By Gordon L. Heath
In a recent CBC interview, Stephen Fry pointed out that one of the advantages of the British system of government is that once a week prime ministers have to go before the Queen and bow, a poignant reminder that they are not the most important person in the nation.1 They are, in fact, to be humble servants of the people.
That is fine, you may say, for keeping prime ministers in check, but who keeps the monarchs from grandiose visions of their own self-importance? Who or what subverts the claims of absolute power?
Last weekend we saw the subversive possibilities inherent in the structures of Christendom. The event was the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, in particular the preaching of Bishop Michael Curry to the young couple.2
What was on display was centuries-old tradition of the Church of England’s role in the public and political life of the nation. My point is not whether the church has lived up to its high calling, but what the church’s public role permits (and expects) it to do. And in the case of weddings (or funerals, accessions, coronations, etc.), the church is granted a voice to address the monarchy and nation.
Such events are an opportunity to provide comfort, instruction, and inspiration. They also provide an opportunity to subvert power.
When the liturgy itself includes references to the “King of Kings” monarchs are reminded that they are not at the top of the pecking order. (That very phrase alone is subversive of any monarch’s claim to absolute power.)3
When the crown is placed on the head of new monarchs by the Archbishop of Canterbury, they are reminded that their royal power is granted by God. (That very act alone is subversive of any monarch’s claim to absolute power.)
And when monarchs have to sit at the feet of a preacher and hear the Word of God they are reminded that there is a power that is above their own. Just like the prime minister who has to bow before a monarch, Kings and Queens, and a young prince and his wife, have to bow in recognition that there is a higher power that they too must submit to (so rule accordingly!).
Critics of all-things Christendom were no doubt cringing as they watched the fusion of church and state that are a part of the civil and religious structure of British life. Yet at the same time, some may have found themselves secretly longing for a system of governance that provided such opportunities for church leaders to remind rulers of the pecking order of the universe.
Ironically, Christendom is a model of governance that is perhaps – by its very structures, liturgy, and traditions – one of the most subversive church-state models available. No wonder some political rulers, vexed at hearing reminders of limits of their power, would like nothing better than to dispense with it forthwith. For such rulers, a “church on the margins” – out of sight and out of mind – would be a dream come true.
3. How is this for a subversive wording in the Book of Common Prayer: “Lord our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes,…”
*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of McMaster Divinity College or the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.*