The problem with King Charles's coronation prayer

King Charles III after being crowned with St Edward's Crown by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, during his coronation ceremony in Westminster Abbey, London, Saturday 6 May 2023.(Photo: Alamy)

King Charles's prayer before the Westminster Abbey altar at his Coronation signalled a major change in the Church of England's doctrine of salvation.

The established Church's teaching is that faith in Jesus Christ is necessary for eternal salvation and that people cannot become regenerate (born again) children of God by faithfully following their non-Christian religion. Article 18 of the CofE's 39 Articles of Religion, Of Obtaining eternal salvation only by the Name of Christ, makes a strong statement against the idea that a person can achieve salvation by being a good Muslim, a good Sikh, or a good Hindu:

"They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved."

The CofE also officially teaches that a person cannot be saved by being a good Christian. Article 11, Of the Justification of Man, declares: "We are accounted righteous before God, only for the merit of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ by Faith, and not for our own works and deservings."

But King Charles's prayer before the altar was explicit that people of every faith and belief can justly be called children of God and thus achieve salvation:

"God of compassion and mercy whose Son was sent not to be served but to serve, give grace that I may find in thy service perfect freedom and in that freedom knowledge of thy truth. Grant that I may be a blessing to all thy children, of every faith and belief, that together we may discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen."

In his 1994 BBC interview with Jonathan Dimbleby, the then Prince Charles made clear that he aspired to be "Defender of Faith" rather than Defender of the (Protestant Christian) Faith. He effectively got his way through his prayer before the altar.

Readers should not be deceived by the 'thy' there as if this was ancient liturgy. It was King Charles's innovation and the fact that his prayer was offered "through Jesus Christ our Lord" does not detract from the alteration to the Church's teaching about salvation that it signalled.

Kind Charles did swear as his mother did in 1953 to "maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law". But in an article in the Telegraph on May 7, "Against all odds, The King has proved himself a true Defender of the Faiths", columnist Charles Moore was quite right that King Charles succeeded in making "bold changes" to the Coronation service. 

Moore wrote: "As plans were made for this Coronation, there was some official embarrassment about the oath. The very word 'Protestant' is now falling into disuse. It sounds almost antagonistic. It certainly does not embrace Catholics or show the slightest interest in wider religious belief ... Church and state were nervous, however, about formal change.

"The oath can be altered only by full parliamentary process. Such delicate matters could not be settled in the few months available. Any rush would excite suspicion. New wording might easily stir up new rows.

"The eventual compromise was: keep the oath, but surround it with the church equivalent of small print tactfully hinting it is not as bad as it sounds."

The King's prayer was part of the surrounding small print but the spiritual direction it sign-posted is not small. The spiritual consequences for the Church of embracing the multi-faith agenda are significant. If the Church starts saying that people can be saved without calling on the name of Christ, that very arguably takes the urgency out of evangelism.

When Pope Gregory the Great sent the Roman monk who eventually became Augustine of Canterbury to evangelise the Anglo-Saxons in the 6th century AD, he certainly did not believe that they could be saved without calling on the name of Christ.

Neither did 19th century British missionaries such as Hudson Taylor, the chemist's son from Barnsley who evangelised inland China, harbour any optimism about humanity's spiritual chances without faith in Christ.

Yet King Charles, Supreme Governor of the Protestant Church by law established, clearly is optimistic that "God's children of every faith and belief" can "discover the ways of gentleness and be led into the paths of peace" without intentionally turning to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Julian Mann is a former Church of England vicar, now an evangelical journalist based in Lancashire.