From embracing Islam to attending Catholic masses and plans for a “multi-faith” coronation, Prince Charles’s religious beliefs are wide-ranging
The organisers of this year’s World Islamic Economic Forum hoped to attract an impressive keynote speaker for their first gathering in a non-Muslim country.
Still, they could hardly have expected the enthusiasm with which the Prince of Wales accepted their invitation. Describing himself as “very touched” to be asked, he began his speech to businessmen at London’s Excel Centre with the Arabic for “peace be with you”: As-salamu alaykum.
“The Prince coming here is a positive event,” Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil, the Egyptian architect, said after the event last month. “[It] is a time when everybody is trying to create schisms.”
The Prince has form in embracing Islam. For the last two decades, he has been patron of the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, where he gave a speech in 1993 on “Islam and the West” that was reprinted enthusiastically in newspapers across the Middle East.
“He makes all British citizens feel they are part of the grand historical narrative,” says Farhan Nizami, the centre’s director, who has known the Prince for 20 years. “I don’t think there is another major figure in the western world who has as high a standing as he has in the Muslim world. I would describe him as a friend of Muslims.
Clearly, the next Supreme Governor of the Church of England plans to do the job a little differently. “He is an individual who wants to chart new territory, and that will be very interesting indeed,” says Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. “He is very outspoken.”
Over the last few decades, this has become plain. The Prince has tested the boundaries of his public role by attending Catholic masses, and his private spiritual enquiry has been frequent fodder for satirists, forcing him to deny using Ouija boards and “dabbling in the occult”.
The Prince has studied Judaism as well as Islam, and is close to Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi. He believes that both faiths have “a great deal in common” with Christianity. “The future surely lies in rediscovering the universal truths that dwell at the heart of these religions,” he has said. “All I have ever wanted to do is build bridges that span these chasms.”
Prince Charles with Lord Jonathan Sacks and his successor, Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis
Nor does he neglect the chasms within Christianity. The Most Rev Vincent Nichols, the Archbishop of Westminster, says the Prince seems “thoroughly at home” on his visits to Westminster Cathedral, the seat of British Catholicism. “I don’t sense any discomfort when he is in a Catholic Church,” he says. “I am told occasionally when he is abroad he happily goes to Mass, and is at peace with that.”
The Prince has also praised the wisdom of the Eastern gurus. On the first day of his tour of India last week, he and the Duchess of Cornwall attended a moonlit ceremony on the banks of the Ganges, India’s most sacred river. The couple were serenaded by the guru’s devotees before the Prince told trainee priests that it was “a very special occasion for both myself and my wife”.
When he does ascend the throne, he insists he should be cast not as Defender of the Faith, the title held by each monarch since it was given by Pope Leo X to Henry VIII in 1521, but as Defender of Faith. “[Faith] is so often under threat in our day,” he has said. “The whole concept of faith itself or anything beyond this existence, beyond life itself, is considered almost old-fashioned and irrelevant.”
One day, his coronation will reflect this stance. It will not be a “multi-faith service” and the Prince will still be anointed by the Archbishop, but the ceremony will include a role for other faiths for the first time, breaking with a thousand years of history.
“Prince Charles is a very natural adapter,” says Lord Carey. “Others might say ‘it’s his job’, but he will say, ‘no, I’m interested’. He is a broad-centred kind of man, deeply aware of otherness.”
His religious life began conventionally enough. He was only 30 days old when Geoffrey Fisher, then the Archbishop of Canterbury, christened him in the Music Room at Buckingham Palace on December 15, 1948. His mother, then Princess Elizabeth, chose the first hymn to reflect the sacred significance of the event: Holy, Holy, Holy.
As a student at Cambridge, however, he began writing to Mervyn Stockwood, then the Bishop of Southwark, who refused to dismiss “psychic happenings” and believed that the miracles of Jesus demonstrated “the Saviour’s oneness with nature”.
Later in his twenties, the Prince grew close to Laurens van der Post, the South African-born writer and explorer, whom he would later ask to become one of Prince William’s godparents. Van der Post introduced the Prince to mysticism and encouraged him “to see the old world of the spirit”. The Prince was entranced by his adviser’s history of bushmen in the Kalahari Desert, and travelled with him to spend a week in the Aberdare Mountains in Kenya.
The friendship left a lasting impression on the Prince’s faith. “I once heard him tell someone that he spoke up for respecting the natural world for the glory of God,” says the Rt Rev James Jones, who during his 15-year tenure as Bishop of Liverpool regularly prayed with the Prince. “If that is mysticism – seeing God at work in his creation – then, yes, the Prince does warm to that.”
Lord Carey agrees that the Prince’s “green instincts come from a very profound Christian origin”.
The Prince also admires the Orthodox Church, and has made regular spiritual retreats to stay in the monasteries of Mount Athos, the Greek republic run by 2,000 monks. His spokesman has refused to discuss the trips, other than confirming that the Prince “is interested in the architecture and spirituality of Mount Athos”. There is a family connection, too: his grandmother, Princess Alice (the Duke of Edinburgh’s mother), was an Orthodox nun.
He has also incorporated Byzantine icons in “The Sanctuary”, a simple chapel in the grounds at Highgrove. “It is a very important place for him,” says Rev Jones. “It is where he goes to pray and to meditate. Having prayed there, I have found it a very holy place.”
The Prince’s embrace of Orthodoxy has even led to wild speculation in some quarters. After one of his visits to Mount Athos, an Athonite monk was quoted in one newspaper declaring: “There is no question that the British royal is Orthodox in his heart.”
Those who know the Prince dismiss such claims, insisting that he remains a practising Anglican. “He has read and thought very deeply about his own Christian heritage, and is firmly rooted in it,” says Dr Nizami. “I have absolutely no doubt that his engagement with other religions is rooted in the confidence he has in his own religion.”
There is a simple reason such rumour has thrived, suggests Rev Jones. “Why are people not aware of his spirituality?” he reflects. “Because he is a humble person. He would never dream of trumpeting the fact that he prays and cares for people in a pastoral way. He sees this as his calling.”