For the first time in a long time, I found myself watching the Queen’s Speech this year; that annual broadcast of thoughts from Her Majesticness to her subjects.
I expected some dull platitudes about Christmas, family, the Commonwealth, hope for the future, and the togetherness of the “nation” in the face of various unspecified challenges. While she certainly delivered on that underwhelming front, I was also moderately surprised by the substantial mention of Christianity, Jesus and the story of his coming from the Bible. She said that as people we need saving from ourselves, referring to this “great Christian festival”. She also spoke of the love of God, described Jesus as “a saviour, with the power to forgive”, quoted the Bible, and spoke words of personal prayer.
It was quite astonishing. Of course, I agreed with her sentiments and thoughts, and it was a well-written and quite powerful presentation of the Gospel story at Christmas time, with a fairly uncompromising portrayal of Jesus as the hope for the world. In three or four minutes, it was as good a sermon as you could hope to hear.
Why do I feel uncomfortable about it, though?
The thing is, agreeing entirely with the substance of a message doesn’t mean I agree with the basis on which it was made. We live in a constitutional monarchy where our head of state is also automatically head of the Church of England. This establishes Christianity as an official religion, its intertwining with government evident in many other ways, not least CofE bishops sitting by right in our parliament.
The Queen’s status, therefore, as an inherently religious head of state undermines the validity of her statement. Her words are not broadcast to the UK and her other realms by popular demand or because, purely on the quality of her words, the speech goes viral and captures the public imagination. They’re broadcast because she’s the monarch.
And how damaging it is to the Gospel message that it is pronounced from on high by a privileged monarch who is constitutionally obliged to believe it. Yes, there’s no chance of our monarch ever being Muslim, Jewish, Sikh or Hindu; or, heaven forfend, an atheist or agnostic. Neither is there any chance that our monarch might feel more comfortable in another branch of Christianity, such as Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism. And within Protestantism there’s no choice either: he or she must be Anglican, and specifically Church of England.
There’s nothing wrong with a head of state speaking personally about their faith, and I don’t doubt that the Queen is a committed Christian. Many heads of state speak of their faith, not least in the USA, but at least then they can be held to account for their views and are often constitutionally prevented from allowing their religious convictions to prejudice the machinery and decisions of government. In the UK, such safeguards do not exist: our monarch is there by birthright and cannot renounce the Church of England without also renouncing the throne (or at the very least, triggering a massive constitutional crisis).
I blogged about this before in relation to the royal wedding last year, but it is disgusting that the Church of England is happy with this bloated, artificial, constitutionally-upheld sense of importance, and Biblically repugnant that it can only speak the good news of Jesus while being propped up by the trappings of establishment. And their complicity in the potentially very cynical confirmation of Kate Middleton into the Church of England is the kind of opportunistic, Machiavellian politics you expect from a corrupt archbishop in the Middle Ages.
When the message of Jesus is at its best, it speaks for itself. When it is at its worst, it is a tool of human self-interest. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the best thing that could happen for Christianity in this country is disestablishment, as it would remove the cloud and clutter of constitutional privilege and force its believers to rely on nothing more than the power of the Holy Spirit. Read the book of Acts to find out what such a light-footed, resourceful, dynamic, attractive and above all Christ-centred community would look like.
Not, of course, that other churches who don’t have this privileged position don’t still try to tell people how to live their lives anyway. I was aware of two instances here in the Highlands over the festive period that infuriated me. One was the decision taken by the Stornoway Amenity Trust to end their Hogmanay street party in Stornoway at 11pm. An hour before New Year. This was because the following day, starting at midnight that night, was the sabbath, a day treated with Taliban-like sanctity by some (and significantly less than you’d think) people of the island. Many Stornowegians were livid, and rightly so.
The other example was a protest made by the Free Church (Continuing) in Skye about a Hogmanay party in a hotel next door to their church. Again, they were concerned about the fact that the sabbath would be broken by the party continuing after midnight, despite the fact that it would not in any way encroach upon the following morning’s Sunday services. The protest, in the form of a letter to the West Highland Free Press, basically presupposed that the church had the right to tell a licensed premises what it could do, when the hotel was acting purely within the law.
Who is the church to tell people how to live their lives, if those lives do not affect the church? The church has no authority except that which it gives unto itself. If individuals wish to adhere to that authority, that is a personal choice for them. But there are others who choose not to (or who do not even acknowledge that there is a choice that needs to be made), and they should not have their lives encroached upon by those who would seek to tell them to live their lives another way.
For sure, in a pluralistic society we need to fully respect the freedom of worship and conscience. But attempting to stop civic celebrations from taking place is an abomination to democracy – unless of course those civic activities prevent the private or collective practice of a religion, which in these two cases it absolutely did not.
Christianity will be all the stronger in this country when its followers recognise that religious authority is a matter for its adherents and is not something that can be dictated to any individual, let alone an entire country’s constitution and system of government.
We need a head of state that is not an institutionalised tool of a religion. And we need churches that regard themselves as preachers and actors of the Gospel and ambassadors for Jesus, not self-appointed authorities and moral guardians over civic society. Once we have those, our country (and our churches) will be so much better.