Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 12 June 2016
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning
From tonight’s anthem: O Lord make thy servant Elizabeth our Queen to rejoice in thy strength.
Clergy love giving their views on the organisation of society, any current crisis will do, you will be told how things ought to be. Nobody asked them. All people really want to hear is a word, a direct word, from the One who rose from the dead. I promise you that living Word. But the day being what it is, our celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday, I’m taking you on a brief excursion into monarchy and all that.
Queen Elizabeth I’s successor, King James I, wrote a book to edify his four year old son Henry Frederick, about what a king could and should do, declaring that a king “acknowledgeth himself ordained for his people, having received from God a burden of government, whereof he must be countable.” This was the theory of the Divine Right of Kings. It wasn’t a new idea, but it got going in England in the seventeenth century. There are different versions of the same idea. The more liberal democratic versions need not concern us this evening. The basic idea is that kings and queens derive their authority from God not their subjects, from which it follows that rebellion is the worst of political crimes. I have always wanted to preach the Divine Right of Kings, and tonight affords me the perfect opportunity, for even the most stony hearted Republican among us must agree that any rebellion against our 90 year old monarch should be suppressed with a judicial severity worthy of the seventeenth century.
What you might not know is that the Queen is ordained. She was ordained to monarchy by the Archbishop of Canterbury with the Holy Oils. She is Queen by the Grace of God. So there is a parallel between monarchy and priesthood. The Coronation ceremony is based on the coronation of the ancient Holy Roman Emperors. So what we have in our institution of monarchy in England is a connection between Church and State, priesthood and monarchy, between biblical times and our own, and indeed between God and mankind, because as King James I wrote in his book, the relationship between monarch and people is that of parent and child. As King James said in a speech to Parliament in 1610, “a king is truly parens patriae [parent of the country], the politic father of his people.” In practical terms what this theory of the Divine Right of Kings achieved, in very troubled times when clergy and commons were harbouring dangerously subversive thoughts, what was achieved was legitimacy for the monarchy.
The revolutionaries and republicans among you can sit back in your seats now because I don’t think I can take this excursion much further, for after 1688 everything collapsed, Tory England and its freedoms were swept away by reformers who believed in the supremacy of Parliament, and nobody has preached the Divine Right of Kings until, perhaps, tonight. Churchmen swapped sides, as they so often do when it suits them, became civil servants, the lot of them, and, in the words of one historian if I remember rightly, in the eighteenth century the Whig bishops spread across the land like cold porridge. Yet a trace of that monarchical idealism of King James I, the parental concern, the personal connection between monarch and subject, that reaching out for divine strength, remains visible to us, I am sure, in the person of Her Majesty the Queen, although I would never presume to discuss her character. For as Supreme Governor of the Church – not Supreme Head of the Church, a deliberate distinction to avoid any confusion with divinity – and as a monarch she directs us to a higher realm beyond that very limited world of the State which tries, at every point, to control the people.
We need transcendence. We are designed to look beyond the visible. Although the Divine Right of Kings was seen by contemporaries in the seventeenth century as oppressive, because it prevented any political takeover bid, the subject of the theory was freedom, freedom from the pressure of corrupt influence. The Feast of Christ the King, at the end of every Church year, is also about freedom, religious freedom, looking beyond the boundaries set by the State or, I suppose, States, seeing that we are still subject to Europe, to a greater Kingdom.
Jesus crosses the boundaries of our human lives, leads us beyond them. The way of Jesus, what we call Christianity, is not confined within national or ethnic boundaries. Christ is king of the cosmos, the whole world. His kingdom is limitless, without definition. What is this kingship? Christ comes to us disguised as our life. “I am the way, the truth and the life.” (John 14.6) His Kingship becomes yours, this is our Divine Right, our divine-human connection, what we are called to be. We get suspicious of this freedom to act, we fear open spaces, infinity, not knowing. Our liberal individualism keeps us in a sound proof bubble, incapable of risk, and uncertain of commitment, but freedom to act, to be human, to look beyond ourselves, is God’s gift to us, the liberty of the children of God, as today’s Collect describes it. I am quite sure that it is from the infinite love which defines that kingdom that Her Majesty the Queen receives her strength.