Rabbi Nicky Liss won’t be watching King Charles III’s coronation. He’ll be doing something he considers more important: praying for the monarch on the Jewish sabbath.
On Saturday, he will join rabbis across Britain in reading a prayer in English and Hebrew that gives thanks for the new king in the name of the “one God who created us all.” Liss, the rabbi of Highgate Synagogue in north London, said British Jews appreciated Charles’ pledge to promote the co-existence of all faiths and his record of supporting a multifaith society during his long apprenticeship as heir to the throne.
“When he says he wants to be a defender of faiths, that means the world because our history hasn’t always been so simple and we haven’t always lived freely; we haven’t been able to practice our religion,” Liss told The Associated Press. “But knowing that King Charles acts this way and speaks this way is tremendously comforting.” At a time when religion is fueling tensions around the world — from Hindu nationalists in India to Jewish settlers in the West Bank and fundamentalist Christians in the United States — Charles is trying to bridge the differences between the faith groups that make up Britain’s increasingly diverse society.
Achieving that goal is critical to the new king’s efforts to show that the monarchy, a 1,000-year-old institution with Christian roots, can still represent the people of modern, multicultural Britain.
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But Charles, the supreme governor of the Church of England, faces a very different country than the one that adoringly celebrated his mother’s coronation in 1953.
Seventy years ago, more than 80% of the people of England were Christian, and the mass migration that would change the face of the nation was just beginning. That figure has now dropped below half, with 37% saying they have no religion, 6.5% calling themselves Muslim and 1.7% Hindu, according to the latest census figures. The change is even more pronounced in London, where more than a quarter of the population have a non-Christian faith.
Charles recognized that change long before he became king last September.
As far back as the 1990s, Charles suggested that he would like to be known as “the defender of faith,” a small but hugely symbolic change from the monarch’s traditional title of “defender of the faith,” meaning Christianity. It’s an important distinction for a man who believes in the healing power of yoga and once called Islam “one of the greatest treasuries of accumulated wisdom and spiritual knowledge available to humanity.” The king’s commitment to diversity will be on display at his coronation, when religious leaders representing the Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh traditions will for the first time play an active role in the ceremonies.
“I have always thought of Britain as a community of communities,”’ Charles told faith leaders in September.
“That has led me to understand that the Sovereign has an additional duty — less formally recognized but to be no less diligently discharged. It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religions, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals.” That’s not an easy task in a country where religious and cultural differences sometimes boil over.
Just last summer, Muslim and Sikh youths clashed in the city of Leicester. The main opposition Labour Party has struggled to rid itself of antisemitism, and the government’s counterterrorism strategy has been criticized for focusing on Muslims. Then there are the sectarian differences that still separate Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland.
Such tensions underscore the crucial need for Britain to have a head of state who personally works to promote inclusivity, said Farhan Nizami, director of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies.
Charles has been the center’s patron for 30 years, lending his stature to Nizami’s effort to build an academic hub for studying all facets of the Islamic world, including history, science and literature, as well as religion. During those years, the center moved from a nondescript wooden structure to a complex that has its own library, conference facilities and a mosque complete with dome and minaret.
“It is very important that we have a king who has been consistently committed to (inclusivity),” Nizami said. “It is so relevant in the modern age, with all the mobility, with the difference and diversity that exists, that the head of this state should bring people together, both by example and action.” Those actions are sometimes small. But they resonate with people like Balwinder Shukra, who saw the king a few months ago when he officially opened the Guru Nanak Gurdwara, a Sikh house of worship, in Luton, an ethnically diverse city of almost 300,000 north of London.
Shukra, 65, paused from patting out flatbreads known as chapatis for the communal meal the gurdwara serves to all comers, adjusted her floral shawl, and expressed her admiration for Charles’ decision to sit on the floor with other members of the congregation.
Referring to the Guru Granth Sahib, the Sikh holy book, Shukra said that “all the people (are) equal.” It “doesn’t matter” if you are king, she added.
Some British newspapers have suggested that Charles’ desire to include other faiths in the coronation faced resistance from the Church of England, and one conservative religious commentator recently warned that a multifaith ceremony could weaken the “kingly roots” of the monarchy.
But George Gross, who studies the link between religion and monarchy, dismissed these concerns. The crowning of monarchs is a tradition that stretches back to the ancient Egyptians and Romans, so there is nothing intrinsically Christian about it, said Gross, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. In addition, all of the central religious elements of the service will be conducted by Church of England clergy.
Representatives of other faiths have already been present at other major public events in Britain, such as the Remembrance Day services.
“These things are not unusual in more contemporary settings,” he said “So I think of it the other way: Were there not to be other representatives, it would seem very odd.” Charles’ commitment to a multifaith society is also a symbol of the progress that’s been made in ending a rift in the Christian tradition that began in 1534, when Henry VIII broke away from the Catholic Church and declared himself head of the Church of England.
That split ushered in hundreds of years of tensions between Catholics and Anglicans that finally faded during the queen’s reign, said Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the most senior Catholic clergyman in England. Nichols will be in the Abbey when Charles is crowned on Saturday.
“I get lots of privileges,” he said cheerfully. “But this will be one of the greatest, I think, to play a part in the coronation of the monarch.”