility of the Church of Scotland taking part in King Edward’s Coronation was canvassed at a meeting of the Presbytery of Dundee… The Rev. Edwin S. Towill, Dundee, said the Coronation ceremony was conducted along the theological line of the Church of England, and if they were suddenly going to impose Presbyterian clergymen into the midst of it, they would be creating rather a hocus-pocus, unless they did their job thoroughly; and probably if they did the job thoroughly the whole time-honoured organisation of the Coronation ceremony would come crashing to the ground and a new one would have to be created.

On 7 November 1936, a letter-to-the-editor pointed out that Scottish participation and Scottish Presbyterian participation are not necessarily the same thing: 

In the “Herald” of November 6 “Loyal Briton” has performed a public duty in the letter which begins “There is a feeling abroad that the Coronation ceremony is more purely English than it need be.” There has been a stirring of the dry bones, and presbyteries of the Church of Scotland are here and there beginning to sit up and take notice. One of these was that of Inverness, and it was decided to ask the Central Commitee whether any steps were being taken to secure a place in the religious ceremony… There is a way out of the difficulty, which I do not profess to support: I only offer it as a suggestion. The Scottish Episcopal Church is in full communion with the dominant body, the Church of England. Why should not the Primus be sent up to represent Scotland at the Coronation, and to claim a recognized place in the service in Westminster Abbey? I have just a feeling, however, that this would hardly please the Church of Scotland. But there is no use “protesting” against this English monopoly. The Church of Scotland has itself to blame for being left out in the cold.  

Three days later came a reply offering a third option:

In this morning’s “Herald” Mr. J. A. Dron said with regard to the Coronation ceremony that “there has been a stirring of dry bones.” In my opinion they have not stirred to much account. Perhaps if the said “bones” had been galvanised into life all those agitating for the Church of Scotland to be recognised in the Coronation ceremony would realise that such agitation is totally unnecessary, and that the whole position can be simplified by the King being crowned in Scotland with the Scottish regalia as King of Scotland.

On On 19 November “those agitating” faced a defeat, as the General Administration Committee of the Church of Scotland ruled against seeking an official role  in the ceremony, while tasking a committee to consider the possibility of a role for the Church in “other State functions.” This proved disappointing to some members present, resulting in the following most curiously politicized exchange:

Mr Jackson again asked for an assurance that the Church of Scotland would be represented at the Coronation.

Principal Martin said the whole thing was under the consideration of the committee, who had undertaken to give the fullest consideration to any representation that was made to them.

Mr JacksonIt seems to me the whole thing is being Hitlerised.

On 4 March 1937, the Herald reported that the Scottish National Party was supporting a separate Scottish Coronation over Scottish participation in the English Coronation:

An appeal to Scottish local authorities to support the suggestion that His Majesty the King should be crowned in Scotland as well as England is contained in a letter which has been sent to the Town Clerks of the principal towns in Scotland by Mr J. M. MacCormick, honorary secretary of the Scottish National Party.

“At a time when a Scotswoman has become Queen the suggestion would appear to be a peculiarly happy one,” states the letter. Added force is lent to it by the fact that the Church of Scotland has renounced any intention of claiming to play a part in the ceremony, so that in so far as that ceremony is of a religious nature, Scotland is either totally unrepresented or is represented by the ministrations of a Church whose tenets are not acceptable to the bulk of her people.

“It may be objected that as Britain is one country one Coronation should suffice, but that is to ignore the fact that Scotland and England are in certain well-recognised spheres two countries and not one, and that pre-eminent amongst those independent spheres is the Church.

“Even if a double Coronation is not strictly logical, it would be a graceful recognition of the theoretical equality of the two partners in the Union, and as such it is suggested that since there is no single body able to express Scottish public opinion local authorities should press for its being carried out.”

But on 18 March, with the Coronation of George VI now but a few short weeks distant, the Herald printed a complaint from a reader still supporting a Scottish Presbyterian component to the English ceremony:

the King, when he is crowned in May, is crowned not as King of Scotland, nor as King of England, but as King of Britain (besides his other titles). Most Scots, however, know that in political practice, though never referred to as King of Scotland, he is frequently referred to as King of England. Also, since he is rightly crowned King of Britain, why is the religious nature of the ceremony exclusively moulded according to the doctrine and administration of the established Church of England? Scotland has a Kirk of her own. If the Coronation includes Scotland, why does the chief official of the Kirk of Scotland not have a part of his own to play, not as a subsidiary of the English established Church?  

