Alternative perspectives on the Jubilee

Abstract

Despite the fact that the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Christianity’s relationship with monarchy is complex. This was highlighted in 2010, when the Anglican Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Rev Pete Broadbent, made critical comments on the announcement of the engagement of Prince William to Catherine Middleton. Bishop Broadbent declared on Facebook that he was a republican, called the Royal Family "philanderers" and said that the basis of the monarchy was "corrupt and sexist".

The Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, said that he was "appalled" by Broadbent's comments and expressed his "dismay on behalf of the Church". There is however a strong tradition of Christian Republicanism in the UK: to ignore it would be to take a very narrow, limited view of Christianity.

The Jewish and Christian concept of Jubilee too – something which is about liberation for the poor - seems to sit awkwardly with an institution based on power and wealth. This discussion paper briefly explores some alternative perspectives on the Jubilee, and its legacy. It also links a some substantial previously published Ekklesia articles on monarchy, the subversive meaning of the kingdom of God and related issues.

INTRODUCTION:

Despite the fact that the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Christianity’s relationship with monarchy is complex and not always easy. This was highlighted in 2010, when the Anglican Bishop of Willesden, the Rt Rev Pete Broadbent, made critical comments on the announcement of the engagement of Prince William to Catherine Middleton.

Bishop Broadbent declared on Facebook that he was a republican, called the Royal Family "philanderers" and said that the basis of the monarchy was "corrupt and sexist". the Rt Rev Richard Chartres, the Anglican Bishop of London, said that he was "appalled" by Broadbent's comments and expressed his "dismay on behalf of the Church".

There is however a strong tradition of Christian Republicanism in these islands: to ignore it would be to take a very narrow, limited view of Christianity. The Jewish and Christian concept of Jubilee too – something which is about liberation for the poor - seems to sit awkwardly with an institution based on power and wealth. This discussion paper briefly explores some alternative perspectives on the Jubilee. It also links a some substantial previously published Ekklesia articles on monarchy, the subversive meaning of the kingdom of God and related issues.

1. THE CHURCHES' CELEBRATION OF THE JUBILEE

As many people mark the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee this summer, Christian churches, particularly the established Church of England, will have a large part to play in the celebrations. The Church of England is promoting three main events:

The Big Lunch is on 3rd June, and before they eat people will be invited to join in a specially written grace.

The Big Jubilee Service is on 5th June, and will take place at St. Paul’s Cathedral. Churches throughout the country are being encouraged to show this on big screens for their local congregations.

The Big Jubilee Thank You, is to be compiled over a period of time and delivered to Buckingham Palace later in the year.

Diamond Jubilee Beacons will also be lit on 4th June, and Premier Christian Radio is heavily involved with promoting Church Beacons throughout the United Kingdom, Channel Islands and Isle of Man. They are asking every church with suitable buildings or land to take part, saying, ‘Our vision is that thousands of churches up and down the land will gather their communities together for this happy occasion.’

Some Christians may feel moved to contribute to The Jubilee Trust, established to receive donations and set up iconic charitable projects around the Commonwealth.

Many churches also seem to be viewing the event as a heaven sent opportunity for them to place themselves at the centre of their local community and boost their numbers. Adrian Wyatt, Congregational Federation’s Area Mission Worker in the South West observes:

"In my Christian walk there has probably rarely, if ever, been a year with so many brilliant opportunities to engage with our communities. Large church or small, thriving or striving, this is our time to be the church in the community.

"2012 affords us massive opportunities with the Olympic Games, the Queens Jubilee, and 1662 celebrations to be creative, inventive and inclusive in the ways we engage with our communities what ever the size of our church.

"This is a golden opportunity that we surely cannot afford to miss if we really want to be outward thinking and growing churches.

"And of course, none of us have to go it alone. We can do it together as groups of churches, and there are organizations out there just waiting to inspire and help.

"This is our open goal opportunity WE DARE NOT MISS!!"

2. THE CHRISTIAN REPUBLICAN TRADITION

It would be a mistake, however, to assume that all Christians will be celebrating the Diamond Jubilee, or that they support the monarchy.

