Given the current state of the Church of Scotland and uncertainty of King Charles III’s sincere commitment to Protestantism, today’s pageantry may prove to be mere formality and tradition. Nevertheless, Jesus Christ, the only King and Head of the Church, has taught us to pray: “Thy kingdom come,” which, in part, is a petition that the church would be “countenanced and maintained by the civil magistrate” (Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 191).
One of the first things King Charles III did — and it was his stated intention to do so at the first opportunity — was to make a formal oath to the security of the Church of Scotland. He did so in the following words:
I, Charles the Third, by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of My other Realms and Territories, King, Defender of the Faith, do faithfully promise and swear that I shall inviolably maintain and preserve the Settlement of the true Protestant Religion as established by the Laws made in Scotland in prosecution of the Claim of Right and particularly by an Act intituled “An Act for securing the Protestant Religion and Presbyterian Church Government” and by the Acts passed in the Parliament of both Kingdom for Union of the two Kingdoms, together with the Government, Worship, Discipline, Rights and Privileges of the Church of Scotland. So help me God.
What does all of this mean? As King of the United Kingdom, Charles III bears the title “Defender of the Faith.” As such, he is the Supreme Governor of the Church of England. By and large this position is mostly ceremonial and symbolic. However, even as the titular head of the Church of England, King Charles III will appoint high-ranking members of the church.
Historically, this position for the British Monarchy dates back to the Act of Supremacy in 1534. That act confirmed the king’s supremacy over the church. By 1536 King Henry VIII — who wanted out of his first marriage — broke with the Catholic Church and declared the Church of England as the established church and named himself the supreme head.
An “established” church is a church that is officially endorsed by the state – government sanctioned religion. This isn’t to be confused with theocracy, but simply means that a state is not secular and has an official religion. This may seem strange to Americans who value the First Amendment and the freedom of religion. The First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” What has been true of the federal government since 1791 became true of every state by 1833. This has not, however, been true in the United Kingdom. Still today the Church of England is the established church in England, and the Church of Scotland in Scotland.