Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Diamon Jubilee Year

This past week we have marked the 60th anniversary of the accession of Elizabeth our Queen.  Like King David in the Old Testament, she was the unlikely child who became a monarch.  Until the abdication of her uncle, Elizabeth was not destined for monarchy and did not seek it.  Yet for 60 years she has served the nation with a dedication and sense of duty that is unquestioned.  We honour that achievement.  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 I imagine will be more understated commemorations in June.  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?  Even at the silver jubilee 35 years ago, the future of the monarchy was not seriously a matter for public debate.  Yet today, while most people support the monarchy, the mood is no longer deferential.  We see ourselves as citizens, not subjects.  Perhaps the street parties and bunting of 1977 were the last fling of a more secure world we have now archived, as if it belonged to sepia and newsreels.

The jubilee is an opportunity to revisit important questions: what do we expect of leadership? what do we want from monarchy?  And how is the reign of God expressed in our national life?  Ian Bradley, a Scottish theologian, argues in a book called God Save the Queen that monarchy 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 and the spiritual 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.  A ‘Defender of the Faith’, or even ‘Defender of Faith’ requires us to take seriously in a collective way the imaginative and religious dimension of life, and do justice to it in our public life. I never use the word if I can help it, but perhaps iconic does sum it up.  The monarch gathers up and symbolises what we are as a nation; like an icon, what you see is much more than appears on the surface. 

And perhaps it says something important about leadership and how, according to Christian insight, it should be exercised. 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 accountable to the rule of Christ the King; they are set under the cross for he is 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 can point beyond itself to the city whose builder and maker is God.  

In the Old Testament reading, we heard about the part wisdom played in the creation of the world. Part of the 8th chapter of Proverbs is set as the Old Testament lesson at morning or evening prayer on Accession Day.  ‘When he established the heavens I was there, when he drew a circle upon the face of the deep, when he marked out the foundations of the earth, then I was beside him, like a master-worker, and I was daily his delight, rejoicing before him always.’  It may not have been clear to you that the speaker is a woman, Lady Wisdom.  Not only is she God’s agent in fashioning the creation; she is also the inspiration and companion of all who want to live wisely and well, who intend through life to contribute to the fashioning of the world as a good and properly-ordered place.  In Proverbs she is contrasted with another woman, Dame Folly: she is the source of all that is mischievous and chaotic and destructive.  There are some entertaining passages in Proverbs where these two ladies clamour for the attention of a young man as he strolls down the street.  He has a choice to make: either he embraces Lady Wisdom and learns to flourish, or he falls for Dame Folly, is led into the whore’s parlour and ends up in ruin. 

We could make the obvious connection between wisdom personified as a woman and the fact that both our longest-serving monarchs have been women.  We could also reflect that our church will be the wiser and better when women become bishops.  But in our gospel reading, where St John tells in language reminiscent of Proverbs, of how creation came into being through the Logos, the immortal word or reason or wisdom of God, the gender is masculine.  The important theme in both our readings is that all good, just, wholesome and right activity in the world springs from divine wisdom.  This includes the roles we take up in public life, a point made much of in Proverbs which was probably written to instruct the young at court in the skills and arts of leadership.  In the coronation service, the sovereign is presented with a Bible and told ‘Here is wisdom, this is the royal law, these are the lively Oracles of God’.  Lady Wisdom again: ‘by me kings reign, and rulers decree what is just’. 

How does the tradition understand this?  In the gospels, it is abundantly clear.  Jesus’ kingship is not demonstrated in palaces and panoply, but in 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, his 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.

In the Old Testament, ‘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 today for the service of our Queen over 60 years, we can, I think, 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.  This is how Christ’s strange work is achieved in the world.  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’. 

Durham, 12 February 2012
Proverbs 8.1, 22-31; John 1.1-14

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