Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 17th June 2012
17 June 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
Just over the river from Westminster Abbey you will find a slightly younger, but no less illustrious, religious institution on the south bank of the Thames.
Lambeth Palace, originally conceived of as a college for Augustinian monks, became in the twelfth-century London home of the Archbishop of Canterbury – the spiritual leader of the Church in England and, after the Reformation, of the Church of England.
To mark the 350th anniversary of the Book of Common Prayer, the distinctive liturgy of the Church of England, and of the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, Lambeth Palace is hosting an exhibition entitled ‘Monarchy and the Book of Common Prayer’.
It’s well worth a visit, if you’re able, from Tuesdays – Saturdays until 14th July 2012.
Some of the artefacts are familiar and recognisable – the order of service from the Marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton, The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, last year complete with the Archbishop’s hand-written notes in green ink. An exquisite book of prayers and meditations prepared by the then Archbishop, Geoffrey Fisher in 1953 entitled: ‘For the Queen: a little book of private devotions in preparation for Her Majesty’s coronation’.
The points of continuity are touching, poignant, and deeply moving. But there’s more to see.
Thomas Abell was Chaplain to Katherine of Aragon, Henry VIII’s ill-fated first wife. Despite immense pressure to support the king’s cause in seeking a divorce from Queen Katherine, Abell remained completely loyal to his mistress and penned a book: Invicta veritas (unconquered Truth). An answere, That by no manner of law, it may be lawfull for the most noble King of England, King Henry the eight to be divorced from the queens grace, his lawfull and very wife’. What is striking is that King Henry himself reviewed the book and, in his own hand, struck out the words – ‘his lawfull and very wife’.
Change was very definitely on the way: it was this divorce that led to the distinctively English Reformation and the acknowledgement of the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
Or again, nearby, stands the beautiful book of prayers for Queen Elizabeth I, entitled: ‘Christians Prayers and meditations in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Greeke, and Latine’, showing her to be indeed a woman of great learning.
The next item, however, shows a rather different reflection on Christian monarchy: it is the execution warrant of Mary Queen of Scots (1st February 1587), her first cousin once removed, found guilty of participation in a plot to assassinate Elizabeth and return the kingdom to the Roman Catholic faith. Elizabeth signed the warrant in her own hand.
Change in those days often meant bloody, political, religious, visceral deracination.
So, Continuity and Change.
In this sermon series during June, I have been speaking about the Monarchy in relation to the Christian faith. I began on the weekend of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations here in London by speaking about the two meanings of ‘Jubilee’, both as a celebration and as a liberation.
Last week I moved on to consider how the Bible treats the subject of kingship – with a great deal of ambiguity, it has to be said. Jesus’ own life is couched in royal terms throughout – the anointed one, born in David’s city of David’s line, ‘King of the Jews’, but nonetheless Jesus turned the people’s expectation up-side-down as he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey: he truly was the servant king.
So, what of ‘Continuity and Change’ in our own day, and how does that relate to a Christian understanding of monarchy?
Extraordinarily, one of the very real points of continuity for the current Monarch relates to this Abbey Church. As you leave this service in a moment, you will have the opportunity to visit the Chapter House on the east side of the Cloister in which there is a fine exhibition of photographs from the Getty Images charting Elizabeth II’s association with this church.
It is an extraordinary series of photographs: Princess Elizabeth as a young child with her sister Margaret. Her father’s Coronation in 1937. Her wedding to Prince Philip. The 1953 Coronation. Last year’s royal wedding.
There is a personal story of faith to be told and to be heard – the major landmarks of life which many will relate to: birth, marriage, and death. These are the waters which individuals navigate day-by-day and in so doing experience the love of God and the struggle for wisdom and faith in the midst of the joys and calamities which befall us. These are reminders that continuity does not always mean a smooth ride.
But there are also reminders of significant change: at the time of the last Coronation a significant part of the population agreed that the monarch was divinely chosen for the role, they were ‘elect of God’ for a sacred vocation. This is a question now deemed by pollsters to be so absurd that it does not even feature in questionnaires.
The tangible decline in deference and respect for all forms of institutionalised authority has, at times, born sharply upon the wider Royal Family but is nothing new. Immediately after the 1953 Coronation, critics of the monarchy spoke of ‘monarcholatry’, as Malcolm Muggeridge put it in 1956: 'true religion is in danger of being driven out by the royal soap opera … a sort of substitute or ersatz religion'.
But the current monarch was clearly aware of the potential and, indeed, the likelihood of continuity and change, when she broadcast a speech – as her father had done so before her – at the Christmas after his death. No longer the King’s Speech: now it was the Queen’s Speech.
The text is remarkable both for it’s deep roots in the Christian understanding of kingship, but also for its clarity of insight into what was lying ahead. This is what she said:
'At my Coronation next June, I shall dedicate myself anew to your service. I shall do so in the presence of a great congregation, drawn from every part of the Commonwealth and Empire, while millions outside Westminster Abbey will hear the promises and the prayers being offered up within its walls, and see much of the ancient ceremony in which Kings and Queens before me have taken part through century upon century.
'You will be keeping it as a holiday; but I want to ask you all, whatever your religion may be, to pray for me on that day - to pray that God may give me 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.'
In these few words, the not-yet-crowned Queen Elizabeth located herself in the ancient roots of the Old Testament anointing, the English tradition of coronation at Westminster Abbey going back to William the Conqueror, the vision of a global environment changing from Empire to Commonwealth, and a life-long personal commitment to a sacred vocation.
And, of course, it just needs to be said, plainly and simply, that to see life as a sacred vocation, a period on earth in the service of God, is by no means a royal prerogative.
It is the vocation of every Christian believer.