The Very Reverend Dr John Hall, Dean of Westminster
On Tuesday evening this week, two days ago, we welcomed to the Abbey for Evensong, and thereafter for a tour and reception, all 181 new Members of Parliament elected by their constituents in the United Kingdom General Election a week ago today. They were accompanied by officials of the House of Commons and senior re-elected MPs. A good proportion of the new MPs attended. It was planned in conjunction with their induction to the position to which they have been elected and which they will be taking up formally next week when they swear or affirm allegiance to Her Majesty The Queen. Following that, the parliamentary process will get under way as people prepare for a new session on 27th May when The Queen attends the Palace of Westminster for the State Opening of Parliament.
Last Sunday, The Queen was here at the Abbey with The Duke of Edinburgh, The Prince of Wales and other Members of the Royal Family, together with the Prime Minister and other Ministers, the First Minister of the Scottish Government, representatives of other devolved administrations and of various political parties, senior representatives of the armed and civilian Services and the diplomatic representatives of Commonwealth and other nations, friends and former enemies alike. They were here to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory in Europe. Over 500 veterans of the Second World War attended the service with partners or other carers. The Queen and Prince Philip were at home amongst the veterans of a war in which they both served.
These two separate events have a link which can further be illustrated by another anecdote. On the day of Victory in Europe in 1945, the House of Commons and the House of Lords, the two Houses of Parliament, met to reflect on the end of the war in Europe and to hear a speech from the Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The Prime Minister concluded his speech in the House of Commons with these words, 'I recollect well at the end of the last war, more than a quarter of a century ago, that the House … desired to offer thanks to Almighty God, to the Great Power which seems to shape and design the fortunes of nations and the destiny of man; and I therefore beg … to move: That this House do now attend at the Church of St Margaret, Westminster, to give humble and reverent thanks to Almighty God for our deliverance.' In the House of Lords, Lord Woolton repeated the Prime Minister's speech and concluded with the same sentiment, 'I beg to move that this House do attend this day at Westminster Abbey to give thanks to Almighty God on the occasion of the cessation of hostilities in Europe.'
The Members of Parliament trooped across the road, led by The Speaker and Prime Minister to St Margaret's next door, the Parish Church of the House of Commons. The members of the House of Lords joined 25,000 people who queued round the block to join one of the hourly services that continued from early in the morning to late in the evening on that memorable day.
These accounts of events in the 20th and 21st centuries all point in the same direction and have the same important meaning: that all human authority is authority under God. And that is well understood in our national way of doing things. It is also of course one of the important messages of Ascension Day, which we celebrate today.
We heard it in the second lesson from the letter to the Ephesians. St Paul has been reflecting on the power of God working in the believer by God's grace. He went on, 'God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.' The words 'above all things' do not mean that our Lord Jesus Christ in the Ascension to heaven has definitively gone away, leaving us all as it were to cope in his absence. His authority as the Son of God, crucified, risen, ascended to heaven works in the world. St Paul went on, 'And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.'
'All things under his feet' means that everything in heaven and earth is subject to his just and gentle rule. And all human authority has therefore to be exercised as service, service under God. This is powerfully expressed in many ways that are accepted as part of the British way of life and perhaps not taken into account quite as they should be.
Take the example I referred to earlier. The new Members of Parliament have their own legitimacy. They have been elected by their constituents winning the votes of a majority of those people registered for the purpose. That is democracy in action. And the Prime Minister, as head of government, is the leader of the political party with the most Members of Parliament or who can rely on the additional support of a majority of members of other parties. That again is democracy in action. And yet, the Prime Minister only becomes such when he is appointed to the position by The Queen. And Members of Parliament only become such formally when they swear a religious oath or affirm allegiance to The Queen. And Parliament can only begin to undertake its business of debate on matters of public interest and of legislation once The Queen has formally declared open the session of Parliament.
Moreover, in the United Kingdom, new citizens swear a religious oath or affirm allegiance to The Queen as Sovereign. The Monarch is the head of the Armed services, the Monarch appoints the judges on advice, the Monarch appoints the members of the House of Lords on advice, and the Monarch appoints Bishops on advice and all swear a religious oath or affirm allegiance to The Queen as Sovereign. The Monarch mostly on advice is the fount of honour. The advice comes from the Prime Minister but the authority is vested in The Queen.
And The Sovereign at his or her Coronation is anointed with holy oil in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, the anointed one, vested with sacred garments, handed symbols of authority under God—most notably the orb, a symbol of the whole world under the Cross—and crowned with the Crown of St Edward surmounted by a Cross. This has been the pattern for every coronation here in the Abbey since William the Conqueror was crowned here on Christmas Day 1066. The Monarch is set apart for service under God.
Is all this meaningless flummery, just words that add up to nothing very much, just a formal ceremony that bears no weight or significance? I believe and hope not. It is part of who and what we are as a nation. It goes back well beyond 1066 to the moment when St Edward the Confessor built his Palace next to the Abbey he had rebuilt.
Thus all authority is the authority of service. May it never simply be a matter of routine, taken for granted. May our whole lives and the authority we exercise be subject to the authority of our crucified, risen and ascended Lord.