PRESENCE is a popular notion for God, but "King" may be on the
way out. Thirty-two Winchester lay Anglicans from a variety of
church traditions were questioned as part of a research project
into beliefs about God - hardly a statistical sample, but a telling
snapshot, none the less.
They were asked about God as a single entity (rather than in
Christological or Trinitarian terms), and many expressed their
inadequacy, or the inadequacy of language, for the task.
The majority had no mental image of God, offering abstract
portrayals, such as: "Pure beauty/love, not really in a form as
we'd see it here". Others referred to "a Presence", locating God as
"everywhere", or described God in terms of light: "a half-hidden
light that I almost glimpse, like a light behind a screen, but if I
try to concentrate on it, it disappears", said one.
For those using abstract concepts such as "presence" or "light",
prayer - and any relationship - was more difficult, a matter of
reflection rather than communication. A few, though, remained
attached to traditional images: "a father figure . . . a man in the
clouds, with a beard, on a throne". For these, prayer was easier,
addressed as if to another person. But most had encountered God in
reflective moments, for instance in the warmth of doing the ironing
with a view of a sunny garden, on the beach with waves breaking
gently, or "just God and me in God's living room" (during a night
vigil in the cathedral).
Several images were presented to interviewees for a spontaneous
reaction. This was when we discovered that God as King was the most
problematical, more than half not finding the image helpful. Two of
these declared themselves non-monarchists, and a few deemed the
trappings of monarchy incompatible with Jesus's humility.
ALTHOUGH Jesus was reluctant to accept the title for himself,
the kingship of God was hugely significant in his teaching about
the Kingdom of God. Even in Jesus's day, there was an ambiguous
history of Jewish kingship to cloud the concept; so the Kingdom of
God was envisaged as a new reign of perfection.
Since then, the history of national kingship and presidency has
been even more ambiguous. In England, the monarchy has included
William the Conqueror, King John, Richard III, and Henry VIII.
Now, in the 21st century (setting aside the gender issue), our
constitutional monarchy, though valued for its symbolism, is seen
as largely powerless, and sits uncomfortably as an image of an
For some, there is an uncomfortable parallel between our
constitutional monarchy and a God who is wheeled out on ceremonial
occasions, who can be admired from afar but safely ignored for most
of the time.
Kingship is just one analogy for God, and all analogies are
limited, and are not to be taken as univocal, or literal. There
must come a point, however, when the comparison has become so far
removed from common experience that the analogy no longer works.
For the majority of the Winchester sample, this point seemed to be
approaching over kingship.
A recent YouGov poll showed that, although 83 per cent of the
Anglican clergy surveyed believed in a personal God, three per cent
preferred "some sort of spirit or life force", two per cent were
not "sure God is more than a human construct", and another three
per cent were even more uncertain.
That suggests that as many as eight per cent of those particular
clergy did not use traditional expressions of faith, and may have
more in common with the lay people in the Winchester sample who
favour abstract concepts for God.
In the YouGov poll, nine per cent agreed with the notion "No one
can know what God is like." It is hard to believe that so many
doubted the demonstration of God's nature in Christ (John 1.18). It
is more likely that the respondents were referring not to moral
qualities but to God's actual observable existence.
It is a useful corrective, pointing to the inadequacy of all
analogical concepts of God. The lay people in Winchester, with
their informal theology, were attempting to avoid this trap.
More research is needed into the informal theology of Christian
lay people. The results could be hugely significant as a sounder
basis for evangelism, preaching, liturgy, and pastoral
The Revd Dr Richard Lindley is an NSM at Winchester