LONDON – For centuries, British kings have carried the title of defender of the faith. As Prince of Wales, Charles was a stranger to it – but the tradition remains, with a king who embraces other religions more openly than ever before in British history.
King Charles III will also be a “Defender of the Faith,” like the queens and kings before him since Henry VIII in 1521, something he announced as Prince of Wales back in 2015. At that time, rumors that the future secular head of the Anglican Church might do things differently and become a “Defender of Faith,” or even a “Defender of Faiths” in the plural, were persistently persisting. The heir to the throne would indeed prefer to be a defender of rather than of faith, he stated, but it should remain with the traditional title, which has been part of the British royal family since Henry VIII in the 16th century. In any case, even as sovereign, Charles could not change the title on his own initiative: The monarch’s title is not determined by him, but by Parliament. As a Christian, Charles wants to ensure that denominations other than Anglican are protected. Religious freedom for non-Christians is also important to him.
Compared to his mother, the new king will probably set different accents, but with a lot of continuity. The queen, who reigned from 1952, grew up in a very different Britain than her son. The United Kingdom today is much more culturally and religiously diverse than it was in the 1950s. Elizabeth II never left any doubt about her Christian faith of Anglican tradition. Even Elizabeth herself, on her 60th anniversary on the throne, echoed the changes in the religious landscape. “The task of the Church of England is not to defend the Anglican faith to the detriment of other religions. No, instead the Church of England has a duty to protect the free practice of all religions in the country. In fact, the Church has created an environment where other faith communities and people of no faith can live freely,” she stressed in 2012, possibly influenced by her son. In his first speech as king, he echoed these thoughts, continuity and change. “Over the last seventy years, our society has evolved into one with many cultures and many religions. The institutions of the state have also changed,” he stressed in the address the day after his mother’s death. What has remained constant, however, are the values – “and they must remain so.” The idea of a “Defender of Faiths” was only hinted at in the speech: Charles assured his people that he would serve all with loyalty, respect and love – “whatever your background or beliefs.”
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Fascination for all religions
For decades, the new king has been known not only for his trenchant opinions on ecology and conservation, but also for his religious outspokenness, which has repeatedly come under critical scrutiny in the British tabloid press. “Prince Charles’ views on religion could force him to GIVE UP throne – ‘ABDICATION’,” headlined the Daily Express in 2018: the heir to the throne’s views on religion could force him to give up the throne. Time and again, Charles had spoken positively not only about other Christian denominations – such as the Greek Orthodox Church, to which his father, Prince Philip, belonged before his conversion – but also about other religions: Sikhism, Hinduism, and, again and again, Islam.
The blood of Mohammed, the prophet of the Muslims, also runs through the veins of the new British king – this emerges from “Burke’s Peerage,” the genealogy of British nobility. The Arab kings of Seville invoked the heritage – and kinship – of the founder of Islam. Via the European kings of Portugal and Castile, this heritage passed to King Edward IV in the 16th century and thus into the British royal family tree. In 1986, the editor of “Burke’s” pointed this out to then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – but not to promote interfaith dialogue: “The direct descent of the royal family from the Prophet Mohammed cannot serve as a guarantee that the royal family will forever be protected from Muslim terrorists,” even if all Muslim religious leaders were proud of it, warned Harold Brooks-Baker.
For Charles, Islam’s religious heritage takes precedence over fears of religious terrorism. When in 1989 the Iranian Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced his fatwah on the British-Indian writer Salman Rushdie, Charles’ first appeal was not for freedom of speech but for understanding for Islam, which he defended against its instrumentalization for violence. Islam, he said, suffers from extremists shaping its image. “The guiding principles and spirit of Islamic law, taken directly from the Koran, should be characterized by justice and mercy,” he stressed in a 1993 speech at Oxford, where he is patron of the Center for Islamic Studies, not by the brutal interpretations of a fundamentalist minority.
