Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

June 4, 2012, 11:21 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, Sunday Jun 3rd 2012

If you go into almost any Spanish Church, even in the smallest village, you are likely to see a representation of Christ, life-sized or even larger, in some aspect of his Passion. It may be Christ the Captive, standing with hands bound, or Christ tied to the column to be scourged, or carrying his Cross, or on the cross, or lying in the tomb. Some of these images- Christ the captive, for instance, or carrying the cross- are dressed in royal robes. The intention is to underline the majesty of the sufferer: this is no ordinary prisoner, but a King. During Holy Week, this image is carried through the streets, always followed by a second image, that of the sorrowful Mother, dressed in gold and black, kneeling, her face full of anguish.

On this Trinity Sunday, we celebrate the Divine Majesty of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. I have preached on several occasions over the last few years on this Festival, and I shall simply remind you that in celebrating the Most Holy Trinity we are also acknowledging the indivisible Unity of God. We believe in one God, who expresses himself in a threefold manner. He is the Beginning from which all proceeds; he is the Truth and Exemplar on which everything is modelled; he is the Love which binds all together and motivates everything.

God has created the world so as to share his love. He has created living beings- ourselves- capable of knowing him and loving him. He has revealed his Wisdom most fully to us by uniting himself to a human nature, actually becoming a human being like us, without ceasing to be divine.

The great mystery of the world, I suppose, is human freedom. Some might say it is suffering, but that is not really a mystery. Given the actual construction of the world- a planet capable of producing earthquakes and tsunamis on the one hand, living organisms relatively frail and capable of feeling pain on the other- suffering is not a mystery. We can explain it in terms of physical causality. But human freedom, misused so that human beings deliberately kill and injure one another, how are we to explain that?

At the heart of the Christian Faith is the mystery of a suffering God. God, who is the Almighty Power from which the universe proceeds, not only accepts the limitations inherent in human existence, but allows himself to suffer the malice and cruelty of those he himself has made in his own image, and invited to share his happiness.

Love cannot be forced, or it is not true love. Love has to be free, it has to be a gift. If God had made a clockwork world, in which nothing ever went wrong, he would have made a world without love, and a world in which he could not express the fullness of his own love. The fullness of God’s Love is expressed in the Cross, in his total humiliation for our sakes. Christ is King of glory, now, because he first reigned from the cross. He is Lord, because first he was servant.

This weekend we are celebrating sixty years of the reign of our Queen. I believe we are extremely fortunate in this country, in that we have evolved a form of monarchy which is no longer about power, but only about service. If we look back to the sixteenth century, to the time of the Tudors, we see a monarchy almost entirely about power, absolute and intolerant of criticism. In the seventeenth century the Stuarts learned the hard way that their power was not absolute, and in the eighteenth century the Hanoverians learned that their power had to be shared with the people in a parliamentary system. This transition continued in the nineteenth century, with the long reign of Victoria. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the power that had once belonged to the Tudors had passed effectively and in its entirety into the hands of politicians, answerable to the electorate.

The present Queen’s grandfather and father understood and accepted that their role was not to rule but to reign, not to govern but to set an example of service to the nation, often setting aside their personal likings and preferences. King George VI- the king of my early childhood- through the dark days of the War, was truly a man of sorrows.

When he died, just over sixty years ago, there was a sense that a new era was opening. There was a lot of talk about a “new Elizabethan Age”, most of it rather thoughtless, since the first Elizabethan Age had not been marked by tolerance and a respect for ordinary people’s wishes. Yet the Queen herself set the tone of her reign. Even as Princess Elizabeth she had spoken of her desire to serve; the anointing she received at her Coronation expressed the idea of vocation and dedication far more than the bestowal of crown, orb and sceptre.

After anointing the Queen on hands, breast and head, the Archbishop said the following Prayer:

Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who by his Father was anointed with the Oil of gladness above his fellows, by his holy Anointing pour down upon your Head and Heart the blessing of the Holy Ghost, and prosper the works of your Hands: that by the assistance of his heavenly grace you may govern and preserve the Peoples committed to your charge in wealth, peace and godliness; and after a long and glorious course of ruling a temporal kingdom wisely, justly, and religiously, you may at last be made partaker of an eternal kingdom, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord.

This is, I think, the key to understanding the British monarchy. By divorcing it from effective political power, we have, so to speak, sacramentalised it. The sovereign not only symbolises the Kingship that belongs ultimately to God in Christ, but he or she also embodies- incarnates- the nation itself. Anointed with holy oil, the sovereign becomes the focus of our self-consciousness as one people. As such, our monarchy is inevitably and rightly “undemocratic”. No person could put themselves forward for this role, no-one could ask to become the “icon” of Britishness, or Englishness. We do not choose, from among several candidates (almost inevitably sponsored by this or that faction within the nation), one person who then becomes acceptable to all as the focus of national identity. The Queen did not ask or choose to be Queen. She accepted it as her vocation and destiny, because that is the Law. She does not choose, nor do we, her successor. That is decided by Law- if the first ninety-nine in line of succession were to be wiped out, the hundredth would automatically succeed, whoever that might be.  Like all true vocations, it would not be a subjective feeling, but an objective fact, made manifest by the circumstances.

For sixty years now the Queen has moved among her people, as ready to talk to the humblest as to the highest. Entirely lacking political power, she has shared her ever-growing experience and wisdom with a succession of Prime Ministers: not the least of her services. Harold Wilson expressed his appreciation of his weekly audience, saying that the Queen was the only person to whom he could talk with complete confidence and trust. The Queen has set an example of family life, yet she has had to face the same problems of reconciling family and work commitments that other working mothers face. On official occasions she has had to speak words that others have chosen, but when she has had the freedom to be herself- as in her Christmas broadcasts- she has increasing made clear the centrality of her Christian faith in her life.

Power and glory belong ultimately only to God. A political system that is based on the notion of power easily becomes corrupt. The best system is one in which power is dispersed as widely as possible, rather than concentrated in one person or a few. The merit of our constitution is that the key figure in our nation has virtually no power, only a vocation to embody the ideal of selfless service. Unlike the tyrant Henry VIII, Elizabeth II has no desire to control her people, only to show them an example of a self-effacing devotion to duty, an example of Christian life.

On this Trinity Sunday, let us thank God- Father, Son and Holy Spirit- for the gift to this nation of Queen Elizabeth; we are undoubtedly a happier and kinder country for her example of service. God save the Queen!


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