Sermon for Solemn Evensong & Benediction Sunday 3 June 2012
Sermon preached by Fr. Julian Browning at Evensong and Benediction on Trinity Sunday, 3 June 2012.
In her Christmas broadcast before her Coronation, the Queen said: “I ask you all whatever your religion may be to pray for me on that day – to pray that God may give me the wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him, and you, all the days of my life.” I remember as a boy visits to musty country churches where a cheeky inventory of the vicar’s stall would reveal, among the State Prayers, that the incumbent was still praying for Queen Alexandra, Arthur Duke of Connaught, and maybe even for Albert Edward Prince of Wales, soon to be, however unlikely a candidate, Edward the Seventh by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, and of the British Dominions beyond the Seas, Defender of the Faith and Emperor of India.
Jubilee celebrates faithfulness over time, faithfulness to a calling, and today for Her Majesty it is a dynastic calling, which ironically means yielding control, not seizing it, subordinating personal choices to the national good. Her calling is the same as any Christian vocation, the call to faithfulness over time, yielding control to to a higher power, attempting a disciplined lifestyle in the kingdom of God. We pray for purity of heart, reducing the level of inner division, ending the double life. For a monarch, the ideal is the same, a unity, the unity of all her peoples, in the one person. And irrespective of a few national emergencies and some unfortunate personal choices, this double act of Church and the Monarchy goes back to the Coronation of Edward the Confessor and beyond. Our monarchy is sacramental, connecting our world to the sacred kingship of Biblical times, a Christian monarchy symbolised at the Coronation by the orb surmounted by a cross.
Our God is the Holy Trinity. This is how God disclosed himself to us, as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a problem to be solved, it is a faith to be lived. So God is not really a monarch, a supreme being, the unmoved mover of all that is. God is a communion of divine persons, so intense in love that He is one God. Our ideas about God have changed and developed, and so it has seemed wrong to many to have a monarch in a position of authority in a church. The connection between God and the rulers of earthly kingdoms is not obvious now. Fair enough, but then the liberal, anti-monarchical bandwagon began to roll, and all my life I have listened to these very plausible arguments, usually from the clergy. We are supposed to be worshipping God not upholding human national institutions. We’re the universal church not a national church. We’re on the side of the poor and disadvantaged, not the privileged royal court. We’re not really the state church any more, so we shouldn’t support the status quo. But it’s all vanity, self-regarding moral superiority, arising from one error. The Church of England does not uphold the monarchy. The monarchy upholds the Church of England, and in so doing the monarch protects a society in which the social radicalism of the Gospel can still be proclaimed. So the nation has a Christian identity. The Queen is not head of the Church; she is the Supreme Governor, defender or protector. Without such a Governor, we’d be nowhere. The present reign is an outstanding example of royal devotion to the Church, however turbulent the priesthood might have become; the Queen leads by example, she leads her people to the altar of God. History tells the same story. The Anglican church followed the Empire, thrived under the Pax Britannica. Where there was no British Empire, as in China, no progress was made. Like it or not, our Church depended at times on the Queen’s battleships, and on the rule of law, and at home our parish system, our hierarchies, and our Church laws, are inextricably bound up with the state machine and a constitutional monarchy.
It’s stating the obvious to say that this close Church-State relationship carries great risks. There have been horrible times, far worse than the ecclesiastical vandalism which depresses us today. Fortunately the Anglican church has been strong on a private devotion which takes us into the presence of the Holy Trinity when more public attempts fail. In the early nineteenth century church, John Henry Newman noted: “a dreariness which could be felt … forcing itself upon the eye, the near, the nostril of the worshipper; a smell of dust and damp, not of incense, a sound of ministers preaching Catholic prayers, and parish clerks droning out Catholic canticles; the Royal Arms for the Crucifix; ugly huge boxes of wood, sacred to preachers, frowning upon the congregation in the place of the mysterious Altar; and the long Cathedral aisles unused, railed off like tombs (as they were) of what had been and was not.” Actually that doesn’t sound too bad now, does it? I’d settle for that. Better than Christ the Clown and flag dancing. Have you seen “flag dancing” in church? Barefoot damsels gyrating? The Queen does not impose any uniformity on the Church she defends. So anything goes. Here’s an ordination in 1841 by the Bishop of Winchester at Farnham Palace: “Lastly the Bishop entered, wearing the Order of the Garter. He smiled blandly, the menservants rushed to the Altar Gates – they flew open – the Bishop entered – they closed – the men-servants retired. A hymn was given out – The Bishopess arose and led the singing, leaning gracefully over the pew door. Even at the very moment when silence is kept awhile, the Bishop’s wife commenced singing the Veni Creator Spiritus.” This Church and many others in that period were founded to restore Catholic worship to the Church of England, to reform from within, not to destroy her unity by setting up an alternative authority, but to stress the importance of continuity, succession in office as well as consecration. The Church of England remains, enduring, yet evolving, like monarchy. The image here is of lines of priests and bishops going back to Apostolic times, like lineage of royalty, which is itself mirrored by Biblical themes of royal descent, the line of David, the succession of prophets, priests and kings leading to Jesus, all this delivered to us in our time in the language of our worship which is so jam packed full of words of majesty, royalty, crowns, sceptres, thrones, kings and princes, that after one of our services, you probably find yourselves bowing all the way home.
Today we honour the Queen for her unstinting service to Church and Commonwealth. Some say we are lucky to have such a wonderful Queen. Luck has nothing to do with it. Our monarchy is an act of divine providence, God working through those whom he has anointed in his service. Today we express our gratitude to God for the Queen, and to the Queen for her Supreme Governorship of our Church. That is why it is not just a privilege, but a duty for every Anglican clergyman to acclaim from the pulpit on this day, on behalf of the whole people of God, GOD SAVE THE QUEEN.
Sermon preached by Fr Julian Browning