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More On Royalty And Republicanism From One Christian Perspective

Following my last post, and especially the initial comment by Phil Ritchie, I thought I would write a little more, especially as Phil asked about a Methodist perspective. What follows is entirely my own views.

I nearly became an Anglican. I had grown up in Methodism, and sensed God calling me to something – I didn’t know what – and to explore that I ended up studying Theology as an independent student at Trinity College, Bristol, an evangelical Anglican theological college.

While I was there, my calling crystallised. It was the ordained ministry. However, did I stay in my native Methodism or follow the highly attractive advertisement I was seeing for Anglicanism at Trinity?

Many factors came into play in making my decision, some pro- and some anti- both traditions. For the purposes of this discussion, there were two that I found decisive in feeling  I could not go over to the Church of England. One was knowing that if I changed, I would have to be confirmed by a bishop in the so-called ‘historic succession’ as if I had never been a Christian before. That seemed – and still seems – to be a denial of the Holy Spirit’s work in my life prior to any such time. That was the most fundamental objection I had.

The second reason was that I couldn’t come to terms with the idea of an Established Church. Tying the church to the structures of government was to risk seduction by privilege, wealth and power. I didn’t regard it as being as insurmountable, but I cringed every time I saw an ordinand kneel (or even prostrate themselves) before a bishop and take the Oath of Allegiance.

The reason I don’t see the Oath of Allegiance as an insurmountable objection (although I’m uncomfortable with it) is because Article 37 of the C of E’s Thirty-Nine Articles, ‘Of the Civil Magistrates’, can be read simply to affirm that Christians respect those in civil authority. It just happens to be with the monarch in this country:

The Queen’s Majesty hath the chief power in this Realm of England, and other her Dominions, unto whom the chief Government of all Estates of this Realm, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Civil, in all causes doth appertain, and is not, nor ought to be, subject to any foreign Jurisdiction.

Where we attribute to the Queen’s Majesty the chief government, by which Titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended; we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify; but only that prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.

That it should be used by bloggers such as Cranmer to accuse Pete Broadbent of not believing the Church of England’s doctrine by virtue of being a republican seems to push the language too far. It depends what import you put on the phrase ‘godly Princes’. Does that and must that merely invoke royal rulers? Romans 13 is more general about authority, even if it is written under the Roman Empire.

Those who fervently defend the connection of the Church of England to the monarchy should remember how equivocal (to put it mildly) Scripture is about royalty, something that Article 37 potentially overlooks. When Israel demands a king from Samuel, the Lord says it is a sign they have rejected him. They want a fashion accessory, and kings come with a record of oppression, was the reply. And in the New Testament, where there is no option but to live under Caesar, while his rule is respected, his claim to lordship is emphatically denied.

Royalists may counter that a republic brings all sorts of ugly notions, and until a few years ago they raised the spectre of Cherie Blair as First Lady. Yes, all forms of power and authority come with risk. The quasi-messianism of some who campaigned for Barack Obama should make us queasy, too.

But insofar as I understand these things, a biblical approach to authority includes the following:

1. Respect those who are called to rule;

2. Do not exalt them beyond their status as human sinners;

3. Be prepared to call them to account.

4. Pray for them.

Can a constitutional monarchy fit this description? Can Christians put their names to it. Can a republic? The calling to account seems to be the issue for me. How is an institution called to account when the eldest son automatically succeeds to the throne? And for a republic or democracy, does calling to account become corrupted to a desire merely for what the people fancy?

Maybe I am neither a royalist nor a republican.

Ancient And Modern

My friend Rob Ryan is an Anglican pioneer minister on the staff of Rochester Cathedral. What pioneering stuff does he do? Well, in among the outreach to the Wetherspoon’s community, he does such groundbreaking stuff as, er, the Book of Common Prayer. On Sunday morning, he tweeted:

8am BCP … ugh! when are people gonna realise even God is still asleep at such a time on a Sunday morning

Which took my mind to the question of why people continue to prefer these forms of worship. In one respect’, continued devotion to the Book of Common Prayer is surely contrary to the spirit of Cranmer, who wanted worship to be ‘in a tongue understanded of the people’. It isn’t a phenomenon limited to traditional Anglicans: there are equivalents in other streams of Christianity. In Methodism, it might be those who insist on a certain proportion of Charles Wesley hymns in an act of worship.

So what are the reasons, good and bad, for people clinging to forms of worship from bygone eras?

A good reason might be theology. Sometimes the older forms express a depth of theology, or they include important aspects that are neglected in contemporary music and liturgy. Another Anglican friend of mine, Brian Kelly, once said to me that BCP was good for emphasis on the Cross, whereas the modern liturgies were better on the Resurrection. Methodists might identify with this. Scour the eucharistic prayers in our 1999 Methodist Worship Book and you will find few references to the Cross as atonement. Not substitution, representation, Christus Victor, exemplarism or any other theory you care to mention. Most of the references to Christ’s death in those prayers seem to be necessary staging post on the way to celebrating his conquest of death. (Which I’m not against! But something vital is routinely omitted.)

Similarly, you will find a richness of theological expression in Wesley’s hymns that you rarely encounter in contemporary hymns and worship songs. Simplicity is good, too, but not as the sole diet.

A poor reason would be aesthetics. Yes, the language of ancient rites is beautiful to many people, but who or what is then being worshipped? Is this a vehicle for worship, or is idolatry going on here? Take this to its logical conclusion and you will employ a pair of scissors on the Scriptures. You will retain the Shakespearean Hebrew of Job, but cut out the tabloid Greek of Mark’s Gospel.

Another poor reason would be escapism. I find this approach used as a way to baptise a strong disconnect from everyday life. This is the holy stuff, not those modern songs and liturgies. The same people who endorse older worship forms at criticise modern ones have, in my experience, also been the people who had discos for their silver wedding celebrations. There is a serious lack of integration.

None of this is to say that all things modern are automatically correct, nor that we can completely comprehend God in worship. Both such propositions are ridiculous. But it is to ask, would you add anything to my list of good and bad reasons? Do you have a constructive critique of my thoughts?

By the way, after BCP this morning, Rob tweeted again:

now experiencing the good side of 8am BCP … a big ‘spoons breakfast and a large black coffee mmmmm 🙂