Simon Barrow

The mytho-poetics of royalty

By Simon Barrow
April 29, 2011

As Britain (or a good part of it) is swept away in royal wedding romance on 29 April 2011, a kind of debate about the institution of monarchy has been ebbing along underneath the hype and razzmatazz. It is a very shrunken debate however, at least in the more populous quarters of the public arena.

The drift towards republicanism might be growing slightly, as some opinion polling and the pressure group Republic ('Campaigning for a democratic alternative to the monarchy') has suggested. But the general level of discussion in relation to the privilege, symbolism and meaning of the Crown and of monarchical systems is pretty thin.

Much of the defence of monarchy rests on appeals to populism, pageantry, the disillusion with politics, and a vague sense that some order of moral virtue (hardly exemplified in the actual history of Europe's royal families) is being upheld.

Not far beneath the apparent defence of certain rather general civic standards and values, however, there lies a mythic or symbolic language that legitimates (and disguises) a much more specifically hierarchical and elite order of power.

This can be seen when the late Adrian Hastings, a theologian who was well known for his radical stance in other matters, revealingly concluded: "The central ritual tradition of the nation, relating particularly to the monarchy — and it is a tradition which is not merely a matter of ritual but of public morality too, a supra-party, socio-moral symbolism — would be enormously damaged by a total severing of the [church–state] partnership" (Prideaux Lectures, 1991).

In considering this kind of argument, I will leave to one side the obviously exaggerated parallelism between disestablishment and a ‘total’ severing of the possibility of co-operation between the church and the authorities, whatever that means.

The central point is that Hastings’ ultimate reference point, whatever he may wish, has become a system of hereditary monarchy which arises from and reinforces an order of ethnic wealth and privilege, and which exists in stark contrast to the values of social justice and equity which he otherwise holds to be central to the Christian Gospel.

Quite apart from such obvious material contradictions, if all that finally stands between a just society and moral decline is a sort of mytho-poetics of royalty we are, I think, in very deep trouble.

Hastings’ overarching position was, of course, much more knowing than this. He opposed to features of establishment which have ‘traces of erastanism’ about them — such as parliamentary control over church order and prime ministerial control over the appointment of bishops, for instance.

He was also quite clear overall that it is odd and anomalous for the Church of England to remain an established church in a country which is irreversibly diverse and plural.

Yet in his lecture he partially defends this incongruity by the rather weak observation that ‘English society and the world church are full of anomalies’. As if that justifies anything.

His main point, however, is that the current arrangement — including the church’s primary role in the coronation, the presence of bishops in a (presently unelected) second chamber and the operation of the Church Commissioners — is still part of "a wider symbolic culture of the nation."

On this basis Hastings suggests that it "would seem better for the health of society to go on carrying all sorts of minority-oriented structures and symbols within the country’s total 'establishment', even some sheer bric-a-brac acquired from history, than to take the knife to anything which seems in part unadapted to a fairly simple conception of contemporary consciousness."

But it surely ought to be perfectly possible, if one so desires, for historic symbols to be preserved other than by the perpetuation of a legal arrangement which, far from being ‘minority-oriented’, actually privileges that minority out of all proportion to its constituency — a fact which cannot just be dismissed as a simplistic modern aversion.

Furthermore, the language of the country ‘carrying’ all this in its "total 'establishment'" is much more suggestive of the accommodation of Christian symbolism within the overall interests of the powers that be than of the maintenance of any credible Christian claim to guide or represent society as a whole.

The Church’s own matrimony of convenience to the Crown, amply demonstrated in a considerable amount of recent clerical fawning in relation to the 29 April Royal Wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, is fine if you think the Church is there mainly to give the governing authorities comfort and a religious gloss. Or perhaps if you think the church – which is actually supposed to be the broken, restored and subversive Body of Christ – should bask in the reflected glory and riches of an earthly monarchy.

But the true cost of all this, as far as the subjection of Church to Crown is concerned (which is what Establishment directly entails, we should not forget) is a loss of integrity in Christian words and actions, and in prophetic engagement - the requirement to tell awkward truths about the abuse of power by the powerful. This risks turning pastoral care into churchy collusion with the privileged, rather than a binding up the wounds of the vulnerable as part of a determined resistance to hurtful policies and practices.

Defenders of Establishment say that the Church has greater ‘influence in the nation’ through its Crown privilege. What they really mean is that, in all honesty, we Christians (or at least those who are taken to speak on our behalf, in the 'national church') have much less trust in the Prince of Peace than in worldly princes.

But as the Easter Gospel powerfully and poignantly reminds us, the state’s power is secured by its ability to crucify (or, these days, to go to war). In the Christian narrative, God’s power, by contrast, is seen in Jesus on the Cross -- absorbing, rather than inflicting, unjust, imperial violence. You can see why the state and Crown look a much safer bet. But they are not where resurrection faith lies.

The message of the Gospel is that God’s transformative love and forgiveness is available to all, whatever their status. There is no room for 'blood advantage' in God's domination-free domain. Jesus practised open table fellowship, overturned the tables of the money-changers, said that the last would be first in God’s realm, and created a new community of equals – the ekklesia.

The Crown, by contrast, is an institution that exists to preserve an order based on eugenic privilege. That most Christians do not notice this, and do not see how the Church’s royal allegiance falsifies the Gospel, illustrates just how blinded we are by worldly status.

Establishment diminishes the Church of England’s ability to proclaim and live a Gospel free of state sponsorship. It inhibits equal relations with other churches. And it habituates its members to trust in earthly power rather than God’s disarming strength displayed in Jesus.

A much more substantial and far-reaching theological and biblical case against monarchy and the state church accommodation has been set out by friends and colleagues Professor Chris Rowland and Anglican priest Tom Hurcombe in two essays entitled 'A kingdom, but not as we know it' and 'Disestablishing the kingdom', respectively (published on Ekklesia and in Kenneth Leech's Setting the Church of England Free, 2001).

It was a famous controversy over divorce and remarriage 500 years ago that first institutionalised the arrangements for the Church’s governor to be chosen through royal heredity. Now there is a chance to think again about the wisdom of this settlement.

The Church can choose to remain attached to the monarchy and thereby assure its place in the heritage industry. Or it can embrace the opportunity to spearhead a bold ecumenical reconsideration of church-state relations.

The wedding of William and Kate is, for Christians, an opportunity to reflect further on this, and not simply be swept away (as many, sadly are) by superficial ritual and commercialised romance.

In the meantime, I wish them and all couples who are committing to each other for life today (as well as those currently forbidden from doing so) genuine good wishes – and eventual deliverance from the unhelpful shackles of Crown estate.


* Adrian Hastings, Church and State — The English Experience: The Prideaux Lectures for 1990 (University of Exeter Press, 1991), p. 72.

* Republic - http://www.republic.org.uk/

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

* Chris Rowland, 'A kingdom, but not as we know it' - http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/8020

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


© Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia. The first part of this article is adapted from 'Unravelling the rhetoric of Establishment', first published in Setting the Church of England Free: The case for disestablishment, edited by Kenneth Leech (Jubilee Group Publications, 2001). A revised version of the complete chapter will be published on Ekklesia. The second part of the article is adapted from 'The case for disestablishing the Church of England', written in association with Jonathan Bartley, and published in the Church of England Newspaper, 18 February 2005.

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.