Godly Kingship, 25th June 2023
A sermon preached by by Kenneth Padley, Canon Treasurer
(I Samuel 24.1-17; Luke 14.12-24)
The Vicar of Bray is a song about a flip-flopping seventeenth-century clergyman who changes his opinions and allegiance in support of whoever is in power. The song sets out in the 1660s as it means to continue:
In good King Charles’ golden time, when loyalty no harm meant,
A zealous high churchman was I, and so I gained preferment.
To teach my flock, I never missed: Kings are by God appointed
And damned are those who dare resist or touch the Lord’s anointed.
And this be law, that I’ll maintain until my dying day, sir
That whatsoever king may reign, I’ll be the Vicar of Bray, sir.
Those who visited the recent coronation exhibition here in the library at Salisbury Cathedral saw our local variation on the Vicar of Bray in the accounts of the Clerk of Works. This record of expenditure for the year 1688 shows that alongside routine payments made for cleaning the Chapter House, coal for the vestry, and £12, 7s, 6d for a ton of lead, payments were also made for ringing the bells in the tower which once stood on the Cathedral green. In 1688, ringing was commissioned in celebration of the birthday of King James II on 14th October, and again in November when the king visited the town. On that occasion, James was journeying west to repulse an invasion by William of Orange. James’ expedition failed, and thus the bells were rung again on 4th December when William passed through Salisbury, heading towards London. There was yet more ringing the following February when William and Mary were proclaimed as King and Queen.
Behind these events was much soul-searching and a difficult choice.
- The supporters of William of Orange promoted a de facto understanding of the Divine Right to rule, arguing that God had revealed his approval of William’s claim to the throne by blessing his campaign of conquest. Underlying this argument, the Orangists were concerned that King James was an autocrat who wished to reconvert England to Roman Catholicism. Their worries were an echo of what some parliamentarians had felt about James’ father, Charles I, during the 1630s.
- Against the Orangists, James’ supporters argued that the Divine Right of Kings was expressed not through conquest but through the law, and that James held the crown in rightful succession from his dead brother Charles II. This camp, known variously as Jacobites or non-jurors, feared that conceding the Orangist argument which boiled down to ‘might is right’ was tantamount to legitimising the execution of Charles I in 1649 and risked a return to the chaos which had engulfed England in the decade which followed.
David, in tonight’s first reading from the First Book of Samuel, faced a similar dilemma. He knew that King Saul was a moral failure and that he had lost God’s approval. And David was given an unrivalled opportunity to murder Saul when the king accidentally sidled into David’s hideaway to use it as a lavatory. Might this be David’s chance, a God-given opportunity? David thought not. He knew that Saul was God’s anointed King. And so David spared Saul’s life, even though eight chapters earlier, God’s prophet Samuel had anointed David himself as King, in succession to Saul. The story ends in I Samuel chapter 31 with David’s eventual assumption of power – but only after Saul was killed in battle against the Philistines. The Bible thus neatly preserves the anointed status of both Saul and David. This was a convenience sadly not afforded to William of Orange in 1688.
The First Book of Samuel and the ledger of our Clerk of Works reveal how everyday events can strain the neatness of theological precision. In particular, they pose challenging questions about what makes for godly government. Such are questions well worthy of consideration in a year when we have mourned one monarch and crowned another.
We know that there are lots of different types of government around the world, that constitutional arrangements evolve, and that within twenty-first century Britain there are diverse views about the best way to govern the country. Nonetheless, as Canon Jamie Hawkey of Westminster recently observed in a keynote lecture in the run-up to the coronation, the constitutional monarchy of this country enshrines some significant Christian principles about godly political leadership.
Firstly, there is the symbolism of power coming from God. Hawkey notes how the crown, orb and sceptre were borne on the coffin of her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth during her funeral, but returned to the altar of St George’s chapel in Windsor immediately before her burial. Of this Hawkey writes, ‘Sovereignty, while invested in the person of the anointed monarch, is something borrowed rather than owned, and its source is not the metaphysical idea of a nation state, but the Holy Spirit, Lord and Giver of Life’.
From this Canon Hawkey argues that the personal nature of monarchy echoes God’s priorities as revealed in the incarnation. Quote, ‘As Christians, if we believe God has become human in Christ, and that human beings are called to share in Christ’s dignity as communities, as well as individuals, our structures of power should serve that truth.’
Given this, Hawkey regards the personal nature of monarchy as a guardian of human rights, for example against the State becoming an end in itself, and against the increasing influence of Artificial Intelligence. ‘Without being naïve’, he writes, ‘the presence of a human being as the embodiment of the State, and the State’s head, might help to remind leaders who exercise power over others that political decision and policies should spring from a person-centred approach.’
And a monarch who exercises a personal ministry of service under a personal God is one who, like the host of the dinner party in our second reading, is concerned about hospitality for all, one who can promote the dignity of individuals within the shared territory of a complex society. A timely reminder of this falls this month with the 75th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of the Empire Windrush. Britain is a diverse place in which the gospel vision of the most vulnerable welcomed as honoured guests can and should find deeper expression.
Finally, Canon Hawkey believes that the covenant between God, king and people which is articulated at the coronation service acts as a preservative against despotism just as much as it does against depersonalisation. He puts it like this, ‘The oaths taken in this country by those who hold public office are not to a flag or to a concept – not even to a series of wholesome rules. Our oaths are taken to a person, and that person, the monarch, in the coronation service and in the practice of sovereignty, shows himself as subject to a justice beyond that of this country, or of this world.’
It would exceed the bounds of what should be argued in a sermon to claim that Britain’s twenty-first century constitutional monarchy is God’s best or only way of doing things. Just so, it would be imprudent to claim that our constitutional monarchy is a direct historical outworking of the Magna Carta which we preserve next door in the Cathedral Chapter House. Nonetheless, that Great Charter was the first attempt to sketch out the covenantal government which Canon Hawkey commends in his lecture. As such, it is a document that we rightly cherish and seek to interpret for our contemporary context. However, because we can’t always read the hand of God from the pages of history and because politics may often be a choice between two or more unpalatable options, we should perhaps reserve judgement on the Vicar of Bray.
 Gore Lecture, quote in Church Times 28 April 2023, page 21.