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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Maundy Monarchy: Jubilee Reflections

Last week we marked the 60th anniversary of the Accession.  We honour the dedication the Queen has shown this nation throughout that time.  But the occasion also gives us pause for thought.  The last time the nation celebrated a diamond jubilee was in 1897.  There could not be a greater contrast between Queen Victoria’s jubilee and what will no doubt be our more understated commemorations this summer.  Then, the empire celebrated a glorious past and a future on which the sun would never set.  Who could foresee the cataclysms just over the horizon of the 20th century, and their corroding effect on all our historic institutions including the monarchy?  Today, while most people support the monarchy, the mood is no longer as deferential as it was.  We see ourselves as citizens, not subjects.  A democratic state is governed by consent, and that involves participation.  Citizenship is a noble vocation. 

So what does monarchy mean today?  The Scottish theologian Ian Bradley argues in his book God Save the Queen that it provides a storehouse of symbols and rituals to feed the nation’s imagination and maintain its sense of the transcendent.  He believes that our rich ceremonial tradition with its feel for the numinous gathers up and ritualises the ‘soul’ of our national identity.  Christian constitutional monarchy makes visible, he says, God’s rule and claim upon us, even in a modern democratic state.  As the Supreme Governor (not 'head') of the established church, a ‘Defender of the Faith’, or even ‘Defender of Faiths’ requires us to take seriously the imaginative and religious dimension of public life as well as of personal life.

But monarchy is accountable beyond itself and the people it serves. At her coronation, the Queen was presented with the Orb of State and told: ‘Receive this Orb set under the Cross, and remember that the whole world is subject to the power and empire of Christ our Redeemer.’  All institutions, however well they serve us, are provisional and made up of mortal beings.  They are subject to the rule of Christ the King; they are set under the cross of a king whose throne is Golgotha.  One day they will be no more, for the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of God and of his Christ; and he shall reign forever and ever. So the monarchy is not only a symbol of a temporal society but points beyond itself to the city whose builder and maker is God.  

In the gospels, Jesus’ kingship is not about palaces and panoply, but love and self-abasement.  His purple robe is died with blood and his throne is the cross. He calls us his subjects, and invites our allegiance and our love.  It doesn’t look much of a kingdom, this clutch of nobodies - the peasants, fishermen, prostitutes and tax-gatherers Jesus gathers round him.  He does not promise that if we go with him, the way will be glorious, or lead to wealth or success.  On the contrary, he foretells afflictions, ridicule and trial.  Yet he invites us to be faithful unto death and to seek rewards beyond this life.  He is concerned not with outward appearances but the heart, and looks there for loyalty, truth and love.  He calls all who lead to disdain privilege and the pursuit of honour.  He summons the powerful of this world to lay aside the seductions of glory and wealth and wash the feet of the poor.

We are celebrating a diamond jubilee.  In the Hebrew Bible, ‘jubilee’ is the celebration of cancelled debt and freedom for slaves. It promises a world that is more just, more equal and more free.  Institutions have awesome power to destroy, but at their best they can help shape the future for good, something never more needed than in today’s precarious world.  No doubt the monarchy will have changed much before the next time we celebrate a diamond jubilee.  It will need to travel more lightly, stand back from our obsession with celebrity and image, shed the culture of deference.  But as we give thanks for the service of our Queen over 60 years, we can loyally pray that the monarchy and indeed all entrusted with public office will embody more deeply the royal way of wisdom, humility and self-emptying.  Jesus comes among us not to be served but to serve.  He lays down his life for us, not only teaching the greater love but living it.  And whether we are simple or wise, strong or weak, rich or poor, leader or led, he speaks to us these words and summons us to make them real in our time: ‘Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, for I am among you as one who serves’.  This is what maundy means. 

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