Kensington and Chelsea Civic Service 2012

A sermon preached by Fr Robert Thompson at Choral Matins at St Mary Abbott's Church on 1 July 2012

In the wake of Chloe Smith’s mauling by Jeremy Paxman last week, it is with a great sense of guilt and also an immense feeling of relief that I stand in this pulpit in this context. Although being elevated six feet above contradiction, in this building, is not a privilege that I take lightly.
I speak temporally in Smith and Paxman’s shadow. But geographically I am aware that I speak in the shadow of Paul Dacre whose newspaper offices are just across the street. Avid readers of the Daily Mail may well have noted that their usual vitriolic criticism of all statements by Church of England Bishops, either individually or collectively, met a recent hiatus. In the same fortnight as Rowan Williams was totally lambasted for using the Jubilee sermon to criticise greed in the City, the Bishops were hailed as the saviours of the nation because of their immensely critical report on the government’s proposal to allow the definition of marriage to include same sex partnerships.
The tenor of such reporting, opinion and editorial in the Daily Mail is that the church should keep itself well out of ‘politics’ and limit its pronouncements to the arena of ‘personal morality’.  It’s a view that is shared by many people in this country, both from left and right of the political spectrum, and indeed by many Christians themselves. In this construction of the relationship between the church and state, politics is defined as social, public governance, and religion as a set of private, beliefs and morals. Politics is seen as the job of politicians, MPs and councillors, such as yourselves. Religion is viewed as the job of priests and bishops.

This unflinching and rigorous dualistic construction of the relationship between church and state has been very publicly deconstructed in the readings that we have just heard. These are readings which neither myself nor Christopher have chosen but are simply the readings which are set in the annual cycle of readings for Matins this morning.

The reading from the Hebrew Bible is obviously political in that it forms part of the economic philosophy of the ancient people of Israel. Every seventh year Israelite creditors should be released from their debts because it is the “Lord’s release.” The reading from the Acts of the Apostles is less obviously political. But it touches on issues of national security and also of civic identity in its themes of how prisoners are to be treated by their captors. Paul, and his prisoner companions, are saved by the intervention of a centurion. We are not told why the centurion defended them. But many commentators believe that it may well have been Paul’s insistence that he be treated with the rights that were his privilege as a Roman citizen. In many other places in the Acts of the Apostles when those in authority threaten to persecute Paul he asserts his citizenship to prevent illegal maltreatment. Behind this portion of Acts, stands this whole back story of Paul demanding his political dignity, his civil rights, under Roman law.

Both of this morning’s texts then allow no easy demarcation between the religious and the political. That given it would, however, be difficult to see how either George Osborne could apply the Deuteronomical text, or Theresa May and Ken Clark the reading from Acts in any literal way, even if they wanted to. The construction of our financial life differs considerably from that of the ancient Hebrews and the relationship between the citizen and the state has marked contrasts to that of Paul to Rome. Any reading of these texts in a practical way for our own civic governance always already implies a consideration of the hermeneutics of application from very differing social contexts to our own. In that sense even those of us who consider ourselves to be the most conservative of Christians (with a small c) are thorough going liberals, for there is little articulation from such constituencies to adhere strictly to the biblical economic architecture from our first reading. Those Christians who consider themselves to be the most biblical are very readily exposed as prone to scriptural dismissiveness.

This point is highlighted when we turn our focus to the theme of monarchy in the biblical literature. It’s a subject that our celebration this year, and today in this service, of Queen Elizabeth’s diamond jubilee, invites us to address. Having been brought up in the north of Ireland I have often been struck by how ironic it is that the more biblically literalist and fundamentalist one’s convictions, the more obsessive one’s veneration of the monarchy becomes. It’s ironic because a careful reading of the scriptures would note a critical edge to various writers’ presentations of earthly kings and rulers including the monarchs of Israel and Judah themselves.

To begin at the beginning: the creation accounts of Genesis articulate that for ancient Israel it was all human beings that were made in God’s image. This is to be understood in contrast to other near eastern civilisations of the period in which it was generally only the king who was seen to embody divine energy. In Israel, unlike in Egypt, with their divine Pharaohs, it was all men and women who reflected God’s glory. So, although there is great difficulty in using contemporary words of ancient societies, the narratives of Genesis can be considered to be theologically, politically and socially egalitarian.

The introduction of monarchy to ancient Israel itself, as told in the book of 1 Samuel, underscores that even though Israel had earthly kings, God was sovereign over them. The writer tells us that God did not even want the people to have a king but that he gave into their wishes, and chose Saul. But in order to show who was really in charge God summarily deposed him in favour of David. David’s reign is almost universally depicted as ideal, but his son Solomon’s reign as far from it. Solomon does indeed build an extraordinarily opulent temple. But to do so, however, he over centralises power, increases taxation, and virtually reintroduces slavery into Israel. In so doing he weakens the internal ties between the twelve tribes of the kingdom causing schism and partition. This leads in turn to the obliteration of the northern Kingdom of Israel, and eventually to the exile of the southern Kingdom of Judah into Babylon. The contemporary Hebrew scholar Walter Bruggeman has the most wonderfully dismissive line to sum up Solomon’s reign “and so Solomon undid the liberating work of Moses.”

