For all its splendour and the trappings of jewels, gold and ermine, the ceremony is a religious one. It has been taken by the Archbishop of Canterbury since 973 (when King Edgar was crowned by Archbishop Dunstan at Bath). Since the Conquest it has been held at Westminster Abbey, the royal church for the Palace of Westminster.
The modern coronation service is derived from the 14th-century Liber Regalis and consists of six parts: the recognition, the oath, the anointing, the crowning, the enthronement and the homage. It is the oath, administered immediately before the anointing, which sets out the sovereign's duty to uphold the Church of England of which he or she is Supreme Governor.
The precise wording changes from coronation to coronation. In 1953, Archbishop Geoffrey Fisher asked the Queen whether she would "to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline and government thereof, as by law established in England?" Once the crown is placed upon the monarch's head, the first person to pay homage is the Archbishop of Canterbury.
But society and history march on. In the 19th century, for instance, Queen Victoria was promising to uphold the "United Church of England and Ireland". And - assuming the monarchy survives, and even if the Church of England is not disestablished in the meantime - the next coronation is bound to employ a different oath. A future Charles III (or William V for that matter) will want to give it a more ecumenical flavour: Charles
is on record as wanting to substitute "defender
of faith" for "defender of the faith". The world has been transformed since 1953. One way or another, the specificity of the Church of England in the oath will be reduced.
Indeed, contrary to appearances, it already does look far beyond the national church. The Queen may no longer be an Empress. But she is head of state of independent countries within the Commonwealth in which the Church of England exists barely, if at all. And though many of her British subjects observe other faiths, she is no less their Queen for that. Anointment by the Archbishop of Canterbury does not merely designate her as God's regent for the Church of England. At least as important, it enlists God's protection in her job of ruling, confirming that she has been chosen by God to perform those duties.