20 September 2014
In early twenty-first century England we think of the Queen as a person of immense public and international esteem, a lifelong servant of the people, a model and guardian of constitutional democracy, and the embodiment of the rule of law. We are proud that in this kingdom, we are the last on earth to anoint our sovereign, not just crowning her head for the supreme office of just government, but consecrating it, body, mind and soul, to the obedience of Christ and his Kingdom.
When Pope Benedict made his State Visit to the United Kingdom in 2010, in the Palace Yard at Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh, he paid tribute to our Christian constitution, personified in England and Scotland by Christian monarchs, givers of divine law and holy justice, sinners though they be, continuously for fourteen hundred years. Uniquely among other nations, in Britain the Christian Church has both an official standing and is entwined with the active role and symbolic purpose of the reigning monarch, giving the spiritual dimension not just the opportunity but the expectation to influence our civic discourse and public decisions. In his remarkable address to Parliament in Westminster Hall, Pope Benedict identified the vital importance of the gift we have in our hands in this country. In our common society, the Church people, the people of other religions, politicians and parliament, the worlds of finance and commerce, and the citizens as a whole can rely on the long crafted awareness that each has a rightful part to play and a duty to play its part. He pointed out that here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, faith and reason seen by faith’s light, religion and society can be related to each other, in the knowledge that they cannot do without each other and must remain engaged in a constant dialogue - if we are to make the decisions that answer the deepest questions that human beings face, and if we are to address the malaise in contemporary human living that has broken out in a fevered crisis in public and financial morality that still afflicts us.
In other words, the Church, the Lord’s own people, constantly says to the world’s rulers and hidden wielders of power, “Ecce Homo – Behold the Man.” “Who would you rather be released for you, this Man, or Barabbas?” We the Church are for ever asking the world, “Who is your King?” or, as the psalm puts it, “Who is the King of glory?” Many are the kings and leaders, even church leaders, who have been amazed at their own glory, only to see it slip their grasp because they forgot the reminder of the Franciscan friars who used to precede the Roman Pontiff on processions in the days of pomp, burning flax as they declared, “Sic transit Gloria mundi”; “Thus passes the glory of the world.”
The trouble is that the world has rather been allowed to think of our King as yet another leader whose time was up; thus too the influential public organisation that represents him, his Church. Perhaps it is our own fault for relying too heavily on imagery such as monarchy, because now it does not conjure up the distinct conviction of wide sway, commanding prestige and undeniable moral authority. If we were honest, I suspect even we, when we think of Christ the King and Our Lady, Queen of Heaven, picture a dignified and remote public servant, a constitutional monarch with no powers of their own and always acting on the advice of ministers. If we are even more honest with ourselves, we believe those ministers are us and Christ and His Mother are there, largely speaking, to be persuaded of what we tell them to do, however much we call it prayer.
The fresh-thinking young Australian writer, Matthew Tan has written a remarkable book to explain how we have got into this way of thinking and thus disempowered our own Church on earth. It is called Justice, Unity and the Hidden Christ, and describes how in the 1960s the Catholic Church at the Vatican Council decided that humanity had so grown up that it could be set free from the claims of the Church, Christ’s kingdom on earth, to rule it. Those who called for this new approach to the world saw it in terms of maturity and freedom, not compulsion, to choose the path of Christ. They assumed that with this spiritual liberty the human choice for God and the blessedness of the Kingdom, to which the Magnificat is a paean and which the Beatitudes map out, would be irresistible.
