Can a middle-class baptismal drama really hold a modern family’s attention and how does it compare to a monarchical coronation and it’s audience? A dialectic treatise without a proper synthesis by Herwig Egon Casadoro-Kopp.
As the father of a child which got baptised and anointed with chrism at the same day as a certain monarch in Europe, it dawned to me: the ritual seems more for the spectators than for the protagonists. One, a happy, innocent and curious baby of 8 months born into two middle-class families spanning two countries, the other one a king in waiting for 74 years – one, who, draped in his ermine, resembled nothing so much as an old lady in a bed jacket – wore his nerves as a mask of dread verging on misery. One little “prince” for a day, with no kingdom to come than living on this planet with his fellow human beings, impacted by the destruction and harm of previous generations.
Both got new names. The older one added a number, the III. of his name and became King after being a Prince all too long, the younger assumed the name of the Godfather Georg as a baptismal name in addition to Romeo, his second name.
One, in a little post-industrial village of Wimpassing in the Schwarza Valley in lower Austria, with wood mills, rubber factories and steel plants, the other one in the City of London, eponymous for financial wealth, high culture appeal, diversity, colonial treasure forging an Empire of political, military and economic influence exerted for centuries as a “Commonwealth” even though the result may not common wealth but rather control and extraction. Westminster Abbey, the Anglican church in the City of Westminster has been the location of the coronations of 40 English and British monarchs since 1066 and a burial site for 18 English, Scottish, and British monarchs and it surely sports the occasional baptism. The lower Austrian parish church built in 1950/1951 according to plans by the architect Johann Petermair in a booming time of tire production and steel industry hosts baptisms and burials as well, but certainly no coronations. Westminster Abbey and the parish church Unbeflecktes Herz Mariä – an asymmetric couple, only alined for the sake of essayistic analysis.
A sort of disclaimer seems warranted, as to avoid the most obvious misunderstandings or misinterpretations: this text is not written to claim any vicinity or endorsement of constitutional or hereditary monarchy or harbouring monarchist aspirations. Austria had enough troubles with that. The notion of Royal Blood, other than the Rock duo of that name – which I do heartly recommend – is not the motivational base of putting those two themes together and shall be treated as purely coincidental, not wishful name-dropping or a confusion of affiliation. I do not think Royal blood is better or less red than others who bleed and would stick to the ideas of modern Republics who abolished monarchical rule for a reason and try to establish standards of equality where there was inequality by birth as a rule. Citizen Louis Capet paid the prize for his privilege to be the French king on the 21st of January 1793 during the French revolution, which was followed by an age of restoration. No, of course we may not totally have evolved out of inequality and progress may be rather slow. The theme of privilege is still there and may stir arguments which would more than double up the space for this text, but as privilege is true for a majority of the members of Western white societies, the transition from small to enormous privilege may on the one hand substantial but on the other hand still a common denominator for a king and a normal EU citizen, if the whole world is taken into account. To play with the notion of any “equality” here is the fun of the exercise.
06/05/2023 in Wimpassing or London, both performative acts, some may call them theatrical performances, may serve as social glue – binding tools in an attempt to proof that things actually happen and do matter, no matter what critics may say or think. But, no matter how religious you may be, the magic circle may not be televised. Maybe, and that goes more for the private baptism on site, it still works as a display of importance and attention, now, then & there. It is designed as a collective experience, witnessing the admittance of a person into a new social circle. The coronation served as a stale medieval rigour to move a person into the shelves of history, gathering dust. The boy got the dust of history rinsed away, at least that of the morning and last day, and had definitely more fun while participating.
As for the king and my boy: no wrinkle, no flaw, no evidence of the monarch’s ageing body was to be missed, while the boy had none from the beginning and no camera crews spying: the empurpled royal hands that touched the Bible, the swollen fingers that, unlike his mother’s slender, youthful digits, did not receive the coronation ring. (Perhaps such persons as decide these matters were haunted by the struggle that an earlier archbishop had had forcing Queen Victoria’s too-small coronation ring on to her finger – she had to ice it off afterwards.) The Austrian boy was grappling the bible whilst the priest gave his blessings, a strong youthful baby-grip which seemed to say that the bible is his, interpretation and physical boon alike. It has to be noted that the priest did not let go of his bible.
