As religious controversies go, this one might strike you as a little strange. It has to do with the official invitations to the upcoming coronation of Britain’s King Charles III, being raised to the throne as heir to the late and beloved Queen Elizabeth II.
Among the many symbolic images (you can read about the various meanings of the images here) gracing the invitation, one has drawn particular scrutiny, the depiction of the Green Man which dominates the lower center of the invitation. The Green Man is an ancient and iconic image, not just in Britain, but across Northern Europe. (Disclosure — Your humble discussion leader as a Green Man tattoo on his right shoulder, so he’s a little biased.) Here’s the controversy, such as it is. Some have claimed that the Green Man is too pagan an image to grace the invitation to the coronation of the man who will ascend to both the throne but also to the role of “defender of the faith” as head of the Church of England, the mother church of the Anglican Communion of which The Episcopal Church is a part.
As the UK’s Daily Mail reported, “Invitations to King Charles’s coronation have started a debate over their use of the symbol of The Green Man, with some saying it is a Pagan symbol but others arguing it has appeared in churches for centuries.” In fact the Green Man is prominently featured in carvings inside London’s Westminster Abbey where the coronation will take place.
Reviewing the artwork on the invitation, The Guardian art critic Jonathan James writes:
[T]he most prominent image in the intricate, joyous floral design – by heraldry artist Andrew Jamieson – is the wryly smiling face of the Green Man. This emerald visage, the standout feature in Jamieson’s elegantly swarming design, belongs to an ancient, pre-Christian divinity who can still be seen in the architecture of British medieval churches, a leafy mug among all the gargoyles.
The face of a fertility cult that existed at the margins of Christianity fits perfectly into Jamieson’s loving recreation of the playful natural imagery that is found in medieval art. In manuscripts from the era, the main text is usually religious and orthodox, while fun and fantasy are given free rein around the margins. …
But that starring role for the Green Man seems to be a clear summons for Shakespearean sprites to bring some subversive May fun to the coronation. Recipients are invited “to be present at the Abbey Church of Westminster” for the Christian ritual that has conferred (divinely sanctioned) authority on monarchs since the dark ages. We haven’t had a coronation for a while, so the reality of this ceremony may come as a shock: it is the only surviving example of a practice that appeared in early medieval Europe when the church was imposing its authority on new feudal overlords called “kings” and rewarding them with religious sanction for their power.
The central moment of the coronation is the new monarch being anointed with holy oil. The chrism oil that will be used to anoint King Charles was blessed last month in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, by his beatitude patriarch Theophilos III and the most reverend Hosam Naoum. That’s quite a lot of ceremony already: the coronation of a British monarch, clearly, is as venerable a religious moment as the election of a pope.
On the invitation, however, religious ritual is transformed into something wild and Puckish: the marginalia have taken over the Abbey. The Green Man seems to be cheekily licencing another kind of coronation, one that is deconsecrated, even pagan. Jamieson, who has previously designed coats of arms for clients including the late Colin Powell, former US secretary of state, was selected from eight members of the Art Workers’ Guild. His choice suggests that Charles wants to be our pagan patriarch as well as God’s Anointed. Is he the Greene King?
Perhaps this is a message not to take the pomp of the Abbey too seriously. The new monarch has already set out to be a religiously plural figure, visiting different religious communities to make good on a stated wish to be defender of “faiths”. This invite suggests that this also includes neo-pagans, witches and followers of the old ways.
The Daily Mail report adds further detail to the story: “Carvings of The Green Man, often surrounded by foliage, have been seen in churches and cathedrals around Europe for many centuries. It is believed to represent the cycle of life, death and re-birth. In Paganism it is seen as a sign spring is coming after a long winter, according to Spirit of the Green Man. For modern Pagans, it can also be seen as a symbol of ecological awareness. The symbol has been described as a bridge between both Pagan and Christian beliefs. The Green Man is also a popular name for pubs around the country.”
Personally, that last sentence above sold me. But seriously, we’re going to talk about this idea of merging pagan and Christian imagery and ideas in our conversation this evening. And it’s a particularly fitting topic given the pagan origins of many Christian practices and festivals, including Easter, which we just celebrated a few days ago. You can read all about there by following the links here, here, and here. And don’t get us started on Christmas.
So what do you think about all of this? Does the incorporation and appropriation of non-Christian practices, rituals, traditions, and beliefs into Christianity bother you at all? Or does it just make sense in terms of making the faith relevant to new audiences of potential believers? Does the Church, writ large, continue in this practice of incorporation and appropriation today? What kind of examples can you think of where this seems to hold true? And do you think that the Church can go to far in this?
Join us for the conversation this evening beginning at 7pm at Casa Real in downtown Oxford.