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!