From 'Royal Maundy' to a real Maundy of equality

Simon Barrow
By Simon Barrow
7 Apr 2012

The Queen received a rapturous welcome in York [on 5 April 2012] as she prepared to hand out the traditional Royal Maundy money to pensioners from all over Britain to mark her Diamond Jubilee, the Daily Telegraph told us yesterday.

It wrote of her handing out money "to people from all of the UK's 44 Christian dioceses" - by which was meant, incidentally, the dioceses of the Established church in England, not anyone from any other denomination or nation!

The quaint Maundy Money ritual looks, like much of the activity of an Established Church, harmless enough. Actually, however, it embodies a host of unquestioned assumptions about what it is to be Christian (being nice to those "less fortunate", basically, which in turn takes for granted a certain well-heeled position), about the subservience of the Church to the Crown ("in all matters spiritual and temporal", as Establishment dictates), about monarchy (now understood as benign patronage, but actually still eugenic privilege), and about Christendom (the condition in which the Church with a capital 'c' bestows blessing on the status quo in return for receiving a ritual, cultural and social position at "the heart of the nation" itself).

Wikipedia summarises the background to this ceremony well: Royal Maundy is a religious service in the Church of England held on Maundy Thursday, the day before Good Friday. At the service, the British Monarch or a royal official ceremonially distributes small silver coins known as "Maundy money" (legally, "the Queen's Maundy money") as symbolic alms to elderly recipients. The coins are legal tender but do not circulate because of their silver content and numismatic value. A small sum of ordinary money is also given in lieu of gifts of clothing and food that the sovereign once bestowed on Maundy recipients.

The name "Maundy" and the ceremony itself derive from an instruction, or mandatum, of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper that his followers should love one another. In the Middle Ages, English monarchs washed the feet of beggars in imitation of Jesus, and presented gifts and money to the poor. Over time, additional money was substituted for the clothing and other items that had once been distributed.

What is particularly striking to me is how readily and "naturally" the Established church accommodates the subversive Gospel of Christ to rituals and traditions which not only do nothing to challenge precisely the divisions Jesus overturned, but which actually end up reinforcing them with a niceness and deference so suffocating that it makes many who might wish to offer a note of 'loyal dissent' feel as if they are being churlish or unkind in doing so.

That is unfortunate, to say the least. Though not a monarchist, I have great personal admiration for the present Queen. Given her position and the challenges she has faced, Elizabeth Windsor seems a remarkable woman. Likewise, though I am now an Episcopalian in Scotland shaped strongly by Anabaptist commitments, I have affection for the Church of England, for which I have worked and in which I have been an active participant in the past. Nevertheless, the institution of monarchy and the established position and culture of the Church of England seems to me to work in exactly the opposite direction to the Gospel to which I am most deeply committed; and to do so - in spite of the huge good many in the Church do - precisely in ways summed up by the Royal Maundy ceremony.

Whereas Jesus created a community that washed one another's feet and washed the feet of strangers and even enemies (that is, practiced mutual service based on equality), the Church is riven with hierarchy, inequality, division and the symbolism of wealth and might. Whereas Jesus created a new ekklesia called upon to abolish barriers of wealth, gender, race, status and any other human construct that stops us being one in sharing joys and sorrows, his followers down the century have often ceremonialised and formalised (in structures of ministry, organisation and financial investment) the very features of un-commonwealth which baptism into a new society is meant to abolish.

The true crisis of Christianity in Britain is not, as some are claiming, equality legislation - something stopping some socially conservative Christians from discriminating (in a public square they do not own) against those they wrongly feel should be cast out from a Church which, in the way they behave, does not even love friends let alone enemies. The true crisis is not 'aggressive secularists' (many of whom make valid points, others of whom are angry and resentful because of failings many in the Church find difficult even to see). The true crisis is not falling numbers and stretched ecclesiastical budgets (Jesus never promised his followers a worldly majority, or financial success)... No, the true crisis of Christianity is that we Christians (and I include myself in this stricture) have lost a sense of the truly radical, table-turning nature of the Christian message.

So while the Queen hands out ritual money to a select number of pensioners in a mighty Church building, surrounded by the great and good, the Queen's government, elected by a minority and prayed for by the Queen's Church, is cutting around £30 billion of vital services for the poorest and most vulnerable in society while offering tax cuts and bail outs to the wealthiest and making those at the bottom of society pay most for an economic crisis created by those at the top. This really ought to be a scandal for the community of Jesus' followers living as 'resident aliens' in an unjust society. In fact, for the most part, it is not. We are far too at ease in the courts of the powerful, and ill at ease with the kind of awkward characters Jesus attracted, as the huge disjunct between St Paul's Cathedral and Occupy amply illustrated.

So maybe next year the Church could think about adjusting the Royal Maundy service to reflect the realities with which we live, and to galvanise a spirit of holy resistance to the great wrongs in which we Christians are currently implicated?

How about, for example, asking the Archbishop of York to join the Queen in washing the feet of 44 people who have lost livelihood and dignity as a result of welfare and other cuts? How about asking the Queen to receive a "widow's mite" from those at the bottom of an unequal society, rather than handing out symbols of privilege to the "less fortunate" (as if mere fortune was what determined the difference between the haves, have-nots and have yachts)? What we need to do with our Christendom inheritance, surely, is not simply to set it aside as so much clutter from the past, but to re-orient it so that we, too, are challenged and re-oriented?

The function of the Holy Spirit, John Wesley once wrote, is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That is what good Christian ritual and ceremony needs to do sometimes, too. A Real Maundy that dramatised the need for deep change in the church and in society would not please the Telegraph and Mail like a Royal Maundy does. But it might prod our consciences with the genuine, uncomfortable (for me too) message of Jesus, and invite the Church to embark on a journey of repentance (metanoia, turning around, heading in a new direction) which would point towards its salvation (the word means "wholeness', in contrast to apartness and separation) as well as the salvation of the world.

There may be clues here, too, about how the Queen's Jubilee might be marked by those of us for whom the entanglement of Christianity in the trappings and assumptions of royalty is neither natural nor desirable... but which reminds us, awkwardly, that we are those outside the Court who "act contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17.7).

Christ's unruly 'rule', of course, is denoted by mutual foot-washing, by refusing the sword, by embracing the outsider and by a host of other practices which shame "the rulers of this world" and their religious accomplices. Not an easy message or calling at all. But, unlike much "organised religion", which has forgotten and lost its bearings under the weight of Christendom, this is what the Easter Gospel is all about.

* 'Evacuating religious power: foot-washing and altar-stripping', by Simon Barrow - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16510

* See also: 'The subversive feast of Christ the King', by Symon Hill - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13613

* 'Disestablishing the kingdom', by Tom Hurcombe - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8138

----------

© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 England & Wales License. Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.