Bishop Peter's Queen's Jubilee sermon 2012


The Bishop of Chester, the Rt Revd Dr Peter ForsterThe following is the Bishop of Chester's sermon, given at Chester Cathedral's recent service for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee and at other jubilee services ...

The United Kingdom invented the idea of a National Anthem. ‘God save the Queen’, as we know it, traces its origins back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when 'God save Great James our King' was sung by Stuart loyalists on the eve of William of Orange's arrival on our shores, at the invitation of Parliament.

The song stuck, and was appropriated by the new Hanoverian dynasty.  It achieved widespread popular use when ’God save Great George our King’ was sung at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, in London in 1745.  It was sung at the end of a performance when the theatre manger announced that he was raising a troop of soldiers to fight for the King, King George III, with the theatre actors as the nucleus.

The anthem was taken up and sung widely in theatres and other public settings.  It entered Church worship during George III’s bout of illness when new verses were added, praying for the King’s recovery, and thanking God for his return to good health.  The first coronation to include the National Anthem was that of George IV in 1821, and by Victoria’s reign it had become the invariable accompaniment to her public appearances.

Other countries copied the idea of a National Anthem, and it is now a more-or-less universal feature of different nations, as we shall be reminded at the forthcoming Olympic Games.  We hope that we will hear our National Anthem  a good number of times then, among many others. Yet our National Anthem has retained a distinctive character, for this reason: the UK is just about the only country in the world which has as its National Anthem a hymn addressed to God, asking his blessing on a person rather than a celebration of the flag or fatherland, or a military victory, or some abstract political principles.

(I am grateful to Ian Bradley’s ‘God Save the Queen’ for this summary of the history.)

If you buy stamps in France they are imprinted with ‘Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité’ (whatever that means). If you can still afford to buy stamps here, they carry a picture of Her Majesty the Queen.  So do the diminishing numbers of coins and banknotes in our pockets.  Members of the Armed Forces, and Judges, swear their oath of loyalty not to an idea or principle, but to a living person who has been consecrated and anointed to represent God’s ultimate rule of justice and mercy.

So do all Church of England clergy, who on taking up any new appointment are required by law to declare that they will be faithful, and bear true allegiance, to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and her heirs and successors, ‘so help me God’.

Ancient ideas of Kingship were surrounded by all sorts of divine imagery.  Kings and Queens were frequently supposed to possess special natural or supernatural powers, and had a priestly air about them. The robes which are worn today often have religious origins, including the crimson gowns representing the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.  As Christianity came to these islands the Church did not reject the older traditions of kingship, but looked to Kings and Queens as figures who would unite society and exercise power under the law, in accordance with Christian principles of justice and mercy, of righteousness and humility.

Yes, humility too. This has been a striking feature of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II. Paradoxically, there is, or should be, an intrinsic humility in the hereditary principle, compared with those who believe, perhaps rightly, that their own efforts and talents have achieved the position which they hold. The hereditary principle goes, or should go, naturally hand in hand with a sense of duty, as has so clearly been the case with our present Queen.

For nearly 1000 years in this country we have had the subtle and evolving interplay of monarchy and parliamentary democracy.  The earlier sense of the divine right of Kings has given way to our modern political life.  The wonder, at first sight, is how our monarchy has survived so well, with its mystique and role largely intact, despite all the changes which have occurred in society at large over the centuries.

The answer lies in the essentially spiritual nature of the British monarchy, which has been emphasised more strongly than in most other countries. The earlier Saxon models of spiritual kingship were replaced by an understanding of the King or Queen rather like Kings in the Old Testament who were anointed by God for their tasks.  This has been particularly strongly represented in the British tradition, as the Coronation Service in Westminster Abbey, in the context of a celebration of Holy Communion, has vividly illustrated.  The model for the service was originally taken from the anointing of Kings in the Old Testament.

At its heart, the British monarchy represents a spiritual trust on behalf of the nation.  That is what our Queen has understood so well, and which she has so powerfully articulated, not least in recent years.  It has been a recurrent theme of her recent Christmas broadcasts.

This helps to explain why the British monarchy has worn so well, compared with many other European monarchies. The problem there has often been of a more politically based monarchy, coming into conflict with popular opinion in one form or another.  The Kings – and it has usually been Kings – have not known how to adapt without losing their political raison d’être.  In our case, the more spiritually, less politically conceived monarchy has been able to adapt to new political realities without losing its essential self-understanding and place in society.

So, through the reign of Queen Victoria and into the twentieth century we have seen the evolution of a constitutional monarchy, where key decisions are taken on the advice of ministers, through the Prime Minister.  The monarch can still advise and warn the Prime Minister in the weekly audience, but with little or no direct power.  We have now evolved to the point where it is seen to be of the essence that the monarch is entirely above politics, as we saw in the aftermath of the General Election two years ago, when a coalition had to be formed.

Having a monarchy which has this central spiritual understanding has a further important advantage, in potentially acting as a restraint upon a democratically elected parliament which can too easily ascribe to itself the divine right of Kings of old.  It was the late Lord Hailsham who, in a Richard Dimbleby memorial lecture, warned of the emergence in this country of an ‘elective dictatorship’, that is of governments which simply believe that ‘might is right’, that if it has a majority in the House of Commons it can do what it likes, and it must be right.

The British monarchy stands as a reminder that all the human laws we make stand under a greater law, the eternal law of God, and should aim to reflect the law of God. Let’s never forget that Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany through the ballot box, even if he then set about the destruction of democracy in that country.  Electoral success, and power, is no guarantee of truth, beauty and justice.

Today, as we gather in this Cathedral, which has stood in Chester for 700 years as a great symbol of God’s presence, we express our gratitude for the remarkable witness of our Diamond Queen.

Andrew Marr, the well-known BBC political commentator, has published a book in the approach to this year’s celebrations, using that title: The Diamond Queen. In it he confesses that he used to be a republican, but that he had now repented of his ways.   He sums up his judgment upon the first sixty years of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II in these words …

She has been dutiful, but she has been a lot more than dutiful. She has been shrewd, kind and wise. Britain without her would have been a greyer, shriller, more meagre place.

As our society becomes more diverse, more pluralistic, and more varied, it will need to cultivate a great sense of tolerance and mutual acceptance among its citizens. Indeed, beyond tolerance and acceptance there will need to be a celebration of all the different strands which comprise our society, the ethnic and regional groups, the racial and religious traditions, along, it seems, with a more federal structure between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But in order to achieve all this we will need a powerful unifying factor. That’s what Elizabeth II has provided through the many changes of the past 60 years, and we pray that long may she yet reign over us.The future of the monarchy is more secure than ever, especially if it can avoid the declension into celebrity culture which is perhaps the greatest danger it faces.  Its future is secure because it can provide just that focus of unity which our ever more diverse society needs.  The marriage of Prince William and Catherine Middleton last year well illustrated this.  They pointed to the future.  For the moment we can only say, with great gratitude …
‘God save the Queen, and God bless the Prince of Wales’