Despite the fact that the Queen is Supreme Governor of the Church of England, Christianity’s relationship with monarchy is complex and not always easy. There is a strong tradition of Christian Republicanism across the islands that make up Britain and Ireland: to ignore thiswould be to take a very narrow, limited view of Christianity, and to sweep under the carpet a highly significant chapter in British history.

The Civil War (1642 – 1646) fought between Royalists and Republicans had religion at its heart. Dr Mike Stoyle, in an analysis of the complex web of motivations involved, observed ‘Across the country as a whole, it was religion which ultimately divided the two parties. Puritans everywhere supported the Parliament, more conservative protestants - together with the few Catholics - supported the King.’

At this turbulent and highly-charged time a multitude of different interpretations of Christianity clamoured to be heard, many of them politically radical and anti-authoritarian. Puritans, Quakers, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Arminians, Baptists and Anabaptists, Ranters, Levellers, Diggers, Congregationalists, Fifth Monarchists, Millenarians, and more, jostled for position. The Church of England established by Henry VIII appeared to be under threat. On 6th January 1661, for example, a band of Fifth Monarchists unsuccessfully attempted to take control of London in the name of ‘King Jesus’.

In 1662, after the restoration of the Monarchy, the final version of the Book of Common Prayer was introduced. Many churches will be celebrating the 350th anniversary of that event this year, alongside the Diamond Jubilee.

The Book of Common Prayer contained the 39 Articles, which defined the Anglican religion. The Act of Uniformity passed that year obliged all minsters to sign up to these Articles. This was one of a series of Acts known as the Clarendon Code, designed to impose religious conformity and penalise dissenters, establishing the dominance of the Church of England.

Amongst other things it required ministers and schoolmasters to declare the illegality of bearing arms against the monarch for any reason, and any ministers who were not prepared to be ordained by a bishop had their livings taken away. Around 2000 clergymen lost their livelihoods - The 'Great Ejection'.

As the United Reformed Church of Wales website comments:
"The Great Ejection heralded a long period of persecution and suffering for the new Nonconformists, who lived under a harsh penal code and were denied full civil and educational liberties. They were allowed to worship only under strict state regulation and were often harried and harassed."

There are many Christians in the UK whose roots lie in opposition to the established Church and the Monarchy. The degree to which this will stop them from participating in Jubilee celebrations will vary from one individual to another.

When the Quakers were invited to make a Jubilee ‘loyal address’ to the Queen, their Meeting for Sufferings in February 2012 recorded, "We have heard some reservations about the principle of offering a loyal address but we believe this is an opportunity to communicate what we hold most important."

Others, such as Gareth Hughes, Chaplain of Hertford College, Oxford who is a member of anti-monarchy campaigning organisation Republic, will be joining in protests in Oxford or London on Jubilee weekend.

Many others may find their attitude nicely summed up in this letter from clergyman James Blyth which appeared in the Scottish newspaper The Herald on 12 February 2012.

"It would be a mean-spirited subject who refuses to acknowledge the Queen's gracious dedication for 60 years to the huge role which history placed upon her shoulders (Letters, February 7, 8 & 9).

"The world is a beautiful but cruel, ill-divided place and we have to question the Queen's role as Defender of the Faith when in fact she is defender of the status quo. When minister of Monimail in rural, feudal Fife 50 years ago occasionally I would deliberately omit the Queen from our prayers and was not surprised to receive a letter from a titled lady pointing out this omission. The understandable fear of the ranked and titled is that without the monarchy the whole gigantic system would collapse like a pack of cards.

"Our global tragedy, supremely enshrined in Great Britain, is the betrayal of the "good tidings of great joy". Among all the world's ranks, titles and honours there is one which eclipses them all. It is a Christ's Freeman (CF); "Stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ hath set us free and become not entangled again in the yoke of bondage".

