God Save the Queen.
June 3, 2012
This weekend, and all this year, we are celebrating the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. But what exactly is it we are celebrating?
On the simplest level, we are marking 60 years since the Queen’s accession to the throne. We are simply following what seems to be a strong human instinct to mark the passage of time, and the passage of lives, by celebrating anniversaries, and particularly those which occur after 25, 50, 60 and 100 years. But this is not an anniversary for us personally, nor for a member of our family or our local community – so why do we celebrate?
There has in the past been a tradition of seeing the character of the nation embodied in the person of the monarch. This why a royal jubilee is a national occasion. But what precisely is this ‘national character’ that the Queen embodies?
One hundred or so years ago, at the time of the golden and diamond jubilees of Queen Victoria, those questions simply would not have been asked. It was quite clear what the Queen embodied. She was the Queen Empress, head of a nation which ruled over half the earth. The jubilees celebrated our position as ‘Top Nation’, the one on which God’s favour clearly rested. Much the same sentiments would have characterised the Silver Jubilee of King George V – but things have changed a great deal in the last 60 years.
Ian Bradley, in his book, ‘God Save the Queen’ comments that the monarchy has been struggling to find a new role since our Queen came to the throne. It has been shorn of most of its military, political and constitutional significance over the last two centuries. Kings no longer lead the nation’s armies into battle – that is a job for experts. We are a democracy, and our governments are chosen by popular ballot, not by heredity or royal favour. The monarch retains only the right to advise, and even that must be done in secret.
Bradley summarises four broad directions in which the 21st century monarchy could develop:
– ceremonial splendour and public show, (the monarchy as tourist attraction, part of the heritage theme park of Merrie England, along with stately homes and mock mediaeval banquets);
– subject matter for gossip columns and paparazzi (the monarch as part of the nation’s longest running soap opera);
– encouragement and active involvement in ‘good works’ (the so called ‘welfare monarchy’);
– and the embodiment of a mixture of metaphysical, magical and moral elements which go to make up the spiritual dimension of monarchy.
Bradley sees the monarchy as an outward and visible sign of the royalty and majesty of God, the sort of picture our Old Testament reading gives. The spiritual dimension of monarchy is one that has its roots in the Old Testament, and perhaps even before, in the priest/kings of ancient civilisations. There, the person of the monarch represented order over chaos; the monarch was the person who was able to commune with God, who enjoyed God’s special favour, sometimes even being given the title of ‘God’s son’. The monarch was charged with carrying out God’s purpose. While the monarch found favour with the divinity, so also did the nation.
This is a dimension of monarchy that is highlighted in the Coronation service, set in the context of Holy Communion, with its musical settings of passages from the Bible describing the coronations of David and Solomon and use of the royal psalms. It was highlighted 59 years ago, in the media coverage of the coronation, with its variety of preparatory religious services for the nation.
It seems to be the dimension of the monarchical role that appeals most to the present Queen, and to the heir to the throne. The Queen, since her earliest public pronouncements, has spoken about her role in terms of a religious duty. And the Prince of Wales has spoken of his desire to be ‘Defender of Faith’, and has set up a forum of faiths to promote communication between the leaders of the different religious groups in this country. Bradley suggests, in the sub-title to his book, that the spiritual dimension of monarchy is the one which our nation needs, and which the jubilee ought to be celebrating.
However, the idea of ‘sacred monarchy’ is less easily acceptable in the modern world than it might once have been, for two reasons.
The first is that we are now irreversibly a multifaith nation. We no longer enjoy the unity of religious belief that nations did in the days when the idea of sacred monarchy was current. Christian churchgoing has declined to the extent that many of the newer religious groups in the country, particularly Islam, have more active members than many Christian denominations.
Yet our country is not as secular as some people make out. There is a deep residue of religious feeling in the country at large; many people are engaged in a spiritual search and claim to pray regularly, while never attending church; and people of faith are finding that they have much in common, and share many values, in spite of their differing creeds.
The monarch could build on all this, and come to stand for belief in the spiritual and sacred over against the increasing secularism and materialism of modern life; represent order, and the best of tradition against chaos; and embody tolerance and unity against prejudice and the fragmentation of our contemporary society. Such a role could help to integrate ethnic and religious minorities into society around loyalty to the person of the sovereign and the institution of monarchy. The Chief Rabbi, Lord Sacks, spoke about this in an article in The Times on Thursday, when he said the Queen is Defender of all Britain’s faiths. He added that the fact she is Supreme Governor of the Church of England does not prevent that. “Oddly enough, the religious dimension of the throne makes it better placed than secular institutions to value and unite the many faiths of Britain.” Perhaps there could be changes to the coronation ceremonial, to reflect this, and the part which other Christian denominations, and other faiths, play in national life.
But even if this were to happen, there would still be problems about a monarch being the embodiment of spiritual values. These days, we find it difficult to accept that a person symbolises values unless they live them. Once upon a time it was possible to accept a monarch as the embodiment of Christian virtues, because the general public knew very little about their personal lives. That is no longer so. The “monarchy as long-running soap opera” has brought the personal failings of some of the royals very much into the public realm. So far as we know, the Queen has tried to live by the Christian moral standards she proclaims; the same cannot be said of the next generation.
But, leaving aside moral values (for we all fall short of the ideal which Christ set before us) there are other standards which the monarch would need to embrace if she or he is to stand for the deepest Christian values, many of which are shared with other faiths.
In the Church Times last week, an article by Tim Jones of the Jubilee Debt Campaign reminds us that the term ‘jubilee’ comes from the Bible, and refers to a time every 50 years, when prisoners and slaves were to be freed, debts cancelled, and land returned to its original owners , shared on a basis of equality. He reminds us that a call to celebrate jubilee is a call for economic justice. The Jubilee Debt Campaign is calling for a debt Jubilee for impoverished Third World countries in 2012, a Jubilee for Justice involving:
Cancel the unjust debts of the most indebted nations
Promote just and progressive taxation rather than excessive borrowing
Stop harmful lending which forces countries into debt
While the monarch remains one of the richest people in the country, and while the royal family associates itself with a very narrow class of people and pursuits; and while her family are able to insulate themselves from the problems which beset ordinary people, the monarch cannot authentically be a symbol of the spirituality of the one who came to serve rather than to be served and to share the lives of those he came to save.
In his book, Bradley points out that our National Anthem is almost unique in the world in focussing on a person rather than a country or political principle, and in asserting its ultimate reference is to the divine, rather than to secular politics.
So, when we sing ‘God save the Queen’ during these Golden Jubilee celebrations, may we be asking God to save her from the temptation (which we all share !) to preserve our own privileges of wealth and position and comfort, so that she (and we) may more truly be the symbol and agent of those values of community loyalty, religious tolerance and the importance of the spiritual and sacred over the material and secular that make up the spiritual dimensions of the monarchy.
And may this royal jubilee be an opportunity for all of us who call ourselves Christians, to pledge ourselves not just to uphold the best interests of the United Kingdom that our Queen rules over, but also to do all we can to build the kingdom of God on earth, a kingdom in which the last shall be first, and the poor and disadvantaged are its first concern.