Sermon given at Matins on Trinity Sunday 2012
3 June 2012 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence
I’m not entirely sure that this is the correct way to congratulate anyone on the celebration of their Jubilee – but if you’re visiting London this weekend, you can’t help but notice that we’re right in the middle of a great festival of celebration, marking the Diamond Jubilee of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Her accession to the throne came on the death of her father George VI in February 1952, though the coronation was not until June of the following year – the sixtieth anniversary of which will be marked next year.
Over the next month at these Matins sermons, I will be looking at different aspects of the Monarchy in relation to Christian faith – its origins in the Bible; the role of the monarch in relation to Church and State; and finally continuity and adaptability in the face of global change.
But today I want to begin, appropriately enough, with the celebration of the Jubilee. The word ‘jubilee’ is itself a biblical word, coming from the Hebrew לּבּיּ/ 'yobel' which means a ‘ram’s horn’, something you blew on to attract attention or to make an announcement. It came to mean a great shout of joy!
The celebratory side of jubilee is something we know well in this Matins service as each week we hear the choir sing, as we did this morning, the Jubilate – ‘O be joyful in the Lord, all ye lands’. So a time of celebration and rejoicing – whether it’s in a flotilla on the river Thames or being very British and ignoring the rain or at a street party among neighbours as we’ll do here in the Abbey or at a great service of Thanksgiving at St Paul’s on Tuesday.
And there’s another side to Jubilee to which the Bible points – the tradition which goes right back to the book of Leviticus – and is the root of the marking of multiples of fifty years as significant: 'Consecrate the fiftieth year and proclaim liberty through the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a Jubilee for you: each one is to return to his family property and each to his own clan' (Leviticus 25: 10).
This kind of Jubilee was marked by the freeing up of property rights to land, slaves, and indentured servants, so-called 'possessions' which could not be held in perpetuity. This was part of the Holiness Code in Leviticus – after forty-nine years of labour and intensive use, the land was treated to a sabbatical year and property was returned to its original owners. In effect, land and slaves could only be leased rather than bought freehold.
So ‘Jubilee’ is about celebration, having a party, having something to shout about – but there’s a longer-term perspective, a richer and deeper seam which makes the difference between an anniversary – simply notching up a number of years – and a jubilee, which speaks of freedom, liberation and redemption: freedom from permanent indebtedness, the possibility of redemption, our liberation being bought at a price. In a world plagued by literal indebtedness, perhaps this has particular resonance.
In the Christian Church the idea of a Jubilee was institutionalised and spiritualised by Pope Boniface VIII in 1300 when a Jubilee year of forgiveness of sins was established. In the Papal Bull Antiquorum fida relatio 'great remissions and indulgences for sins' were promised which could be obtained 'by visiting the city of Rome' and in particular making a pilgrimage to St Peter’s Basilica.
This tradition has continued over the last 700 years at intervals of twenty-five and fifty years, most recently marked by the great Jubilee in 2000 to herald the Third Millennium.
So Jubilee is a time of celebration, but one with a religious underlay – which seems to be exactly what is taking place this weekend. Alongside the pomp and circumstance, the parades and the flotilla, there are quieter words and calmer voices.
If we listen carefully, underpinning it all lie ‘duty’, ‘service’, ‘vocation’, ‘sacrifice’; words which sound as if they come from a different era, speaking to us of a different age, we might almost say ‘Victorian’ ethics of public service. In truth, these are Christian virtues. And it’s no surprise, perhaps, that the only other monarch in the United Kingdom to have celebrated a Diamond Jubilee was Queen Victoria herself, whose Jubilee to mark sixty years on the throne fell in 1897.
What is undoubtedly true is that those Christian virtues of ‘duty’, ‘service’, ‘vocation’, and ‘sacrifice’ – which have often seemed out-of-fashion, out-of-sync with the modes of the day – have underpinned a remarkable period of personal self-giving on the part of the current monarch, rooted in the solemn oaths taken at the Coronation service just feet from where we are today. And perhaps this self-giving, so clearly itself an expression of Christian faith, is itself derived from a jubilee of sorts because freedom is not merely ‘freedom from’, a liberation from debt, slavery or sin, but a ‘freedom to’, freedom to serve, freedom to give, freedom to commit to a life of vocation.
And having, over the past sixty years, had weekly audiences with no less than thirteen Prime Ministers, there can be no sense that ‘freedom’ is in any way a disengagement or distance from the real world of politics or national life. Quite the opposite as the Queen recently reminded a joint gathering of both Houses of Parliament of the more than 3,500 Bills she has signed into Law.
But we should take seriously a category of public life which is now so counter-cultural, so against the grain, that we have lost the language adequately to express it. We have become habituated to speaking of ‘office-holder’, ‘elected representative’, even ‘celebrity’. But for one whose almost entire adult life has been framed by vocation, it is difficult to frame.
In fact, the English language supplies us with a word to describe this setting-apart-for-service, this liberation-for-a-life-of-duty, this lifetime-of-vocation. To use the word ‘ordination’ in this context is not to imply the adoption of priestly orders, though the Coronation has been likened to a bishop’s enthronement, but to acknowledge that a sacred oath taken on a wet Tuesday in June 1953 is a sacred oath to be realised and lived out on a blustery Sunday in June 2012.
And for that, we give God heartfelt thanks.