Freelance journalist Jill Segger and associate director of Ekklesia who comes from a Quaker perspective, explains her problems with the Monarchy like this:

"The concept of the anointed king comes from an age of warlords who were supposed to protect their people. Its symbolism may have emotional power but does that make it true? The reality about the Windsors – and about all royal houses – is that their families were once more ruthless and successful thugs than yours or mine. Once the parping and the flummery is over and the captains and kings have departed, the absurdity – and warlike origins - of the whole concept may begin to dawn on a less automatically reverential and sentimental age.

"Second – the appellation of 'majesty'. No human person has a right to claim or exercise that title. As a Quaker, I refuse to lay my tongue to it – just as I will not call the Bible 'holy'. Words matter. Only God is holy; only the Creator may truly lay claim to majesty. And, significantly, the Creator declined such pomp – at least according to the teachings and example of Jesus – the embodiment of, and metaphor for, the divine Light.’"

On the feast of Christ the King last year, Symon Hill wrote,

"If Christ is king, then no other person or institution can demand our total loyalty – whether William Windsor, the British state, the free market or even the Church."

For many Christians, deference to a human monarch is simply not compatible with their beliefs. As an institution, monarchy is the antithesis of many values which Christians would strive to uphold.

The arguments against the monarchy are well rehearsed: Justice, equality, accountability, fairness: all of these progressive notions are nullified when one person becomes head of state by virtue of their birth; the accumulation of wealth and privilege in the hands of one family; that the monarchy is much more expensive than is officially acknowledged; the lack of accountability including exemptions of the Royal Household from the Freedom of Information Act, the position of the Crown, combined with the lack of a written or codified constitution, muddies the waters when trying to establish where power is held and where it comes from; the implications for political decision-making with the power of the Crown being gradually devolved but going to the executive, not the legislature, so the government can act using the royal prerogative, without the need for parliamentary approval; the diminished role of elected representatives and therefore the role of the electorate; that we are subjects not citizens; the ways in which a member of the royal family can wield influence behind the scenes, simply because of who they are; the perpetuation of class division and stratification along with hereditary nobility.

These arguments however, don't often get an airing. Media coverage of the Diamond Jubilee does not seem to have encouraged anyone to ask questions or debate the monarchy. The BBC has been accused of churning out monarchist propaganda and it is certainly difficult to find any alternative view in the mainstream media.

But there are additional arguments for those in the churches. For some in the Church of England, the fact that the monarch is the Supreme Governor of the Church is not an asset but an obstacle to its mission, not a cause for celebration but a cause for concern and frustration. As Anglican priest Tom Hurcombe puts it:

"Establishment means that the Church of England is married to the political status quo. It can hardly be a genuinely prophetic voice, particularly when its leaders often seem to relish the fact that they are part of the establishment, intimate with both Crown and Government and largely uncritical of either at any fundamental level."

In 2008 even a Times editorial concluded:

"Disestablishment would in a sense allow the Church of England to be more Christian"

3. THE SUBVERSIVE IDEA OF JUBILEE

The idea of Jubilee itself however, is one found in the Jewish and Christian traditions, and to many Christians will stand in opposition to the values represented in the institution of the monarchy and its ties to wealth, privilege and militarism.

Many Christians who do not support the monarchy are seeing the occasion not as a chance to celebrate a human person or institution, but a chance to express what they believe, and apply those beliefs to national and global issues - particularly around peace and justice. On 3 June 2012 Christian CND for example will be holding ‘A Queen’s Peace Alternative Jubilee Party’ outside the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, partying for peace and disarmament.

The concept of Jubilee is particularly relevant to our current economic crisis. Jubilee has far greater significance than a simple anniversary or milestone, and has resonances far beyond the UK and the year 2012. In the Hebrew Scriptures, a Jubilee year, ‘the year of the Lord’s favour’, was first described in Leviticus and Isaiah, as the time when debts would be cancelled, slaves set free, prisoners released, and land redistributed to the poor and dispossessed. It was a way of regularly calling a halt to the increasing accumulation of wealth in fewer and fewer hands, a brake on increasing inequality.

In the New Testament Jesus identified himself with the spirit of Jubilee in Luke 4:16-21, “And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, 'The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour.' And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. ...”