In the 50 years since, however, human society has opted not for the Kingdom of God but the market. Now instead of the “kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven”, all our transactions and relations are determined, not so much by our own selfish preferences, by the demands of the market to capture them. Matthew Tan even says that everything is now relative to it and human society has converted itself into a place, where every idea, value or principle has to pitch for custom and reduced to a matter of ever poorer choices, or what we are prepared to afford for them. He is astonished by how quickly the Christians have bought into this thinking, almost without hope, accepting it as “realism”. So we have the garrulous old Archbishop of Canterbury (a man who bears the distinction of interfering in the affairs of not just one successor but two) calling for the legalisation of euthanasia on the ground of supposed mercy - such a short step from expediency - without any regard in his argument for the absolute binding nature of the revealed truth of God that life is sacred and may not be harmed. I was also surprised to hear Archbishop Justin reported as saying he sometimes doubts the existence of God. Doubtless what he was saying was that he has complete faith in Jesus Christ and it was all taken out of context; but the incident illustrates how we have got ourselves into a position where we have to imagine meeting the thinking of people in the world in terms of packaging a commodity that they will be prepared to buy because it suits their tastes, assumptions and interests on this day if not on that.
Matthew Tan calls time on this: we are not competitors in a market. If the world has taken its freedom from the Kingdom of God and chosen instead the market as the milieu for human society and relations, so be it. But it is a disaster for the world and for humanity: time now to set ourselves up as a completely different way of being human; time now to declare the Church to be an alternative society. Instead of vying in competition, hoping that people will buy our idea in a multitudinous world of options where we are just one of the choices on offer, it is time to say that we alone represent the universe as it is, the created order built on loving relationships, unreserved mutual self-giving, of complete and unreserved sacrifice that alone leads to resurrection and renewal, through the radical power of forgiveness, service and worship. For the created order is not its own end – it is Christ who is its Lord and all else follows from that and falls in place behind it. His existence does not depend on my decision to believe he exists or not, though to hear most people think you would think English people imagine him to be Peter Pan’s tutelary spirit, depending on audience applause for survival.
If we think of Christ and His Mother as kindly European-style monarchs benevolently overseeing everything, hoping it will all turn out nicely in the end, and not getting too much involved, then nothing will change, and there is no point in our being Christian or worshipping in church; that would be just to meet our own emotional needs and calling the spiritual because they looked religious. Instead, we bear in mind centrally what St Paul told us in his letter to the Ephesians, that Christ fills the universe, and he intends us all to come to the full knowledge of faith in him, to reach such a true maturity in him that we reach his own stature.
So I cannot see why we say to people that we have doubts about whether God and his vision of heaven for us really exists. The question that faces us is this: “Do you believe that Christ is Lord of the universe, of everything that there is, or do you not?” If you do, then there are consequences and it truly does mean a transformation of our proclamation of what the Church is, why we have been made to belong to it – to reach our true human maturity – and how it is to be the true pattern for civil society founded on the sacrificial love of Christ, and the very endless living of the Trinity of three persons in one God.
It is in this universe that Our Lady of the Salve Regina stands as the Queen who is in power. She is no constitutional monarch, acting on the advice of ministers, merely benign towards our pleas and prayers, influential upon us and others only in so far as we can press her to be reactive to our interests, thus ever being conformed by us to our world. Instead, the hearer of prayers is effectual, the worker of change in individuals, and whole movements in society’s truest manifestation – the People of God – in a universe of which Christ rules, the Lord who is to be heard and obeyed, and whom our states, our civil societies and our market must likewise in the end come to obey.
This may be a “vale of tears” and “exile” for humanity according to this understanding, but it is not exile from God or his Kingdom; nor is it beyond the reach of his sovereign work. The Salve Regina declares our faith that a Queen has been appointed the advocate of this humanity as it is truly intended to be - an advocate who will turn the attention of all on the Lord of that Kingdom. Pope Benedict told us prophetically that our society is well placed to have the conversation in which faith illuminates our world, so that its kingdoms will be the Kingdom of the Lord and of his Christ. If all of us in the Church who are the People of God were to reject the falsely “realistic” barking at us in the market and to exist in and for the “Kingdom not of this world”, the “most gracious advocate” sustains our attention on what people are truly for and why nothing other than Christ is all that is to be said of the entirety of humanity and human living.