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Charles III: A Christian King

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Pope Francis speaks with Britain’s Prince Charles at the Vatican on 13 October 2019, the day of the canonisation of St. John Henry Newman and four others. Photo: CNS, Vatican Media via Reuters

“Thank you for your love and devotion to our family, and to the family of nations you have served so diligently all these years. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

King Charles III’s tribute to his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, concluded with Horatio’s moving words to the dying Prince of Denmark in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

Far from outmoded sentiment, Charles’ spiritual farewell may also be the beginning of a shift in tone for the monarchy from the quiet, dutiful Anglicanism of the Elizabethan years to a more active embrace of spirituality as the antidote to the crises engulfing the world.

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In a 1994 interview, then Prince Charles famously said he would prefer to be seen as the “defender of faith” rather than “defender of the Faith”, a title of British monarchs since Henry VIII.

“King Charles has a warm relationship with Pope Francis, and in 2019 contributed a glowing article to the Vatican newspaper on the canonisation of British Cardinal St John Henry Newman.”

“I would much rather it was seen as defending faith itself, which is so often under so much threat in our day, where the whole concept of faith – or belief in anything beyond this existence, beyond life itself – is considered almost old fashioned and irrelevant,” he said.

“I’ve always felt the Catholic subjects of the sovereign are equally as important as the Anglican ones, or the Protestant ones.”

King Charles has a warm relationship with Pope Francis, and in 2019 contributed a glowing article to the Vatican newspaper on the canonisation of British Cardinal St John Henry Newman.

“In the age when he lived, Newman stood for the life of the spirit against the forces that would debase human dignity and human destiny,” he wrote.

“His example is needed more than ever … His faith was truly catholic in that it embraced all aspects of life.”

Britain’s Prince Charles attends the canonization Mass for five new saints celebrated by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican Oct. 13, 2019. PHOTO: CNS/Paul Haring

The King’s own spirituality is both traditional and eclectic. He combines his mother’s commitment to the established Church of England with a “seeker” mentality typical of contemporary spirituality.

Over the years he has remarked on the ways in which religious doctrine can cause division, and has described himself as “one of those people who searches”.

His search for the divine has also led him to embrace the Orthodox Church of his late father Prince Philip and grandmother Princess Alice, an Orthodox nun.

A 2004 visit by Charles to the monastic republic of Mt Athos in Greece was widely covered by the press, with The Guardian reporting it was his third “clandestine” visit in 12 months.

“There is no question that the British royal is Orthodox in his heart,” one Athonite monk said at the time. “Sadly, he is very constrained by his position.”

“He has a deep interest in Islam, visits Buddhist temples, pays homage to Indigenous wisdom and was a close friend of former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.”

King Charles has since made several more retreats at monasteries in Greece, Russia, and Serbia and reportedly has a large collection of icons at his residence at Highgrove.

He has a deep interest in Islam, visits Buddhist temples, pays homage to Indigenous wisdom and was a close friend of former UK Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

King Charles is also patron of the Temenos Academy, a college and think tank that teaches “perennial philosophy” inspired by the Ancient Greek idea of sacred geometry and the deep interconnectedness of all things.

“I would like the students to leave my Institute with a feeling that they have experienced something rather special in their lives; that a new dimension of life has been revealed to them which has struck a chord in their hearts that will never stop resonating,” Charles said in 2013.

Britain's King Charles III walks at Aberdeen Airport in Scotland as he travels to London Sept. 9, 2022, following the Sept. 8 death of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: CNS photo/Aaron Chown, pool via Reuters
Britain’s King Charles III walks at Aberdeen Airport in Scotland as he travels to London Sept. 9, 2022, following the Sept. 8 death of Queen Elizabeth II. Photo: CNS photo/Aaron Chown, pool via Reuters

Some of his more eccentric interests, such as homeopathy and alternative medicine, have drawn criticism from harder-nosed Tories for being fuzzy, irrational or “woke”.

Others find his high-profile advocacy for permaculture, traditional farming and re-wilding as eccentric.

But as he wrote in his 2010 book Harmony, Charles commitment to ecology comes from his conviction that the moral, spiritual, natural and cultural worlds all draw on a deeper sacred unity.

There is a sharper element to the new king’s faith too: he has been a high-profile spokesperson for religious freedom and staunch advocate for persecuted Christians in the Middle East.

“… he said freedom of religion is an “essential principle” that must be “embedded” in both government and civil society.”

He frequently refers to reports by Aid to the Church in Need that warn of the disappearance of Christianity in the land of its origin, describing the situation in 2015 as an “indescribable tragedy”.

He cites Pope Francis on the duty of interfaith dialogue, but is also sceptical of secular approaches, saying dialogue comes from the “core of one’s own spiritual experience”.

At a UK Government religious freedom conference in July this year he said freedom of religion is an “essential principle” that must be “embedded” in both government and civil society, adding that the world stands at a “crossroads between totalitarian and liberal societies”.

At age 73, King Charles is the oldest monarch England has seen at the time of his coronation. But if his advocacy for the spiritual life continues, he could prove to be a Christian King with a fresh and surprisingly contemporary vision for the world.

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