This did not happen, of course, and after George VI was crowned without Scottish participation the fuss began to die down. (Through not entirely; on 28 May 1951 we read in the Herald that “The construction of a coronation chair to incorporate the Stone of Destiny so that all future monarchs may be crowned in Scotland as Kings and Queens of Scots by the national Church of Scotland is suggested by the Rev. K. Meldrum Davidson, Forfar.”)

On 8 October 1952, some months after the death of George VI, we see that  

An appeal for a more significant share for the Church of Scotland in next year’s coronation ceremony was made by the Rev. C. L. Johnston, Auchinleck, at a meeting yesterday of Ayr Presbytery…. Mr. Johnston, who was submitting a report of the Presbytery’s Church and Nation Committee, said his committee, felt that some strong steps should be taken to ensure that the national Church should be given a more significant part in the ceremony than she had hitherto had. “Surely,” he said, “this is not a great deal for a national Church to ask when we remember that the Church of Scotland at past coronations has generally been little more than present. It is not a great deal to ask when we remember the desire of our Anglican brethren for a closer integration of the two communions.” This plea was not a matter of pride, he added. There was the question of loyalty involved. “We, too,” he said, “want to help to crown our Queen, and if possible make intercession for her on behalf of our people on that great day.” 

The Ayr Presbytery, incidentally, had also been a supporter of a Scottish role in the Coronation during the ill-fated attempt of 1936.

And on 20 November 1952, we see that the authorities of the Church of Scotland still do not wish to seek out a place in the Coronation, but unlike in 1936 they are open to the idea if offered:

The Church of Scotland, if invited, would be “very ready” to take part in the actual coronation service in Westminster Abbey next year, the Procurator, Mr. J. R. Phillip, Q. C., told the Commission of the General Assembly of the Church in Edinburgh yesterday…. The sub-committee and the full General Administration Committee of the Church of Scotland were of the view that so long as the coronation service remained in its present traditional form, and in that form embodied the Anglican Communion service, it would not be fitting for the Church of Scotland to seek to assert a claim to participate therein. “This does not imply any unwillingness on the part of the Church to participate. On the contrary, we consider that the Church would be very ready to do so if invited.”

On 16 March 1953 the Herald announced that such an invitation had been given and accepted. 

The MODERATOR of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland has accepted the ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY’s invitation to take an official part in the Coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey by presenting the Bible to the QUEEN and sharing with the ARCHBISHOP the words of presentation. It seems that by this device, which should be generally acceptable, the problem has been solved of how the Church of Scotland could share in the ceremonial but not in a service traditionally conducted according to the practice of the Church of England. … The innovation of the special service in St Giles’ on June 24, at which the QUEEN will be present after proceeding through the city attended by the Honours of Scotland, will represent a ceremony of dedication of a wholly Scottish kind. It therefore seems appropriate that the MODERATOR’s participation in the Abbey’s ceremonial should be confined to that now proposed. The ARCHBISHOP’s invitation implies recognition of the Church of Scotland’s claim to an important share in that ceremoniala claim superior to that of the unestablished Churches of Great Britain or of the Dominion Churchesbut raises no question of her representative’s taking part in a service ritually inconsistent with Presbyterianism.

So here we finally have the “current” form of the Presenting of the Holy Bible, as it was performed in 1953:

When the Queen is again seated, the Archbishop shall go to her Chair : and the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, receiving the Holy Bible from the Dean of Westminster, shall bring it to the Queen and present it to her, the Archbishop saying these words:

Our  gracious Queen : to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the Law and Gospel of God as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes, we present you with this Book, the most valuable thing that this World affords.

And the Moderator shall continue:

Here is Wisdom ; This is the Royal Law ; These are the lively Oracles of God.

Then shall the Queen deliver back the Bible to the Moderator who shall bring it to the Dean of Westminster, to be reverently placed again upon the Altar. This done, the Archbishop shall return to the Altar.

The preface to the English Standard Version of the Bible, after quoting the “Here is Wisdom” line, says “With these words the Moderator of the Church of Scotland hands a Bible to the new monarch in Britain’s coronation service.” It is quite nice to see American Christians appreciating the glories of monarchy, but the preface is a tad misleading, since thus far the Moderator has only done his part once in the twelve Presentings from 1689 to 1953.

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