Turning to the New Testament: monarchs do not have much of a sympathetic depiction here either. Jesus himself is depicted as the victim of the monarchical power of the Roman emperors. He is crucified as a criminal under Roman law as a political agitator. Jesus is the one who had above his cross the words ‘King of Jews’ and he is ‘legally’ murdered, in part, because he challenged the Roman political hegemony. Finally the biblical literature culminates in the book of Revelation in which God is depicted as the king who is above all kings. God is the only true king to whom the entire world’s kings will bow down. The eternal reign of the only true monarch, who is the lamb upon the throne, sees all other monarchies crumble to dust. It’s a text written at the height of Roman persecution of Jesus’ followers and cannot be properly understood unless seen as the political satire that it undoubtedly is.

The fundamentalist Protestants of my own cultural provenance in rural Ulster turn out to be biblical liberals indeed in their evaluation of monarchy, both for ancient Israel and the contemporary United Kingdom. They are liberal because whole swathes of scripture are simply swept under a convenient carpet. On the other side however the biblical literature cannot readily be used by those in our society who would advocate a republican form of government. The literature assumes monarchy whilst being critical of its excesses.

But what is clear in scripture is that it is consistently critical of forms of monarchy that absolutise power into the hands of a single figure, or select elites, to the exclusion of the poorest in society. From Egyptian pharaohs, to Solomon, to Roman emperors, the biblical literature is clearly opposed to the exploitation of power in monarchies which have collapsed into despotic regimes. In our own contemporary society such regimes can be characterised by republican political constructions as much as they can by monarchical ones. Libya, Syria and Egypt offer us lively examples. In our own history too our temporary experiment with a form of republicanism under the Cromwellian pseudo-theocracy constituted one of the most oppressive periods of our history. It was indeed a nightmare for (Catholic) Ireland.

The biblical critique of monarchy is then a critique of a very different sort of monarchy than our own. In our liberal, democratic society our particular and peculiar constitutional settlement offers us a careful balance of both actual and symbolic powers. The power of both the monarchy and the church has been reduced to the virtually symbolic. Real power resides in parliament with those who make the law, and in the judiciary with those who interpret it.

Monarchy – Church – Parliament – Judiciary: It is the sovereignty of law that saves us from the political tyranny of elected democratic majorities in how they can treat minorities. And it is the symbolic sovereignty of monarchy and church, at best, points us continuously beyond ourselves
• beyond party affiliation
• beyond tribal identity
• beyond the short-termism of political policies enacted to secure re-election,
• beyond the vacuity of a sound bite political culture.

Symbolically the monarchy and church raise questions about the moral deficit that is to be found in all democratic societies. There are three areas in which I wish to highlight these shortcomings:
1. How do we address those longer term issues for which 4 to 5 year electoral cycles are so obviously inadequate? Examples here would include the NHS and the environment.
2. How do we ensure that when we have significant electoral majorities that the interests of minorities are not sidelined or even repressed?  That’s an issue for this borough with its perennial inbuilt majority for one party, although that will apply in other parts of the country too for different political parties. It’s an issue that we can see tragically demonstrated in the history of twentieth century Northern Irish political life.
3. How do we construct a political culture in which conscientious objection to aspects of public policy are treated respectfully? That’s an issue which has increasing resonance with many people of various religious convictions.

Our celebration of the Queen’s Jubilee should be seen within this broader context. We not only celebrate an extraordinary individual woman, for to do that alone would be to reduce our marking of this Jubilee to the level of our popular, celebrity obsessed, media driven culture. In marking the Queen’s Jubilee we also celebrate a constitutional settlement that in its careful balance of real and symbolic powers allows a space for lively moral debate to be kept alive in our national public arena. We celebrate, in part, that the sort of questions that scripture asks of us this morning, and my hopefully faithful engagement with them, are questions that we believe need to be addressed to our own professional, political elites, and to all of us, even those of us gathered here this morning.
“Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to the needy in thy land.” The text of Deuteronomy meets my appraisal of our constitutional balance of power with a call for the cyclical redistribution of power within Hebrew society. Debts are to be cancelled every seven years. The poor are to be given a fair chance. The rich are not to become continually richer. The poor are not to become continually poorer. These are sentiments that in our own contemporary context need to be heard not only by monarchs but by all of us who have considerably more political and economic power than many others in our society. And that’s not just the Bob Diamonds and the bankers among us who so easily become scapegoats. But it is also the Jimmy Carr’s, the cynical comedians, which lie deep within each of us. The biblical term for this redistribution of power is ‘Jubilee’, the year of God’s joy. As we celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee the church does indeed call us enthusiastically and earnestly to pray ‘God save the Queen’. It also asks us to pray that the poor in her realm do not go needy and that God’s Kingdom may come.
Holland Park Benefice