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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Power, Justice and Mercy: on the 60th anniversary of the Coronation

60 years ago today, Elizabeth the Second was crowned Queen. We are celebrating the diamond jubilee of this event at evensong this afternoon. Last year, at the time of the Accession, I explored the significance of the monarchy in the 21st century. One insight, I said, is how monarchy is not only a symbol of who we are and how we understand ourselves as a nation state; at its best it points beyond itself and beyond ourselves to the rule of Christ the King and the celestial city whose builder and maker is God.  And if its exemplar is Christ whose throne is the cross and who washes his people’s feet, it follows that the essence of monarchy is consecration to the service of her people: ‘whoever would be great among you must be your servant, for I am among you as one who serves’.

This is part 2 of that sermon. And because this weekend’s commemoration focuses on the ceremony in Westminster Abbey in 1953, I want to draw out a further aspect of monarchy from one of the most important elements in the coronation service.

Coronation rites have a long and rich history. They reach back into pre-Christian times where in every society, the king was seen as the deity’s representative on earth, set apart to express divine sovereignty among human beings and to intercede for them in a priestly way before heaven. Ancient Israel learned kingship from her neighbours in a manner that was not altogether approved of by some prophets: ‘give us a king like all the nations’ was a plea that always threatened the faith of the wilderness where the Hebrews had learned that God alone was their king. But monarchy established itself soon after the Israelites settled in their land: first Saul, then David and finally Solomon, the last and grandest king to preside over the one nation before it fell apart in the reign of his successor.

The ceremonies that made Solomon king are told of in well-known words that we shall hear in Handel’s famous coronation anthem this afternoon: ‘Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet anointed Solomon king. And all the people rejoiced and said: ‘God save the king!’ Today’s Old Testament reading takes us on into his reign, though it still belongs to its promising beginning, before corruption and decline set in. As a sacral king, Solomon is charged to defend the faith of his people. This he demonstrates by building the first temple in Jerusalem at God’s command. Today we heard part of his prayer of dedication. Solomon invokes the promises of which the temple will be the focus. It will be a symbol of mercy, kindness and generous love. The people are to ‘pray towards this house’, and see it as a source of life and forgiveness; even the foreigner, says the prayer. And these words echo the Deuteronomic view that what is true of the temple is true of the king himself. Both institutions, monarchy and church, will be signs of the covenant between God and his people: symbols of loyalty, justice, and enduring love.

The first English coronation ceremony for which we have a text dates back to Saxon times with the coronation of King Edgar in Bath Abbey in 973. Elements of the modern rite are drawn directly from Edgar’s, appropriately as he was the first king of all England. Here is his coronation oath:
These three things I promise in Christ’s name to the Christian people subject to me. First, that the church of God and the whole Christian people shall have true peace at all time by our judgment; second, that I will forbid extortion and all kinds of wrongdoing to all orders of men; third, that I will enjoin equity and mercy in all judgments, that God, who is kind and merciful, may vouchsafe his mercy to me and to you. 

60 years ago, Elizabeth took the oath answering ‘I will’ to questions put to her by the Archbishop of Canterbury, among them this which quotes words from King Edgar ten centuries earlier: ‘Will you to your power cause Law and Justice, in Mercy, to be executed in all your judgments?’  I will!  It must have reminded her forcibly of her marriage vows; indeed, coronation is nothing less than the marriage of the Sovereign to her people. But it also has echoes of ordination promises, and here again, and in the anointing, there is more than an echo of the ordination liturgy. Indeed, I think it is better not to speak of coronation so much as consecration, for the entire ceremony is the consecration of the monarch to royal service of which her crowning is the climactic event.

The words of the whole coronation oath are momentous.  They promise sound governance, fidelity to the laws of God, defence of the Christian faith, and as Supreme Governor of the Church of England, making a true profession of the gospel.  But to me this phrase about executing law and justice with mercy is especially revealing in what it says about leadership, for these words link royal power with the virtues of religion: ‘law and justice, in mercy’. This is what God himself is like, and this is how his servant the Sovereign is to be too. It is how Jesus is in today’s gospel reading. The centurion makes unquestioning authority the basis of his appeal to Jesus to heal his slave. Jesus is moved, and acts precisely by demonstrating power through an act of compassion.

There is a Prayer Book collect with a striking opening: ‘O Lord, who showeth thy almighty power most chiefly in showing mercy and pity’. That is an extraordinary claim to make when we think about it; and yet it is how our faith portrays him: a principled trustworthy ethical deity whose kindness is at the very core of his power and authority. God does not do coersive power; he only knows the cruciform power of mercy and pity: cross-shaped because Golgotha shows us what it looks like. And if God is like this, then monarchy and every other kind of leadership in state, church and society needs to emulate it too if it is to lead with integrity.

This is more difficult than it sounds in a world where everything is allowed and nothing is forgiven; where litigation makes the possibility of mercy practically impossible, where our lives are governed by compliance. How can anyone dare to be merciful in such an environment? In her Reith Lectures a decade ago, Honora O’Neill questioned whether such micro-management of human life was compatible with wise, noble, humane values, as if what matters is not what is good and virtuous but merely what is compliant and legal. If mercy and pity are at the heart of God’s exercise of power and are embedded in the Coronation Oath, then all leadership must embody the graces, virtues and character that belong to the greater authority to whom, whether we know it or not, we are accountable as citizens and subjects of the kingdom of God.

Portia in Merchant of Venice famously speaks about this. She says:  

The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest:
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.
Tis mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch better than his crown.
His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings.
But mercy is above this sceptered sway;
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings;
It is an attribute of God himself;
And earthly power doth then show like God's
When mercy seasons justice.

On this anniversary, we give thanks once again the faithfulness with which as a Christian queen, Elizabeth has consecrated herself to live her coronation vow. We celebrate her obedience to this vocation: unlooked for, unwanted, thrust upon her by history, yet lived out for 6 decades with dignity and wisdom. Leadership wedded to humane discipleship is a gift to any people. Today we honour it once more. 

(1 Kings 8.22-23, 41-43; Luke 7.1-10)

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