The idea of Jubilee has long been taken by Christians as an inspiration and a rallying call in their work for social justice. Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams was labelled a dangerous left-wing radical by the security services, when he helped found the Jubilee Group at Oxford University in the 1970s.

Later, the spirit of Jubilee was embodied in the Jubilee 2000 movement which called for Third World Debt to be cancelled at the Millennium. Jubilee 2000 evolved into the Jubilee Debt Campaign (JDC), which is now advocating socially just solutions to our current debt crisis, and working to link the Diamond Jubilee with the Biblical Jubilee.

JDC is organising a petition, and a letter to be signed by as many faith leaders as possible. They hope it will serve as a rallying call to people of all faiths and all people of goodwill.

The letter begins:

"In this year of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, we recall the ancient custom of the Jubilee Year, in which debts would be cancelled. The biblical call to proclaim the Jubilee Year was described in the Hebrew Scriptures and it presumes that our Creator gave us a world with abundant resources if we would only share them with one another. Debt can rightly be cancelled if it is unpayable or unjust. ….."

It goes on to say:

"A self-serving financial system has brought the global economy to its knees and we are now watching the poorest people in our society paying the price for this excess.

"That is why we call on people everywhere to join in a renewed call for a new Jubilee. We need far-reaching changes in the global economy to build a society based on justice, mutual support and community. The era of genuflection to the market must come to an end. The idols of high finance must be dethroned. We need an economic, political and spiritual renewal in our society."

There have been calls for a Jubilee to be implemented from both the political left
and the right.

In Birmingham Faith Leaders have been in the forefront of common action. One of them, the Rt Rev Andrew Watson, Anglican Bishop of Aston, writes: “The Jubilee principle in the Old Testament effectively gave everyone one chance in a lifetime to be rescued from the chains of debt and enslavement. Its rediscovery in recent times has motivated Christians and others of good will to work towards the eradication of debt in the most indebted of nations, and has genuinely caught the public imagination. This latest push towards seeing the vision realised has my fullest support.”

Faith leaders have also written a joint letter.

To take part in a similar campaign for economic justice now, however, could involve the Church of England confronting their near neighbours in the City of London. With the eviction of the Occupy camp at St Paul’s, apparently with the Church’s approval and assistance, the established church seems for the time being to have made its choice.

As the organisers of the other big event of 2012, the Olympics, place great emphasis on legacy in the shape of sporting facilities and participation, some Christians will however be trying to ensure that the lasting legacy of this Jubilee year will be a further identification of Christianity with the values of justice and equality, and an ongoing struggle for a fairer world.

For many Christians, that will be the true meaning of this Jubilee year: they will be waving placards not flags, and calling not for three cheers for the Queen, but for justice for the poor.

4. SOME JUBILEE PRAYERS:

Loving God,
As our nation marks the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II,
Inspire us with the spirit of your Jubilee, the year of your favour.
Help us strive to bring justice to the oppressed,
And to free people and nations held captive by debt.

God of justice,
You cast down the mighty from their seats and exalt the humble.
In this Diamond Jubilee year we ask you to give us the courage
And the wisdom to effectively challenge unjust structures and systems.
Help us to work together to build a nation and a world
In which all people are cherished equally as your children,
And where your bounty is shared fairly amongst all peoples. Amen.

5. RESOURCES FROM EKKLESIA:

* Disestablishing the kingdom (Tom Hurcombe) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8138
* A kingdom, but not as we know it (Professor Chris Rowland) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8020
* The mytho-poetics of royalty (Simon Barrow) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14663
* The subversive feast of Christ the King (Symon Hill) - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/13613
* From 'Royal Maundy' to a real Maundy of equality - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/16512
* Wedded to a right royal theological confusion - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14664
* Towards a non-monarchical church - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14559
* Truly a Crown of church-state thorns - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/14560
* Disestablishment would make the Church more Christian - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/7834
* Disestablishment, the Act of Settlement and all that - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9191
* Jubilee connections - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/search/node/jubilee

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THE AUTHOR

© Bernadette Meaden has written about religious, political and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is a regular contributor to Ekklesia.