Penchant for esoteric holism
For Charles, an ecologist, Islam seems to represent a counter-image to a materialistic Western worldview that leads to environmental degradation and isolation. “Islam can teach us today a way of understanding and living in the world that Christianity has lost because it is poorer,” he said in the same speech. For him, at the core of Islam is the preservation of a holistic view of the universe. Islam, like Buddhism and Hinduism, “refuses to separate man from nature, religion from science, spirit from matter,” and has “preserved a metaphysical and unified view of ourselves and the world around us,” the heir to the throne said.
The same speech also reveals another of the heir to the throne’s beliefs: a fascination with irrationalism and esotericism. The West had lost its holistic view “with Copernicus and Descartes and the arrival of the scientific revolution.” Not only does he serve as a patron at the Oxford Islamic Institute, but in 2019 he added a patronage of the Faculty of Homeopathy, the British homeopathic society.
“The Islamic world is the guardian of one of the greatest treasures of wisdom and spiritual knowledge available to humanity. It is both the noble heritage of Islam and a priceless gift to the rest of the world. And yet this wisdom is so often obscured today by the prevailing drive toward Western materialism – the sense that to be truly “modern” one must emulate the West.”
Charles’ fascination with Islam even went so far that for a time he tried to learn Arabic so he could read the Quran in the original – but to no avail. “It goes in one ear and out the other for me,” he said of the language, which was foreign to him. In 2010, again at Oxford, he commented again on Islam and ecology. There is a profound truth, he said, in a nomadic proverb: The best of all mosques is nature itself.
In the speech, Charles also gave insight into his image of God: God is seen as a being outside his creation, he criticized, while God is part of the unfolding of creation: “As the principle that underlines the cosmos, the cosmos is the result of God knowing it and of God knowing the uncreated God,” the prince explained half cryptically, half mystically.
Charles had last toured Egypt and Jordan at the end of 2021. It was the first major visit after the suspension of royal travel diplomacy forced by the pandemic. Not only to talk about the climate crisis. Visits to holy sites and interreligious events were also on the agenda. The heir to the throne also wanted to speak out in favor of religious freedom there. Years earlier, he had already expressed concern about the persecution of Christians in the Middle East.
First official act completely secular
As king, Charles’ tenure initially begins in the Anglican tradition through and through, despite his openness and sympathies for other religions. At his coronation, he will take the oath of office in Westminster Abbey to the Archbishop of Canterbury, the spiritual leader of the Anglicans. With God’s help, he must swear to defend the Church of England, its doctrine and its privileges – at least that’s what his mother’s oath of office said. Since then, there has also been movement in state church law. For a few years now, British monarchs have also been able to marry Catholics. At the last two coronations, the contrary regulation meant that the Catholic bishops stayed away. At Charles’ coronation, they are expected to be present.
How he sets his own religious accents as king remains to be seen: Here, too, the person is likely to take a back seat to the office. Instead of grand speeches, subtle gestures are more likely to be expected. In any case, Charles III’s first public act of office left faith completely out of the equation: His Majesty the King’s statement, published on the anniversary of the Queen’s death, came off entirely without religious reference. “In this time of grief and change, my family and I are comforted and strengthened by the knowledge of the respect and deep affection shown to the Queen,” the statement distributed by the palace read. No comfort from faith, no hope in the coming kingdom that Elizabeth II hoped for.
With his first address to the people the following day, Charles then already steered slightly around and committed himself to continuity – also with regard to the state-church system. “The role and duties of the monarchy also remain, as does the special relationship and responsibility of the sovereign to the Church of England – the church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted,” the new king assured: “In that faith and the values it inspires, I have been brought up to cherish a sense of obligation to others and to regard with the greatest respect the precious traditions, freedoms and responsibilities of our unique history and parliamentary system of government.”
Even the very personal farewell to his beloved mother, to his “darling Mama,” was given a spiritual dressing. “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!” he concluded his speech. Even if the Christian antiphon “In paradisum” is echoed here – “To paradise may angels escort thee”: these are Horatio’s words to the dead Hamlet. Charles is not quoting the Bible, not the Christian tradition, but Shakespeare.
A title with history
Henry VIII became “defender of the faith” 500 years ago.
Defender of the faith or defender of religion? A 500-year-old title for English monarchs is still relevant and can trigger heated discussions – as Prince Charles had to learn painfully.