Even the moment of the coronation service considered so holy that is discreetly veiled from vulgar view – the disrobing and anointing of the king with chrism – was not entirely hidden. In the church in Austria nothing was hidden, no indecent disrobing executed, god forbid, the anointing was rather followed by a white baptismal robe added to the decently dressed baptized vested in blue and beige. From the spaces between those screens the cameras caught glimpses of layers of textile mid-tussle of the king-to-be, as when you stand outside a changing room at a branch of Gap waiting for a friend, studiously not peeping into the chink between the curtains. Were the young guardsmen holding the screens tempted to steal a glance, despite their officially downcast eyes? All the names of the commonwealth countries had been embroidered into that screen, as if by fixing them there with fine thread one could prevent their fleeing. I think, too, it will take more than that. Sharing thoughts means, that parts of this treatise are taken and amended from the article “Can monarchical drama really hold a modern audience’s attention?” by Charlotte Higgins, The Guardian, 07.05.2023. (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2023/may/07/modern-audience-the-drama-of-monarchy-coronation). So much for disclosure…
For the child, only his name was embroidered on his robe, no fealty sworn other than that of the Godfather and Godmother, and no symbols evoked to sustain fellowship other than the cross. It’s more following the cross itself than the bearer. Indeed, belief is not a small thing after 2000 years of christianity which crosses borders and languages and used to be the centre-piece in a social construct called the Occident. Countries are people now more than a belief system and they choose who to follow in modern-day democracies, not necessarily feeling obliged by the creed of a royal system invented and sustained by foreign influence and cross-cultural European marriage schemes.
My own marriage „scheme“ meant marring into an Italian family in a region with historic ties to Austria, including two World Wars. To bridge with love can be a powerful statement in between countries and cultures who love and revere each other but also were occasionally bitter enemies. Assuming my wife’s name also in a legal sense in a double name with a dash (Italian „trattino“) in between felt like the right thing to do and was made possible since 01.02.2013 with the liberation of the law for matrimonial name change (§§ 93 till 93c of the Allgemeines bürgerliches Gesetzbuch (ABGB) in Austria) similar to the legal changes in Germany. Bearing a double name and not forcing my wife to take my name and forsake her maiden name was part of living equality and end some patriarchic habits which tormented and coralled our mothers and grandmothers. One should habe the sovereignty to choose, and so I did.
Until 1917, the British royal family bore the German names Sachsen-Coburg and Gota. Up to this point, German noble houses had ruled over the British for centuries. First it was the Stuart dynasty, then the Guelphs. In 1714 the throne and crown went to the German Elector King George I of Hanover. Finally, in 1840, Queen Victoria married her German cousin Albert. With their marriage, the name of the British royal family changes. Since then it has been called the House of Sachsen-Coburg and Gotha.
That goes well for 77 years. But then the First World War raged and for the British the German name became increasingly uncomfortable and no longer acceptable. The reigning King George V made short work of it and parted with the name of his ancestors. Instead, he makes the name of one of his many castles the new family name: Windsor. It’s short, simple, melodious – and above all British. Apparently nobody had anything to complain about, as it is still the name of the British royal family today. However, Queen Elizabeth II was not happy with her surname. She kept the name Windsor when she married Prince Philip and passed it on to her children. But in 1960 she insisted that her husband, Prince Philip, be allowed to pass his surname on to the heir to the throne, and so Prince Charles, his eldest son Prince William and his eldest son Prince George bear the double name Mountbatten-Windsor.
