Saturday, May 6, 2023

What does God think about monarchies?

 There’s no getting away from the fact that people stand quite firmly on either sides of the debate about monarchy. 

There are many who have been joyfully waving flags, ringing bells, and joining together, yesterday, in church to watch the Coronation.  They enthusiastically support the principle of monarchy.  This is often because they see it as the only viable alternative to a Republican system.  Supporters of an English Republic dream of electing a wise national treasure as our Head of State – someone like David Attenborough or Judy Dench!   But monarchists argue that a popular vote would be more likely to elect Simon Cowell or Ant & Dec!  The fact is that if we were designing a nation from scratch, it would be ludicrous to give all that power and influence to one random family.  But we’re not starting from scratch.  Our constitutional monarchy has evolved over centuries.  It has become a kind of screen onto which we project our national identity, and our national ethics of service before self.

As a Christian, I’m compelled to ask what the Bible’s view of monarchy is.  Unfortunately the Bible is ambiguous, at best, on the subject!  In our reading from the first book of Samuel, we are confronted with a God who seems implacably opposed to Israel having a King.  God warns the people that if they have a King, he will take all their wealth for himself, and send their sons into battle for his own political aims.  But the God portrayed in this part of the Bible is one who can be argued with – and eventually he relents, and permits the nation to establish a monarchy.  From that point onwards, until the Exile from Jerusalem, God appears to be broadly content with the idea of monarchy.  He blesses Saul, then David, and then wise King Solomon.  Kings after that were a fairly mixed bag, however. Some led the people away from the worship of God, even to worship other idols.  The books of the Kings are full of descriptions of various Kings who ‘did evil in the sight of God’.  Others led the people back to God.  On the whole, Israel’s experiment with monarchy turned out to be a pretty mixed bag.  Ultimately, the monarchy was lost when the leaders of Israel were carried off into Babylon during the period known as the Exile.

By the time of Jesus, Israel had a ‘vassal’ king, the notorious Herod the Great and his sons.  These monarchs were, however, subservient to the Emperor, Caesar, who claimed dominion over all of Israel.  Jesus recognises Caesar’s earthly authority, famously advising his followers to render unto Caesar and God those things that are theirs, respectively, by right.  St Paul, after Jesus, commends his followers to pray for all who are in authority, and makes the startling claim that all earthly authorities – including Kings and Emperors are established by God.  It is from such teaching that the ‘divine right of Kings’ finds its roots.

So, the Bible – as it so often does – presents an range of views about the monarchy, which we can draw upon to make up our own minds.  On the one hand, Samuel was right about the tendency of monarchs to appropriate the resources of a nation to themselves.  In the UK, for example, the Crown Estate owns just over 1,000 square miles of the countryside. Many Republicans would like to strip the monarchy of such land holdings, and make it available to the people for the building of homes, hospitals and businesses.  Others argue that many of the Crown’s lands are wild moors and coastline, which the Monarch preserves on behalf of the nation, and keeps from the hands of voracious property barons.

The life of our late Queen reassures many people that monarchy, done well, can be a stabilising and yet prophetic force in the life of a nation.  A wise monarch has the power to bring people together, to speak wise words of comfort in times of crisis, and, on behalf of the people, can provide wise but private challenge to prime ministers (who seem to come and go with increasing frequency these days!).  King Charles has often been a leader in our national debates.  Famously, he was worried about the environment 20 years before David Attenborough started to worry about it.  As the progenitor of the Prince’s Trust, Charles was working to level-up the nation decades before politicians caught on to the idea. As an enthusiastic patron of the Arts, he has constantly reminded us that from the Arts, from comedy, drama, music and painting, come dreams and visions of who God calls us to be.

Our Gospel reading, however, offers us another lens through which to view the monarchy.  Jesus promises his Disciples that they will one day sit upon thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.  But he does so after making very clear that the role of any leader is primarily to be a servant.  We sometimes forget, that the word ‘Minister’ means ‘to serve’.  The King is called to be a minister – indeed, much of yesterday’s coronation service ritual was designed to reinforce that point. He was anointed and clothed as a priest, before ascending the throne.  Jesus came to us, in his own words, not to be served, but to serve, and to give up his life for us.  That, ultimately is the model that our King is called to follow – and so are we.

For all his lands and palaces, for all his crown jewels and private wealth, the King carries a heavy burden of responsibility. There is, in fact, very little of his life that I would envy.  Imagine having the ultimate responsibility for the management of 1000 square miles of land – I find it stressful enough to manage the three or four acres owned by this parish! 

The King has responsibilities thrust upon him that most other billionaires around the world can’t even imagine.  Not for him the life of endless parties on yachts, or the freedom to play with space rockets.  No, for the King, each day is consumed with Government business, endless correspondence, and the challenge of meeting the expectations of a sometimes fractured and fractious nation.  He may do so from a position of wealth and privilege, but (as previous monarchs have described it) the trappings of monarchy are in fact a gilded cage. 

I believe, therefore, that the King deserves our respect and our gratitude.  It would be easy for him to have walked away from the duties of monarchy.  He could have abdicated in favour of his much younger son.  But King Charles has chosen to shoulder the burden, and to take on the iconic role of a servant – inspiring and challenging us all to do the same.  And so, whether we are monarchists or republicans, I believe he deserves, at the very least, our sincere thanks, and our most heart-felt prayers.  God save the King!

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