3rd June 2012

 

“One people, one monarch, one God”.

(1 Samuel 8:1-22).

When I was a child, the buses that passed our house were red and the telephone vans were dark green. The trains that came through our local station were hauled by steam engines, and ambulances had bells which rang when they were rushing to an emergency. Our house was heated by coal fires, we had the “News Chronicle” delivered every morning, we played records on the gramophone, and we listened to “The Archers” on the wireless every evening (we didn’t have television as my parents thought it was a bit “common”). Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister and Queen Elizabeth was on the throne. Life for a three-year old seemed well-ordered, secure and fixed in stone.

Well, of course, that permanence was an illusion and most of the things on my list have changed – except for three. The buses that run past my old house are still red; “The Archers” are still broadcast by the BBC; and Queen Elizabeth is still our Queen. But the world in which she reigns has changed beyond belief: the British Empire has been progressively dismantled, the mighty power of Communism has been reduced to a few squawks, the Space Age has come (and gone), and we have built skyscraper flats and then demolished them. At different times we’ve been told that we’ve “never had it so good” and that we’re “all in it together”; politicians have also tried to persuade us that the “pound in our pocket” is still worth a pound – albeit a decimalised coin rather than a green note divided into shillings and pence. Britain has become a multiracial society in a way which few expected, and we are now all connected to each other in an electronic world which wasn’t even the stuff of science fiction in the 1950s.

Sixty years on the throne is a long time; and I am sure we all appreciate the continuity and stability that our Queen has brought to a country which has changed so much since 1952. She has served through the administrations of 12 Prime Ministers from Churchill to Cameron and one presumes that she has been able to offer them wise counsel; we know this is a task she takes seriously. I’m sure, too, as we remember that her motto has always been “duty”, that we all recognise the tremendous dedication and integrity which our present Queen has brought to her role. That is something she has carried admirably: to be on public display virtually all the time must be incredibly wearing, and yet she must never forget that her ordinary day’s work is a special moment for everybody she meets. I think we are also thankful for the way in which the Queen has represented Britain all around the world (even without her late lamented Royal Yacht). In all these aspects Elizabeth has been a model monarch.

But we may admire the Queen, and yet still harbour reservations about the institution of monarchy itself. We may well feel it is an anachronism that a person should be Head of State simply because of the family they were born into rather than because of the qualities they can bring to the role. And we may also believe that a nation’s citizens should be able to choose the person who will rule over them – and also be able to get rid of that person if they are not up to scratch! These are not modern democratic thoughts: they were already being fiercely debated 400 years ago in the early 1600s which, of course, was a time when much of Britain espoused republicanism and eventually managed to depose and execute the King, setting up the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. Of course we know that things under his rule turned out to be so disastrous that, within little more than 10 years, Britain turned its back on republicanism and welcomed King Charles II with open arms. But that’s another story.

What we must not forget is that many of those people agitating to get rid of the Monarchy – some of them reasoned, some of them extreme, and some of them simply bonkers – were, in fact, our Nonconformist ancestors. Some groups, such as the Diggers and the Levellers, believed that God has created all people equal and rejected all notions of Monarchy and social privilege; they would be horrified to see us celebrating in church today. Other groups, such as the Baptists, the Brownists and the Independents, may not have gone as far as that. But, just like us, they believed that the Church should be governed by the meeting of its members, and that its Head was God rather than an earthly ruler. These views led to them being regarded as dangerous revolutionaries in the unstable world of 17th century England. Some were imprisoned or killed, while others fled to the more agreeable shores of Holland, at least until Britain became a more tolerant place.

Quite apart from these egalitarian ideals, I’m sure that there have been other Christians who have questioned the very idea of kingship from their reading of the passage we read earlier, the story of the Israelites clamouring to Samuel for a king. It is clear that God – or so we are told – considered this to be a very bad idea, for at least three reasons. One was that Israel would lose its most distinctive feature and become just like every other nation round about: that was an advantage as far as the people were concerned, but the whole point of their divine calling was that they should be different to everyone else. Samuel then goes on to warn them that a king would be an economic drain on the nation: they would soon be complaining that their taxes were being squandered on luxury lifestyles and ritzy palaces for the few, while they remained in grinding poverty.