Not unlike these charades, the boy has received a double name coming from a fresh liberalisation of name-giving law in Italy: On 1 June 2022, the Constitutional Court declared the exclusive assignment of the paternal surname to newborns illegitimate: starting from 2 June 2022, newborns automatically assume a double surname, given by the union of their parents’ surnames. The double surname is law. The Consulta sent article 262, first paragraph of the Civil Code, to the attic, which entailed the automatic attribution of only the paternal surname. The old law was to use the fathers family name by force, a rule that translated into «the invisibility of the mother, and which bore “the seal of an inequality between the parents which reverberated and impressed itself on the identity of the child”. This is exactly what is written by the judges in the reasons for the sentence filed and which got published in the Official Gazette. The son, therefore, wrote the judges, must assume “the surnames of the parents, in the order agreed by those, without prejudice to the agreement, at the time of recognition, to assign the surname of only one of them”. The Queen did a similar thing in adding Mountbatton with a dash to the chosen Windsor, concealing the German roots ever more. Our son got an Italian and an Austrian name as a double name without a dash, thanks to the new law – as we could express and underline his bridge of 2 countries with it, not forgetting one or the other.
Some things were at times forgotten and reinvented – that goes for both ceremonies. Full submersion as in the early church or as said of John the baptist who submerged people into the river Jordan and gave them new names? Also known as John the Immerser in some Baptist Christian traditions, John used baptism as the central symbol or sacrament of his pre-messianic movement. Most biblical scholars agree that John baptized Jesus, and several New Testament accounts report that some of Jesus’ early followers had previously been followers of John. According to the New Testament, John was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded by Herod Antipas around AD 30 after John rebuked him for divorcing his wife Phasaelis and then unlawfully wedding Herodias, the wife of his brother Herod Philip I. Josephus also mentions John in the Antiquities of the Jews and states that he was executed by order of Herod Antipas in the fortress at Machaerus. John proclaims baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin, and says another will come after him who will not baptize with water, but with the Holy Spirit. And we still do it with water, being poured over the head, even though Jesus has died for our sins and is said to baptise with the Holy Spirit.
The rites were discussed in length with our priest, a sequence established and I transcribed the notes and liturgical texts in 12 copies to editable text and translated it into Italian as well. The priest did not cease to remind me that the ritual changes are a personal choice rather than a fixed, solemn, unchanging monolith. In the end taking also the freedom to deliver it in a different way or with different wording is part of keeping tradition alive. So we got catered a personal and empathic little ceremony, accompanied by the dual-language booklet. In the Italian version of the Lord’s prayer (Vaterunser / Padre nostro – La preghiera del Signore) even included a debated amendment from 2022 which tried to „fix“ the only prayer Jesus taught his disciples which a certain point reads „Do not lead us (inducas) into temptation“. Translations into various modern languages do not always render the original meaning of this request at its best; in particular the Italian word “induce” is a faithful translation of the Latin inducas, in turn a translation of the Greek. The phrase should probably be interpreted as “Do not allow us to fall when we are tempted”: prayer would therefore ask for the strength necessary to overcome the temptation, rather than to be exempt from the test which, above all, would come from God himself. Just to give an example. The German text did not bear such theological smallprint.
As the BBC did not cease from reminding us, the ceremony at the heart of the coronation is of remarkable antiquity, going back at least to the Saxon King Edgar’s coronation at Bath in 973. Maybe the Saxon king’s legacy shall also legitimise the use of a „foreign“ Aristocratic house as the pillar of British monarchy – the Saxons as invaders already gave England‘s culture a proverbial double name: Anglo-Saxon. It can be regarded as the product of habits whose origins are half-forgotten, of accreted “traditions” invented to suit the moment. Inventing rituals and changing them is part of human history and need. It was the later medieval age that began to invest the regalia (the swords, the staffs, the spurs, the orb) with heavy symbolism, as Roy Strong’s definitive history of British coronations recounts. It may be the modern day secularization which diminishes the call for rituals which deal with supernatural forces and authority stemming from belief. Still, rituals matter. There can be no society that “does not feel the need of upholding and reaffirming at regular intervals the collective sentiments and the collective ideas which make its unity and its personality”, wrote the 19th-century French sociologist Émile Durkheim. In other words, nations need events and ceremonies that bind people together. That is, in my humble view the link of those two rituals coinciding. They give space for testimony and unity for someone, they form and inform personality still rendered by society, even in our neoliberal societies which worship individualism and egoism.
