On kings and presidents

This week is the coronation of King Charles III as king over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. If it seemed a little unseemly to be debating the continuation of the monarchy in the immediate aftermath of the Queen’s death, perhaps now is a good time to be having the conversation. 

For what it is worth, I’ve long been fairly ambivalent about the monarchy. I’m not a Royalist.  One of my favourite books as a child was the Ladybird one about Oliver Cromwell.  My theological and my political sympathies lie with many of the Puritans it seems!  I suspect many share my ambivalence.  It’s a bit like Brexit, it doesn’t really interfere with our day to day life, we wouldn’t push for a change but if the option was offered to us we might seriously consider it.

Part of the ambivalence comes because I think that the arguments made on both sides (and again there may be some cross over with Brexit) are over- stated. First, it’s difficult to make a theological argument for either side and yet people give it a good go.  I don’t think you need to get rid of the monarchy to sever the State’s relationship to the Church of England, though for various reasons I support disestablishment.  There isn’t a particular argument in Scripture against monarchy. The reason why Samuel had an issue with Israel wanting a king, was to do with Israel’s particular status as the people of God, as his kingdom.  Though nor again, should we assume that because God is king and because in the end kings were anointed over Israel that this makes a Biblical case for the UK having one. 

I also think that in terms of the broader argument that the role of the monarchy is overstated on both sides. This has been exemplified by some of the reactions to this weekend’s festivities. Apparently, we are invited to join in with the ceremony by swearing allegiance to the King, the oath traditionally sworn by the peers of the realm.  The way that some have reacted, gives the impression that we are being compelled to, that someone is going to be monitoring us to check we are watching telly on Saturday and that we join in at the right moments like the citizens of PanAm in the Hunger Games.  There is an overstatement of the monarchy’s power and authority by some on the Republican side, it is essentially a ceremonial, civic role. The King doesn’t have real political power.  His primary job these days is to be a figure head, a representative for the country.  Is the best way of finding that person through accident of birth?  Perhaps not but is a democratic election necessarily any better at doing so?  Or would something like a lottery work just as well?

There again, many of the arguments for keeping the monarchy are overstated too.  During my lifetime, these have focused on the way that the monarch rises above politics (forget)ting that the monarchy is itself a political position and that staying out of party politics has been as much about self-preservation), that they had a wealth of experience and advice to offer, that they provided stability and continuity, that they were a model of moral virtue, of servant leadership, Much of that was true of Queen Elizabeth II, though even she found ways to indicate political preferences such as during the Scottish Independence referendum.  Nor were those things always true of her.  The experience and wisdom came with age but that meant a change of dynamics. In the early days, she was more dependent on the advice of older, more experienced politicians and that perhaps helps explains some of the more controversial failings of the monarchy during her reign.  If she was seen as a-political then that may be partly due to her coming to the throne so young before her own views could become publicly known.  Charles lacks that advantage because I think we know by now where his instincts lie on a number of big issues.  As for moral virtue and servant leadership, such qualities are clearly not hereditary.  In fact, the Queen’s reign looks pretty unique in that regards against the historical backdrop as well as the shenanigans of her offspring. 

If, there is perhaps one argument for keeping the monarchy, it is this.  It comes back to the invitation to swear allegiance to the King on Saturday.  The monarchy personifies loyalty and national identity. This is often seen as a bad thing but I wonder if it is potentially good.  That our allegiance is to a person, separated out from party politics in many ways keeps our feet on the ground.  Even as we sing “long to reign over us” we are reminded that even if he lives as long as his mother, then it isn’t for ever.  He is likely to be rarely “happy and glorious.” 

And the alternative? In the end, unless you have a tyrant, especially a North Korean type with delusions of deity, then your allegiance/loyalty tends to be towards the state and whilst that is presented as positive, I think there can be dangers too.  When we start swearing allegiance to the flag, when we sing (as alternatives to the National Anthem do) of the mythical glories of our country, there is something potentially idolatrous there. I cannot avoid reflecting again too on the ugliness of Christian Nationalism as it has arisen in the United States. 

Now, that’s not a slam dunk argument for monarchy but should we reach a stage when we choose to replace it, then it will be something that Christians need to consider carefully.   

This weekend, I’ll enjoy the spectacle, the sense of historical occasion.  I’ll recognise too that as a Christian I do have a civic obligation to those placed in authority over me -primarily to pray for them. I might end up saying the oath of allegiance or I may not. I won’t lose any sleep though over the future of the monarchy and I’m quite happy for others to disagree.  I also will be quite relieved to turn up at church on Sunday without the service becoming an extension of the coronation event.  I do feel strongly  and passionately that it shouldn’t infiltrate through. That’s definitely the place to remember who our true and ultimate king is.  Being a staunch republican is a legitimate position to take, as is being an ardent monarchist.  It’s perfectly legitimate and may well be positively a good thing to be ambivalent too!

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