‘The Crown’, the Monarchy and God

The_crown_logoOver Christmas I discovered Netflix for the first time, and enjoyed the entire first season of The Crown.[1] It is a quite remarkable piece of TV drama, most of all because of the way it explores the very basis for the British monarchy. TV dramas about the Royal family are usually cack-handedly dreadful, with ham acting, dreadful scripts and actors who look more like Bruce Forsyth than the Duke of Edinburgh. The Crown is almost entirely believable, with Lancaster House looking as opulent as Buckingham Palace, and the actors inhabiting their roles with an understated confidence and poise. It handles the death of George VI quite brilliantly (even down to the Royal embalmers!), and brings the spectacular of the coronation to life for the digital age.

What impressed me most was the dialogue in episode 4, where a frail but impressively matriarchal Queen Mary, herself with not long to live, advises the young Queen about her calling under God.

‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth. To give ordinary people an ideal to strive towards, an example of nobility and duty to raise them in their wretched lives. Monarchy is a calling from God. That is why you are crowned in an abbey, not a government building. Why you are anointed, not appointed. It’s an archbishop that puts the crown on your head, not a minister or public servant, which means that you are answerable to God in your duty, not the public.’

There is plenty to disagree with here, such as the dreadfully class-ridden assumption that the common people lead ‘wretched lives’, and it has to be said that the aristocracy have often provided a shocking example of debauchery and excess rather than ‘an example of nobility.’ However, behind the exalted language is a much derided idea that I think Christians need to rediscover: the biblical idea of nationhood includes the idea of kingdom rule under God. This is in stark contrast to the secular Enlightenment’s view that the people, the body politic, are sovereign, and our rulers answer to the voters above everything else.

When Tony Blair admitted on the Parkinson show that he would answer ultimately to God for the Iraq war, the former Labour spin doctor Derek Draper was heard to say on Newsnight, ‘Shouldn’t he be more worried about answering to the British electorate!’ This is the only point of reference left in British public life, the only lodestar by which to navigate, the only moral compass provided to today’s politicians. It must then seem very anachronistic to see Her Majesty the Queen talking so openly about her coronation on BBC1, and delighting in the ceremonial because of its rich Christian symbolism. Yet at the heart of the Coronation service, and the very idea of monarchy, lies an idea that never finds full expression in a republic: the authorities that exist are instituted by God. In the growing secular rush to rubbish the idea of monarchy, we are in great danger of losing sight of this idea, and then we wonder why our public life is in such decay.

The liberal-democratic understanding of nationhood has held sway for over two centuries since the American and French revolutions. It has many positives. Governments are democratically accountable, and can be dismissed by the will of the people. Citizenship makes all members of society of equal value, and democracy manifests itself not just in the voting system but in such aspects of life as a free press, the equal provision of education, welfare and healthcare, as well as the habits of a shared national discourse that gives a voice to the opinions of minority groups in society through the media. The right of self-government has led to the emergence of many new nation-states, first in the breakup of empires within Europe after the First World War, then by rolling independence in the developing world after the Second World War, and finally by the new freedoms enjoyed in post-communist states. This may sound like remarkable progress, but such an analysis is one-sided and all too optimistic.

My thinking has been shaped by the writing of Joan Lockwood O’Donovan in Bonds of Imperfection.[2] She surveys three secular understandings of nation. The ‘romantic nation’ is based on the idea that every nation must have its own state, defined by language and territory. This fed the new nationalisms of Europe across the nineteenth century as nation states emerged based on self-determination, a process that was accelerated by Woodrow Wilson in the Versailles treaty. Others followed the ‘civic nation’ idea, modelled in the French Revolution, that the citizens together constitute the state as the body politic, following Rousseau, regardless of language or origin. This has been exported to former colonies of the European powers, where it provides a ‘functional nation’ based on the institutions of the western model, but with little success. Across Europe in the twentieth century the emergence of smaller nation states produced a huge migration of refugees, a pattern tragically repeated in post-colonial Africa, followed later by the evils of ‘ethnic cleansing’. In a system with no spiritual values, the focus on economic progress became excessive, leading many nations into huge debt and economic chaos. O’Donovan is critical of the Christian response to these issues, arguing that Christians have tended to accept secular understandings of the nation state ‘without considering the older biblically-based theological tradition’. They have contributed to ‘the hegemony of the civic nation in the advanced West’ rather than challenging it. In civic societies, where most states place a firm separation between church and state, Christians have tacitly accepted the status quo, thereby giving in to an overarching secularism.

‘Running the gamut from deistic to agnostic to atheistic humanism, the advanced civic faith has already determined the unifying culture of political society and does not welcome theological intrusions into its self-understanding.’[3]

It is striking to realise that as European nations adopted the thinking of the Secular Enlightenment, and rejected a more traditional model of monarchy, they had to replace it with a new state religion, with weird and sometimes masonic rituals in Nazi states, or the cults of personality that typified the Communist era. When you take God out of public life, some form of idolatry has to take his place.

