With Ash Wednesday marking the start of Lent tomorrow, the King’s thoughts will be doubtless be turning to an important moment in the year of a Monarch and an occasion he will not want to miss.
An ancient Christian ceremony mixing leadership and service, next month’s Maundy Thursday service sees the King wash the feet of his subjects and hand out specially minted Maundy coins.
It has deep roots.
Stretching back to the Middle Ages, the Maundy Service commemorates the the Last Supper, when Christ washed the feet of his disciples but also remembers the commitment to serve made in the King’s Coronation vows.
King Charles’s Coronation was a deeply religious ceremony. His promise to serve God and the nation will be echoed at the Maundy Service next month
Prince William is passionate about helping others through action. He is pictured leaving the stage after delivering a speech during the London Air Ambulance Charity Gala. But little is known about his beliefs even though he is set to be the next Supreme Governor of the Church
Christian faith was important to the late Queen, who is seen here handing out Maundy Money at St George’s Chapel, Windsor in 2019
It is no accident that Handel’s Zadok the Priest – heard at every Coronation since that of George II – is sung each year.
Yet with King Charles now receiving cancer treatment, there is every chance he will not be there this year (the venue is yet to be disclosed) leaving this duty to – most likely – his heir, Prince William.
The task would certainly remind the prince of his destiny – and of how very much that future is bound up with Christian faith.
It would also raise some questions that nag a little more insistently with every passing year: just what does Prince William believe?
And how committed is he to the Church of England he will one day lead.
There can be no doubt about his father, King Charles, just as there was no doubt about his grandmother, the late Queen Elizabeth.
Charles’s considerable faith is very real and has sustained him over the years.
Amid the considerable coverage given over the years to the King’s interest in other faiths, especially Islam and Judaism, his own strong Christian beliefs have sometimes been overlooked.
This is a mistake. Charles prays frequently. He uses overtly reverential language, referring to ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ’ rather than just ‘Jesus’, for example.
He had his own chapel built in the grounds of his home, Highgrove House in Gloucestershire.
Some of the greatest influences on him are devout believers, including the former Bishop of London, Lord Chartres, the Bishop of Southwark, the late Mervyn Stockwood, the Jungian and Cambridge chaplain, the Rev Harry Williams and the poet, Kathleen Raine.
Despite some early questions about how the King would style himself at his Coronation, he chose to be Defender of Faith.
Speaking to the nation for the first time after his accession, he used these words: ‘I solemnly pledge myself throughout the remaining time God grants me.’
Eight months later, he was greeted at his Coronation by a choir boy – the youngest person there – who stepped forward and said: ‘Your Majesty, as children of the kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of Kings.
And Charles replied: ‘In his name and after his example, I come not to be served but to serve’.
The consolation of faith was something that his mother, Elizabeth II also knew.
A keen a reader of Scripture, she knew the Anglican Book of Common Prayer intimately, and her most treasured possessions included a special book of prayers prepared to help her prepare for her 1953 Coronation by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher.
When she was dying, a church minister read to her from the Bible.
If Elizabeth II’s was a simple Anglican faith, sustained by Sunday church attendance throughout her life, her son’s interest in religion seems to be more like that of his father, Prince Philip – full of curiosity and a sense of adventurous exploration.
His great friend, Lord Chartres, once told me that the King ‘is enthralled by religion’.
That fascination does not seem to be shared with the Prince of Wales.
There is little evidence of his own religious beliefs, although he was christened as a baby and later confirmed by Lord Chartres.
By the time Charles was in his forties – the age that William is at now – he was regularly given lengthy speeches about religion and ethics.
Speechmaking is not William’s forte, it is true. He prefers practical action.
Where there is evidence of his interest in faith, it is in his strong connections to religious organisations that work at the grassroots, helping those who are homeless. About such things, he is passionate.
His charitable commitment has not, however, been enough to prevent speculation that William might cut ties with the Church of England when his time comes. That he would not be Supreme Governor.
According to biographer Robert Hardman’s new book, Charles III – New King, New Court, William is not a regular church-goer and ‘is not instinctively comfortable in a faith environment.’
Not that the prince could change the relationship unilaterally, for the British monarchy and the Established Church, the Church of England, are so bound up together that he could not become King without being ‘in communion with’ the Church of England, according to the Act of Settlement, 1701.
Constitutional experts Robert Hazell and Bob Morris wrote recently that:
‘However right in principle, removing the restriction on the monarch’s freedom of belief would in practice raise questions about the new changed constitutional status of the Church of England together with the roles of parliament and the monarchy towards religion at large’.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby performs the Washing of The Feet ceremony during the Sung Eucharist, The Liturgy of Maundy Thursday service at Canterbury Cathedral last year
Some of the Maundy money distributed by the Queen in 2003
King Charles distributes the Maundy money to 74 men and 74 women, mirroring the age of the monarch, in York Minster last year 2023
Prince William pays homage to his father in a moving moment captured at last year’s Coronation. King Charles has a deep interest in matters of faith but that does not seem to be shared by his son
Today and in the immediate future, the King’s siblings and children will be more concerned for his health than the constitutional niceties of church attendance.
But whoever washes the feet of the 75 chosen citizens – 75 to mark Charles’s age – on March 28, this much will be unavoidable: Christian faith, which at the heart of the King’s life and looked-for recovery, is at the very heart of Monarchy itself.
At some point, answers will be needed.
- Catherine Pepinster is the author of Defenders of the Faith – the British Monarchy, Religion and the Coronation