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A theology of the Monarchy: the One and the many

28 April 2023

In the second extract from his recent lecture, Jamie Hawkey reflects on the significance of the incarnation in relation to the monarchy


Mosaic of Jesus Christ Pantocrator with Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe in the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Istanbul

Mosaic of Jesus Christ Pantocrator with Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe in the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque, Istanbul

IN A book published in 2018, the political historian David Runciman posed a series of challenging questions relating to how democracy is threatened and might end, in societies where it seems to be safely established.

He writes: “The question for the 21st century is how long we can persist with institutional arrangements we have grown so used to trusting, that we no longer notice when they have ceased to work.” In Runciman’s thought, these arrangements include regular elections, democratic legislatures, independent courts, and the free press. “All these”, he says, “can continue to function as they ought while failing to deliver what they should” (How Democracy Ends, Profile, 2018).

Runciman diagnoses that Western democracy has been going through a mid-life crisis. His book is illuminating and challenging. He ruminates on the challenges of the technologisation of representative democracy — already, in his view, dangerously mechanical, even artificial. He alludes to Mahatma Gandhi’s foresight in criticising the depersonalisation of our democratic processes, and, in particular, the drift away from unmediated face-to-face politics.

The UK’s constituency system of representation is certainly one bulwark against some of the worst excesses of depersonalisation. But there are still substantial challenges at play, and, if Runciman is right, the danger of sleepwalking into further minefields is a very real one. Big Tech and AI are easy targets in such a critique, but, if depersonalisation really is an unavoidable feature of such developments, we are right to interrogate them carefully.

The oaths taken in this country by those who hold public office are not to a flag or to a concept — not even to a series of wholesome rules. Our oaths are taken to a person, and that person, the monarch, in the coronation service and in the practice of sovereignty, shows himself as subject to a justice beyond that of this country, or of this world.

At the committal service of Queen Elizabeth II, much was made in popular commentary of the moving symbolism of returning the crown, orb, and sceptre from our late Queen’s coffin to the altar in St George’s Chapel. Sovereignty, while invested in the person of the anointed monarch, is something borrowed rather than owned, and its source is not the metaphysical idea of a nation state, but the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of life.

While our own history reveals some of the dangers that can accumulate when power is focused in one person, the same history also teaches us how systems of government can develop for the common good. The monarch — apolitical, holding an office for which he or she has not campaigned, reigning with consent, and standing simultaneously above and deeply within the society that he or she serves — can be a touchstone for the exercise of power in the 21st century which resists totalitarian narratives of depersonalisation and dehumanisation.

In this sense, the monarch is the anti-despot, an enricher of our togetherness. The staggering advance of communications technology in this context can be a real blessing, inasmuch as the effects of almost face-to-face encounter can now be shared with millions of people across the nation, realms, and Commonwealth.


IN HIS Eric Abbott Lecture of 2012, Bishop Peter Selby analysed sovereign power from the perspective of how an Established Church might relate to the State. Taking his lead from the Italian philosopher and theologian Giorgio Agamben, Dr Selby proposed that the central feature of sovereign power is particular power over life and death.

Dr Selby argued that the modern nation state has developed in a way which controls “bare life” in particularly questionable ways. He reflects, “Consider the capacity of large numbers of people to house themselves and their families, to feed themselves, to find basic education for their children. . . The mechanisms may vary, as may the scope and reach of the state, but for all citizens of the state to some degree, and to the poorest citizens to an ever-increasing degree, the state’s ‘power over bare life’ has grown and shows no sign of ceasing to grow.”

Dr Selby goes on raise particular questions about the depersonalised and depersonalising power of money and the markets. His critique is acute, and bears reading in full.

What difference might it make to become more conscious of the monarch within this context? Well, first, even within the realm of theological speculation, we should not be naïve. Monarchy is not a vaccine that can be injected into a culture or system to make it better. Totalitarianism exists in monarchies as much as in other systems of government. But our becoming conscious of theological possibilities and theological symbols can help us to see the life of God and God’s Kingdom of justice, peace, and joy at work.

Sovereign power, in the Christian tradition, is borrowed: it is not an end in itself. It is generative, and treasures the weak: power to be exercised on behalf of the powerless. Sovereign power, if it is eucharistic power and rooted in the deep wells of Jewish and Christian reflection on justice, the sanctity of life, and the integrity of creation, should be tempered by mercy.

Without being naïve, the presence of a human being as the embodiment of the State, and the State’s head, might help to remind leaders who exercise power over others that political decisions and policies should spring from a person-centred approach.

This may be a stretch in practice, but that should not stop us making the point that the primacy of a person rather than a system should rehumanise our politics and our use of power if we Christians are serious about the implications of the incarnation. As Christians, if we believe God has become human in Christ, and that human beings are called to share in Christ’s dignity as communities, as well as individuals, our structures of power should serve that truth.

I’ve argued elsewhere that the traditional belief in the imago Dei — that is, the belief that human beings are created in the image and likeness of God — has passed into secular culture through a contemporary commitment to the language of human rights. A Christian monarchy in the 21st century should be a guardian of that noble tradition as much as anything else.


LET us briefly return to the coronation liturgy itself. Receiving the rod, in 1953, the monarch was told, “So execute justice that you forget not mercy.” Receiving the orb, the monarch is reminded very directly that the whole world is subject to the authority and power of Christ. There is a relativising of royal power, and, therefore, essentially, of the ultimate power of the state over which the monarch reigns and which the monarch serves. So, power is always, in this context, penultimate, with the human figure of the monarch as its guarantor.

The articulation of power which emerges from the coronation rite is balanced, structured; rooted in a relationship between the monarch and God, monarch and people. The sovereign’s — and, therefore, the nation’s — commitment, made explicit in public promises, is to a tempering of power by justice and mercy, to avoid the straightforward triumph of force.

At the heart of this is a typology related to the person of Christ — not in a reductive sense, but in an expansive mode that takes seriously Christ’s nature as Lord of the cosmos, the eternal Word of the Father, and High Priest of the new creation.

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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