Friday, 7 June 2013

A Hollow Crown?

During Anglicanism lectures at theological college, I was jokingly referred to by my fellow ordinands as an ‘old Labour royalist.’ While I would not describe myself as ‘old Labour’ - principally because I don’t support any political party - I suppose I am, and have always been, a royalist. At my ordination when I swore an oath to ‘be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’ it was a promise that I meant and took seriously. This week, in which the Queen has commemorated sixty years since her coronation in Westminster Abbey, I have been reflecting once again on why it is that my support for the monarchy remains strong. 
In a modern, pluralist and democratic country such as ours, what is the value in an ancient, Christian and hereditary monarchy? Surely there should be no space in twenty-first century Britain for an unelected, privileged and elderly woman to be our head of state?

It’s fascinating that the Queen and the British Monarchy still have a huge amount of support amongst the British population. Opinion polls throughout the past thirty years have consistently put support for the monarchy at around 70%, with some even around 80% in the Diamond Jubilee year. No politician or political party could ever hope to get these kind of approval ratings. There are many reasons why the Queen still commands respect and affection from the public. There is her longevity - most of us can’t remember her not being on the throne - and her devotion to duty. Also, there is the institution’s ability to adapt to democracy and to reinvent itself for the modern age. Certainly in a consumer age, the brand of monarchy is hugely successful both at home and globally.

Indeed I also believe that constitutional monarchy can also be healthier in a democracy than a presidential system. In the United States, the President wields huge power. He is both head of state and head of the executive. In Britain there is a separation of powers between head of state and head of government. The Prime Minister does not hold as much power as a US President. There is also a semi-symbiotic relationship between the Queen and Prime Minister. He is ultimately answerable to the monarch, but the monarch can only act on advice. Both monarch and head of government are kept in check and know their place. I also love to see the effect that this elderly woman with no real political power can have on grown men and women. So many politicians and celebrities suddenly become anxious and star struck when meeting the Queen and so it can be very satisfying to witness those who are powerful and successful momentarily in awe when they come face-to-face with the most famous woman in the world. For the foreseeable future, I can see no public appetite for an elected head of state as this will almost always mean having a politician as president. The beauty of a constitutional monarchy is that the head of state is above politics and can be a figure of unity across communities and the political spectrum. Certainly no elected head of state could ever achieve the same level of popularity.

However, for Christians - and it could be argued for all people of faith - I believe that there is an important spiritual role that the monarchy plays in our society. As we have been reminded this week, at its heart the coronation is a religious service and sets apart the monarch for service to God. The coronation is very similar to an ordination. The Queen was anointed with holy oil, made solemn vows to God, received Holy Communion, was dressed in priestly robes and given symbolic religious insignia. For people of faith I believe that the religious element to the monarchy is hugely important. At its best and when it works well (after all, all human institutions are fallible) the monarchy should point away from itself and towards God. Democratic institutions are primarily answerable to the people, whereas a constitutional monarchy is answerable to both God and the people. The Queen as supreme governor of the Church of England and defender of the faith is a reminder that there is a spiritual dimension and that God also holds nations and political institutions to account.

The monarchy is not perfect - indeed in a democratic age a bad king or queen could, and possibly should, spell the end of this ancient institution - but in its present form it works well. It should also be said that the success of the modern monarchy is down to the wisdom of the Queen. However, as a symbol to point away from itself and towards God, I believe that a Christian monarchy has unique value. Indeed this could be summed up in the words of the Queen herself when she said: ‘For me the teachings of Christ and my own personal accountability before God provide a framework in which I try to lead my life.’

If Elizabeth were not our queen then perhaps my views on monarchy would be different. But for now and especially this week as we remember her consecration before God let us ‘sing with heart and voice God save the Queen.’

Photograph of HM The Queen © Royal Household/John Swannell

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