Joan Lockwood-O’Donovan asks us to return to the Old Testament, building her understanding of nationhood on the divinely revealed order for the nation of Israel. This is perhaps dangerous territory because it raises difficult issues of application today especially in the area of ‘the chosen nation’ and the dangerous ways that this concept has been abused over the centuries. I would also say that Israel’s existence as a nation was only a fleshing out of the principles set out in Genesis 10-11, that nations are defined by language, shared history and land, and that they flourish best when living under God, and fail most when, like Babel, they reject God and get sucked up into their own hubris. However, O’Donovan recognises the tension and her definition of nation successfully makes the transition from Old to New Testament.

In a sense, the nation remains what Israel revealed it to be – its constitutive elements have not changed: a government that gives judgements, laws, and protection from enemies, a population inhabiting a homeland, linked by historical, linguistic, and cultural ties, and bound authoritatively by customs, laws, and political judgements. But its theological significance has changed, its role as the divine economy ad extra has changed: it is no longer revealed to be the vehicle of salvation, but merely the guaranteed social space within which God’s saving work proceeds. It is revealed to belong to the Father’s sustaining governance of the world rather than his transforming governance through the Spirit of Christ.[4]

O’Donovan also emphasises that the power of government is vicariously exercised by those who rule as the ‘image’ of God as judge, ruling over all their subjects who are all created in his image, basing this view on Romans 13:1-7. This element is missing completely in democratic liberalism, where government is entirely by and for the people, which she calls ‘a self-seeking, lawless and idolatrous community.’[5] It should not be the will of the people that is the source of sovereignty, but rather that those who govern, however they receive their legitimate title, serve under God and receive their ultimate sovereignty from him, thereby constituting the nation as a reality.

I believe that O’Donovan is right in her analysis of the failure of the secular nation-state, and the evidence for that continues to mount. Where God’s sovereign rule is replaced by the will of the people as the ultimate authority, this inevitably means a slow path to chaos. As societies move further away from Judaeo-Christian values, the lawlessness that results leads governments to over-regulate, limiting freedom by an ever-increasing body of legislation, led by the mistaken notion that the response to any disaster should be more ‘government action’, because in the absence of God the only place to turn to is the state. Governments spend nearly half the national income, yet run huge deficits because the will to cover spending by taxation does not exist, while an underclass lives in long-term poverty. Failure to address these issues corrodes trust and breeds disillusionment. Democratic governments face a worrying decline in levels of voter participation, undermining their legitimacy.

When the script-writers of the Crown put into Queen Mary’s mouth these words ‘Monarchy is God’s sacred mission to grace and dignify the earth’, they were touching on something profound. (If anyone knows where the words came from, do let me know.) The difference between a republic and a monarchy is that the monarch serves under God, a principle expressed so vividly in the traditions of the Coronation service. I admit that this principle is briefly acknowledged in the US presidential oath of office by the four words ‘So help me God’, but it most richly embodied in the British tradition of constitutional monarchy. The monarch separates loyalty to the crown and the dignity and rule of the Kingdom from transient loyalties to elected politicians. Most important of all, as the monarch serves under God, he or she passes on the same principle to all who act in the name of the crown. United Kingdom judges sit on the bench beneath the royal crest (in some cases in the Queen’s Bench Division), reminding them that their authority to make judgements comes from the Crown, whose authority comes from God, who ordains the powers that be. We pay our taxes to ‘HMRC’ (Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs), in the hope that all government revenues will be spent with integrity by public servants who are stewards under God. Even the BBC, that growing bastion of secularism, has a royal charter, which in its original version in 1927 began with the words ‘George V, by the grace of God….’! In their own small ways these labels are merely emblems of a wider principle, that the United Kingdom still considers itself to be a kingdom under God. Every other state in the world is likewise a kingdom under God, whether it acknowledges this or not, exercising its role in the human cultural mandate.

As we look back 65 years this year to the Queen’s Coronation, and anticipate the day when the next king is crowned, we must as Christians argue the case for a Christian understanding of the state as kingdom, and show how the secular understanding of the nation-state continues to lead us down into selfish cultural decline.

[1] I have not seen season 2, and am advised that season 2 episode 7 contains an explicit sex scene.

[2] Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, “Nation, State and Civil Society in the Western Biblical Tradition”, in Oliver O’Donovan and Joan Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection – Christian Politics, Past and Present, (Grand Rapids, William Eerdmans, 2004) 276-295 .

[3] Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection, 283

[4] Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection, 285-86

[5] Lockwood O’Donovan, Bonds of Imperfection, 290

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