But, for both attempts to form a union based on christian values, the 19th & still 20th century were different than the speedy, evolving and crisis-ridden 21st: they could write, without equivocation, that Britain was “generally a Christian country … certainly a religious country”. How many today believe that the king, having been divested of his regalia, then clothed in a simple linen shirt and anointed with holy oil, on Saturday re-emerged into the world as something more than a person, as a creature touched by the divine, linked to Solomon himself? Who really believes that the anointing of a child with chrism and pouring blessed water over it three times saves it from hell? Who really believes in hell – and heaven – nowadays? Is it more the church who needs that confession, to put the administration into gear that you are now an anointed member of a body of anointed christians. In that regard, King Charles III. is a member of the category “king” now, a much smaller, more exclusive and elusive circle.
We are there to witness, that is our task. But do we believe that our witnessing or the ritual itself changes the essence of a man or a boy to become “king” or “a good Christian”? Or does it as much crush one like it frees the other? It may open up a baby, which has more options now, a distinct community, while the other is all he ever lived for – but now only that, nothing more. Prince Charles has finally crossed the threshold, 74 and first in line, the longest king-in-waiting, passing William IV, who became king—at 64 years and 10 months—after his brother George IV died in 1830. Oskar, 6 months did not wait for anything and was exposed to a circle of family and a priest who repeated a 2000year old ritual bestowed upon him by the willingness of his parents (who are on parts without confession) to create a memorable day of family reunion.
Such a matter requires a mass suspension of disbelief, a collusion in the grand theatrical illusion of monarchy. Such a thing was, perhaps, possible 70 years ago, even as the old empire was draining away, back when a new and better Elizabethan age seemed on the horizon. Maybe the Roman catholic Church is hiding at this horizon as well, conducting rituals, but creating an illusion of the dawn of christianity, while people flee its ranks. Where is the essence of christianity lived and who of rank gives an example of love and compassion? Who is or becomes holy, one may ask. The intercessions included a call to Oscar Romero, archbishop of San Salvador (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%93scar_Romero), a saint for the poor only made holy by the push of pope Francis, himself of South American descent. In 1980, Romero was shot by an assassin while celebrating Mass. Though no one was ever convicted for the crime, investigations by the UN-created Truth Commission for El Salvador concluded that Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, a death squad leader and later founder of the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) political party, had ordered the killing. The fictional constellation between Westminster Abbey and Wimpassing’s parish church gives rise to a link in the person of this saint: Romero is also one of the ten 20th-century martyrs depicted in statues above the Great West Door of Westminster Abbey in London.
Popes change, also their agendas and calls – luckily the current one seems to be a decent person trying to be that example, changing the church from within. But his is not young anymore and will he be able to reform such a potent body of wealth and entitlement? Can a modern audience’s attention really be held by the drama of baptism and monarchy when the masses are leaving the church and protesters are being rounded up outside during the televised coronation? Is it just to not hold these powerful institutions responsible when the people are queueing at foodbanks, children are getting molested, when the nurses and doctors are on strike, church funds are abused and corruptions spreads, when the country is sinking, when Europe is at war and the Climate crisis caused by colonialism and unfettered economic growth is looming ? We need magic and ritual: and maybe there is magic, still, in some corners of the word – in the stone circles and the pockets of old forests, in the winding alleys of old cities, in the thrift-clad cliffs and the eddying, encircling sea, the abyss of the oceans or the infinite cosmos above our heads. The coronation undoubtedly worked its enchantment on parts of the populace. The simple baptism for gathering a multinational family around a newborn and giving him the attention he needs. For perhaps too many others, the coronation of Charles III. was an empty conjuring trick, and the response called forth neither rapture nor inspiration, but a mere amused curiosity, shading into monarchy’s great enemy: indifference. Oskar Romeo Georg was only unhappy that he was not allowed to eat the cake festooned with Marzipan bears, but he definitely did not suffer from indifference. His armour and arm was amused curiosity about what the adults conjured up for him – not understanding the content, but the tonality: Love.