Seeming sceptical about the sceptre

by
21 November 2014

The relatively new festival of Christ the King might be out of date, argues Richard Lindley

National Portrait Gallery ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY/CHURCH COMMISSIONERS

Ambiguous image of kingship: portraits of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, placed together by the National Portrait Gallery last year, after almost 500 years apart during which the woman's image was thought to be of Henry's sixth wife, Catherine Parr

Ambiguous image of kingship: portraits of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, placed together by the National Portrait Gallery last year, after almo...

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.

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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 omnipotent God.

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 practice.

The Revd Dr Richard Lindley is an NSM at Winchester Cathedral.

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