But, as far as Samuel was concerned, the most cogent reason for not having a king was simply this: they had no need of one, for God was their king. For had he not led them out of Egypt into the Promised Land; and had he not given them prophets and judges (some of them admittedly better than others) who would guide Israel’s people and command its armies? All that was true; but, at the end of the day, those people wanted a flesh-and-blood ruler they could take pride in, rather than a God (however benevolent and almighty) sitting invisibly in heaven. So God eventually gave in to the people’s demands – and what they got was Saul, prone to mood-swings and instability. By that time, they were hoist with their own petard; and God, one might say, was now nursing his wounds after feeling decidedly snubbed.

Perhaps I have taken this tale rather lightly; but I should not have done. For its few verses in fact set the tone for the next six centuries of Jewish history, with its succession of good, bad and indifferent kings. There are great heroes such as David, diplomats such as Solomon, men of faith such as Josiah and Hezekiah, and cruel monsters such as Ahab – because that’s the mix you are bound to get when your rulers are chosen by succession. But perhaps this story really tells more about what God desires for a nation than about kings and queens: and I suspect that many of us here would lament the decline of the Christian consensus in Britain which seemed much more widespread in 1952 than it does today. In any case, we must be wary of taking words spoken to ancient Israel and applying them to modern Britain; the two contexts are vastly different.

For it does strike me that it is dangerous for any nation or ruler to claim a mandate from God for their actions. One of the main reasons for the agitation in 17th century Britain was the fact that James I and Charles I proclaimed the so-called “Divine Right of Kings”: the belief that God had set them in position with the unassailable authority to govern their people. Yes, there was a Parliament sitting in Westminster – although it was called into play less and less frequently over the years. But its role was a subsidiary one, to advise the King (if he’d listen to it) and to carry out his edicts. For both kings saw themselves as primarily responsible to God; and, while that might have led them to rule with humility and caution, it in fact led them to believe that all their actions were divinely-sanctioned and correct. Such a view might just have been acceptable before Magna Carta, or if the king was clearly a devout, moral and humble person; but by the 1640s it was seen as intolerable hypocrisy. When the Monarchy was restored under Charles II, it was with its wings severely clipped.

I’m sure that most rulers today would not claim that divine mandate for their actions – though we saw something similar in the Ayatollahs’ regime in Iran and the Taleban’s period in control of Afghanistan. That isn’t to say that there aren’t other oppressive regimes in the world; there are, but they don’t claim God’s backing for what they do.

But what we have sometimes seen in world history is entire nations using God to justify their policies. Clearly there are some elements in Israel who would take that line, which is why it is so difficult to open up a debate with them. Britain, too, cannot be excused from this charge: not only was there a belief that our Empire must be a godly thing as it brought the threefold benefits of commerce, civilisation and Christianity, but some of the jingoism of the First World War actively promoted the idea that it was God’s work to kill the Hun – even though Germany was just as Christian a nation as ours!

Perhaps the nation which has most actively linked the idea of “God’s will” to “our policies” has been the United States, especially when its Government has been strongly influenced by right-wing Christian fundamentalists, such as during the presidencies of George Bush and Ronald Reagan. Although America is, in fact, a secular state with no Established Church in our English sense, it does seem to contain some people who take the phrase “one nation under God” very seriously and who honestly believe that they have been given a divinely-inspired mission to bring their kind of democracy to the rest of the world. Most of us on this side of the Pond are sceptical of such claims: we might even say that they could do with a king who will guide them wisely!

So we return to our own Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Do we have questions about the Monarchy? Perhaps. Would we question the idea that the Queen should be head of a state Church? Definitely. Would we agree that Britain is a far more diverse and complicated country – not least in the area of religions – than it was when she came to the throne? Unquestionably. But, having said all that, I’m sure we are all enormously thankful for our Queen’s long and wise reign. She has been much more than a tourist attraction for envious republicans; she has, I am sure, provided wise advice to a succession of First Ministers and her family has been instrumental in promoting not just British business interests around the world but also values which we cherish. Above all, the Queen has just been “there”, a fixed point in a world of change; life for us won’t be the same when she finally goes.

So let us rejoice this weekend: it is right to do so, and it is a time when our entire country can come together in celebration. But – as Samuel pointed out over 3000 years ago – what we need to do is go further, looking beyond our Queen to God himself as our supreme Leader and Head. For he is the King above all kings, and the Lord over all the nations. Ultimately it is to him we must defer.