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Not to be served, but to serve

28 April 2023

In the first of two extracts from his Gore lecture, Jamie Hawkey reflects on kingship as service


Jesus is depicted washing the feet of his disciples, in a 15th-century manuscript from the monastery of Iviron, in Greece

Jesus is depicted washing the feet of his disciples, in a 15th-century manuscript from the monastery of Iviron, in Greece

THEOLOGICAL reflection on monarchy cannot be separated from other kinds of reflection. Theology is the ultimate integrative discipline: that is to say, it touches upon, and draws into dialogue, all sorts of other areas of reflection and research.

In articulating a theology of monarchy which might have a particular resonance for our own time, the potential terrain is therefore vast — an ongoing task, to be developed by thinkers and preachers as this reign progresses. What I lay out is not the exhaustive answer, nor a set of adversarial propositions, but one series of sketches which might help us discern something of the opportunities and blessings offered to us in this reign, at this point in history.

The Anglican spiritual writer Evelyn Underhill famously said, “God is the interesting thing about religion, and people are hungry for God.” Our census data bears that out. So, how might we sense something of the life of God emerging that little bit more clearly in the possibilities which a Christian monarchy highlights for a multi-faith, agnostic, secularising context?

These theological reflections will largely explore what we think of as the institution of monarchy, and how it engages with the culture in which it is set. It is pretty fundamental that much of what we have to say about monarchy is depersonalised. A monarch is not elected; we do not choose from a list of candidates. Our experience of monarchy, however, and our sense of this particular monarch really matter. What is monarchy without the person of the monarch?

Constitutional realities and principles of precedent, of course, underpin so much of how we might describe the monarchy; but equally, by definition, monarchy is never abstract. In each monarch we see a personality, a life, an imagination, laid at the service of the people. We cannot love a system, but we can love a person. Similarly, for the full symbolic importance of monarchy to come alive, we have to have monarchs who make it credible.


FAMOUSLY, on her 21st birthday in 1947, the then Princess Elizabeth made a declaration that would come ultimately to be seen as the leitmotif of her reign: “I declare before you all”, she said, “that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.” Five years later, in her Christmas message before her Coronation, Queen Elizabeth II asked for her people’s prayers precisely for that purpose.

Interestingly, there is nothing in that officially sanctioned liturgy from 1953 to imply that the monarch was at the service of the people, and — while the coronation oaths allude to it by the monarch’s vowed commitment to law, justice, and mercy — a sense of what we now think of as “servant leadership” is really not a major theme in 1953. The people are urged to do “their true service to God and to our Sovereign”, while the monarch is to be established with “a princely spirit . . . of wisdom and government” and set over the people. Nowhere is it explicitly articulated that kingship is a ministry of public service.

The extent to which monarch-as-servant increasingly became an index theme of the late Queen’s reign cannot be overstated. Of course, this has been an implicit theme throughout history, not least through the ceremonies of the Royal Maundy, remembering how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as the symbol of service. Serving others is a feature of Christian discipleship. But we should also remember how, in the previous chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus’s own feet have also been anointed by Mary of Bethany, before he washes those of his friends.

Being served and serving create a dynamic of mutuality and respect which enriches and sustains the organisation of human society. The coronation rite puts these two qualities together.


THE SO-CALLED “covenant” theory of monarchy, which largely replaced the divine right of kings in the 17th century, established the parameters of what we know today, where there is a three-way-covenant between God, monarch, and people, in which the monarch rules by consent, answerable to the people as much as to God. Dr Frank Prochaska coined the phrase the “welfare monarchy” as philanthropy and good works became a key element in the life and appeal of the monarchy from the reign of George III onwards.

Professor Ian Bradley has pointed out that this is bound up with notions of duty, which feature strongly in the pronouncements of subsequent Hanoverians, Victoria, and, of course, the Windsors. But fulfilling one’s duty is not quite the same as the gift of service, in which one’s own needs, ambitions, and personality are laid aside or at the feet of others.

A book by Edward Owens (Family Firm: Monarchy, mass media and the British public, University of London Press, 2019) illustrates the growth of personal and familial touches in the speeches of King George V, advised by none other than Rudyard Kipling and Archbishop Cosmo Lang, who frequently acted as speechwriters. In 1932, this King-Emperor explained that his life’s aim had been to serve his people in order to improve their lives, and that their loyalty had been his “abundant reward” for that service (Owens, ibid.).


BY 2013, on the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, prayers offered in Westminster Abbey in a great national service of thanksgiving developed this language very directly, giving thanks for “Her Majesty’s example of humble service; for her commitment to the needs of others; for her affectionate service of her peoples”. The Gospel reading on that occasion recounted Christ’s own ministry to serve and not to be served — the text on which the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Revd Justin Welby, then preached.

Concluding a message to her people after the weekend of her Platinum Jubilee, our late Queen signed herself, “Your Servant, Elizabeth R”. In the King’s first address, he spoke at length of the late Queen’s life of devoted service, which His Majesty renewed for himself before promising “to serve you with loyalty, respect, and love, as I have throughout my life”.

We have become so used to this explicit language of service that we could easily underestimate it, and the potential it has to interrogate and contextualise other forms of leadership in our own century. The theological roots of this kind of leadership are rooted in Jesus’s own ministry, and in how Christians have understood Jesus’s teaching in Mark’s Gospel: that Christian leadership offers a profound critique of other models.

Of all the gifts a monarchy can give contemporary culture, insisting that the highest office in the land, consecrated to rule, is most fully expressed in the service of the vulnerable (as the King does with his passion for refugees and marginalised communities, for example) is one of the greatest.


The Revd Dr Jamie Hawkey is Canon Theologian of Westminster Abbey, and chairs the Westminster Abbey Institute. This is an edited extract from the Charles Gore Lecture 2023, “A Theology of Monarchy for the 21st Century”. The full text can be found here: westminster-abbey.org/charles-gore-memorial-lectures/charles-gore-lecture-2023.

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