Charles, formerly the Prince of Wales, is now His Royal Majesty, King Charles III. At 73, he was the oldest Prince of Wales (heir to the throne) in Britain’s long history, and he is now the oldest person to ascend to the throne.
What kind of monarch will Charles III be? That question has been asked with increasing frequency for at least the last two decades as his mother advanced into senior citizenship status. And there are specific reasons for that question being asked with increasing concern.
King Charles is without question the best-educated monarch in Britain’s long history. He was reported to be an A- or B+ student at Cambridge and he has given abundant evidence of being a well-educated, articulate, and well-informed man of intellectual curiosity who has not been reticent about sharing his views with various leaders in British society and more than occasionally with the public-at-large.
Prince Charles’s description of the “carbuncles” of modern architecture and his advocacy of organic farming, rewilding, and his habitual capitalizing of the word Nature have all entered the realm of “general public knowledge” in the United Kingdom. These often-shared princely opinions have at times seemed, to significant portions of the British public, as more like princely overstepping than regal impartiality.
One indication of this sentiment is the fact that in 2014 a very popular play opened in London’s West End (the British Broadway) titled, “King Charles III.” This award-winning play which the Daily Telegraph proclaimed as “attendance compulsory” had a very controversial plot that revolved around the new King Charles ascending to the throne and then almost immediately refusing to sign a bill recently passed by Parliament which he believed unconstitutionally proscribed freedoms of the press. With much exasperation, the Prime Minister reminded the new King that his royal signature was a mere formality since Parliament, not the King, was sovereign.
The then-fictional King Charles III refused to sign and dismissed Parliament, provoking a constitutional crisis that ultimately resulted in his abdication in favor of his oldest son, Prince William.
What gave this very popular play its credence was the fact that it was, and is, generally acknowledged by the British people that the only major royal in living memory anyone could imagine ever defying the elected government in such a way was the then Prince of Wales, now King Charles III.
In King Charles’ defense, he has explained that he had more latitude to express his strongly held views when he was Prince of Wales than he would have as the reigning monarch.
He has pledged to the nation that he will attempt to reign in the same style as his mother, a more than worthy goal, and one which will require great self-discipline on his part.
One area where the new king has expressed a definite opinion is also one where his mother also voiced a definite opinion — and that has to do with the role of the British Monarch as “Defender of the Faith.” When the British Monarch is crowned, one of the titles bestowed upon the king or queen is “Defender of the Faith.”
A little historical background is advisable at this point. Pope Leo X bestowed the title “Defender of the Faith” upon the still Catholic King Henry VIII in 1521. This is right after Martin Luther had begun the movement that became the Protestant Reformation. Henry VIII was known as a “Renaissance Prince” – young, athletic, well-educated – before he descended into the infamous corpulence and excess of the later years of his reign. Henry had written a defense of Catholicism against Luther. The pope rewarded him with the title of “Defender of the Faith.” Later, Henry led England to secede from the Roman Catholic church and formed the Church of England.
The British Monarch is the titular head of the Church of England and when taking the oath of office, the new monarch pledges to defend the Church of England (Anglican or Episcopal) and then swears a separate oath to defend the Church of Scotland (Presbyterian).
During Elizabeth’s reign, enormous religious changes revolutionized the religious landscape of Great Britain — secularization and pluralism. Quite simply, Great Britain has become a drastically less religious and more heterogenous country.
While the Church of England and the Church of Scotland are the “established” faiths, they have both been in precipitous decline. The U.K. now has approximately 2.7 million Muslims, 600,000 Hindus, and 500,000 Sikhs, among many other faiths, including a rapidly growing Christian Pentecostal movement. It has also been established that over 25% of Britons have no religious faith at all.
The big picture of religion in Great Britain is there are far fewer people of active faith and the ones who are religious are far less likely to be Anglican or even Christian. Over 5,000 local Anglican churches have been closed in the past decade and their property sold. It is estimated that more people in England attend mosques weekly than attend Church of England worship.
In 1994 the then Prince of Wales, who has long shown a keen awareness of, and respect for, multiple expressions of religious faith, expressed the opinion that he would prefer the title of “Defender of Faith” or “Defender of Faiths.” This caused quite a stir at the time. Perhaps in light of that, in his first speech as king, 24 hours after his mother’s death, he assured the British people that “the role and the duties of Monarchy also remain … as does the Sovereign’s particular relationship and responsibility toward the Church of England – and the Church in which my own faith is so deeply rooted.” He then went on to say that “in the course of the last 70 years we have seen our society become one of many cultures and many faiths.”
That diversity of faith was well represented in all of the official ceremonies related to the queen’s funeral, even if all the “presiding" was performed by the Church of England’s prelates.
King Charles is on solid ground here. In a landmark speech in 2012 at Lambeth Palace, the headquarters of the Church of England and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Queen Elizabeth defined the established church’s role in modern pluralistic Britain as “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.”
She complimented the church for already implementing this new purpose: “Gently and assuredly the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities and indeed people of no faith to live freely.”
Invoking the vision of his mother, the previous sovereign, King Charles III shared the following words with his subjects:
“It is the duty to protect the diversity of our country, including by protecting the space for faith itself and its practice through the religious, cultures, traditions and beliefs to which our hearts and minds direct us as individuals. This diversity is not just enshrined in the laws of our country, it is enjoined by my own faith.”
As a Baptist and as an American, I do not believe in an established state church. I believe in a “free church in a free state” as my Southern Baptist denomination’s confession expresses it.
Having lived and pastored in England, I also remember my experience in the early 1970s of trying to deprogram the youth of my church every week from the extremely liberal Protestantism they were being taught as fact in required religion classes in the government’s schools.
However, in this age of widespread suppression of religion and freedom of conscience around the world, King Charles III has a tremendous opportunity to be an eloquent and important spokesman for freedom of religious conscience on a worldwide stage.
I pray he seizes this opportunity and redeems it for good (Eph. 5:15).
Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.
Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.