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Leader comment: The new reign: the people, their King, and God

23 September 2022

LIVE broadcasts of the royal services, ceremonies, and addresses that have taken place over the past fortnight have shown just how intimately the Christian faith, with its roots in the Hebrew tradition, is woven into the constitution of the UK. It is something that is often unspoken, understated, taken for granted, misunderstood, or simply filtered out. The late Queen was a devout churchwoman. To hear similar expressions of faith from her son has been a reminder that Christianity is a public as much as a private faith, and is at the core the English concept of monarchy. Since democratic government came into being, the place of the monarchy has been questioned repeatedly. But it has a rationale that may appeal even to those who express no allegiance to Christ.

Kingship as a fallible human focus of power and military defence was, in the Hebrew Scriptures, depicted as a temptation to a sin no better than idolatry. It was redeemed by a merciful God through the anointing of a sovereign of his own choosing. That anointing remains part of the coronation service is, therefore, of great significance, and not a mere empty convention. By seeing himself as chosen by God, the King is doing the opposite of aggrandising himself. He is aligning himself with the Hebrew kings who understood themselves as the chosen servant of God and God’s people. Using the same language as his late mother, the King has framed his reign — for as long as God allows it — in terms of service, duty, devotion, and love. Christ himself embodies this paradoxical connection between supreme power and obedience. Christ’s silence before Pilate and his crucifixion recast the understanding of sovereignty and chosenness for eternity. Christian subjects are, likewise, members of a royal priesthood. They have power to offer service to one another, as well as to their sovereign, as part of their own obedience to God.

In a democracy, political power is shared by electors and their parliament. The British monarchy may continue in its historic and present form only with their consent. The Christian model of monarchy, with its implicit levelling up of all humanity as “children of the same heavenly Father”, has plenty of rival forms: elitist, unaccountable, exclusive, with no sense of accountability to anything beyond contemporary human values. Such leadership, either by power given or taken, is still common around the world, as the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested in his sermon at the state funeral on Monday. Such a culture, without the democracy of prayer, is open to the persuasions of celebrity, prurience, and envy. This explains in part the uneasiness felt by the Royal Family at the path that the Sussexes have taken. Without a reciprocal declaration of dignity, duty, and service, founded on a shared love of God, the contract between monarch and subjects loses its rationale. “God save the King!” — the acclamation of Charles III uttered so often spontaneously in the past few days — reasserts the sacred bonds of a common humanity in a world to be redeemed by love.

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