Why Monarchy Matters
The Year of Jubilee was originally a radical celebration of
liberation, equality and justice. So why, wonders Symon
Hill, are today's Christians seemingly content to glorify
an elite and undemocratic institution?
The year was 1661. The country was in economic turmoil. Monarchy
had been restored after 11 years of a republic. Charles II had
already broken his promises of religious liberty. As protests
spread, a group of activists occupied St Paul's Cathedral. They
declared their opposition to Charles II and announced the reign of
As government forces cracked down, dozens were killed in two
days of fighting. The protests were violently suppressed. Seventeen
radicals were executed for high treason. More than 4,000
Anabaptists, Quakers and Fifth Monarchists were rounded up and
imprisoned. Many died in jail.
As the government raided private houses and announced new
restrictions on worship, the Quakers issued a statement distancing
themselves from the violence. Unlike the Fifth Monarchists, they
believed that God would never lead them to fight 'with outward
weapons'. But they shared the Fifth Monarchists' support for King
Jesus. 'As for the kingdoms of this world,' they said, 'We cannot
covet them, much less can we fight for them'. They hoped that they
would be replaced by the kingdom 'of the Lord and of his Christ'1.
For politically progressive Christians in the 17th century, support
for King Jesus meant opposition to the kings of this world. 'No
king but Jesus!' shouted a good many parliamentary soldiers as they
marched into battle. They were not the only ones. A century before,
the Anabaptist leader Thomas Müntzer told an aristocrat that he had
no right to be 'a prince over the people whom God redeemed with his
dear blood'2. But the tradition goes back much further: to the days
when early Christians were persecuted for refusing to recognise
Caesar as Lord. Only Christ is Lord, they said.
CELEBRATE OR LIBERATE?
As the celebrations of royal jubilee got underway at the beginning
of this year, support for King Jesus did not seem to be much in
evidence. The Church of England asked us all to sign a 'thank you'
letter to Elizabeth Windsor. The Methodists' Cliff College
encouraged churches to celebrate the jubilee. British Quakers were
hit by internal controversy after their national committee agreed
to submit a 'loyal address' to the monarch.
There was little reference to the original, biblical meaning of
'jubilee' - a festival in which debts were cancelled, slaves were
liberated and justice increased. And there was worryingly little
debate in Christian circles on the ethical and theological
implications of celebrating the reign of an earthly monarch.
A hereditary head of state is fundamentally undemocratic. It is
often argued that this unfairness doesn't really matter because the
monarch has no power. This overlooks the very real influence
exercised by the royal family. Last year, it was revealed that
ministers had effectively sought Charles Windsor's permission to
pass 12 government bills over six years3. There can be little doubt
that he would continue to involve himself in politics after
Furthermore, there is the Royal Prerogative. This is a power that
is generally transferred to the Prime Minister. It allows him or
her to do all manner of things in the name of the crown that should
be the business of Parliament, such as declaring war and signing
At the heart of debates over monarchy is a fundamental question:
'What sort of society do we really want to be?'. A country in which
some address others as 'my lord' and 'your majesty' sends a clear
message of contempt for equality and human dignity. The monarchy
stands at the pinnacle of a host of other injustices - a corrupt
honours systems, an unaccountable House of Lords, an unfairly
established Church of England and armed forces premised on the
assumption that violence is the final answer. MPs and soldiers
swear allegiance not to the country's people but to the
This is why monarchy matters. It is not a quaint relic of a
bygone era. Celebrations of monarchy - with their pomp, titles and
hierarchy - glorify inequality before one word has been spoken
about power or economics.
Royalists often argue that the monarch is 'above politics'. This
gives the impression that politics is something dirty and that
being above it is the best option. But politics is about more than
politicians and elections. Politics is about people, about us,
about our everyday concerns and how we - or someone else - use
power to address those concerns. Who do we trust? Do we trust
ourselves and each other to work together and run our society? Or,
when push comes to shove, do we fall back on trusting in mythical
It is on these questions of trust and loyalty that Christians
should have most to say. We are called to place our ultimate trust
in God. This is not easy, but few Christians would deny that it
should be our aim. Kings who claimed to rule by 'divine right' knew
that they could not demand total loyalty from any Christian if they
did not equate their power with God's.
Royal coronations in Britain have traditionally used the
language of divine right and employed some carefully chosen
passages from the Old Testament. The scriptures are distinctly
ambivalent about monarchy. When the Israelites asked Samuel for a
king 'like other nations', God said, 'They have rejected me from
being king over them'. Eventually, God allowed Samuel to give them
a king, but only after he had warned them of the nature of
monarchy. He said that a king 'will take your sons and appoint them
to his chariots and to be his horsemen... and to reap his harvests
and to make his implements of war'4.
Admittedly, the Old Testament is mixed on the subject. There are
other passages that are more positive about kings. It is in the New
Testament that we find a very different message. The Gospels show
Jesus treating all people with love, even as he challenges them,
with no distinction for their social status. This was subversive in
a deeply hierarchical society overshadowed by the figure of
As the New Testament scholar Justin Meggitt puts it: 'The
development of ideas about Christ could not have occurred
independently of the influence of ideas about the Roman emperor'5.
According to John, the chief priests told Pilate that Jesus cannot
be their king because 'we have no king but the emperor'6. Luke
reported that Christians in Thessalonica were accused of 'acting
contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is
another king named Jesus'7.
Jesus told Pilate that his kingdom is 'not from here'8 or
'not of this world'9. This does not mean it has no political
significance. Separation of religion and politics is a modern idea
that would have been incomprehensible in the first century. The
Greek word translated 'world' is 'kosmos', which can refer to the
Earth, the universe or a way of doing things. Walter Wink
translated it as 'system'10. Jesus was telling Pilate that he was
proclaiming a different sort of kingdom to the violent and
hierarchical systems usually associated with kingship.
RENDER UNTO GOD
What about Jesus' own comments on the emperor? His opponents tried
to catch him out by asking whether they should pay taxes to Caesar.
Jesus challenged them to produce a coin. The Roman coins described
Caesar as 'son of God'. Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of those who
were prepared to use Caesar's money, and benefit from his rule,
while claiming not to worship him.
He told them to 'give to the emperor the things that are the
emperor's and to God the things that are God's'11. It is not
credible to argue that he meant they should pay the tax. Such an
answer would not have 'amazed' them.
Jesus was challenging his listeners to think about what really
belonged to God and to Caesar. In effect, he was posing a choice
between the two. As Ched Myers puts it, Jesus invited his listeners
'to act according to their allegiances, stated clearly as
As jubilee celebrations continue, are we prepared to declare
that love and community, guided by God, give far greater cause for
celebration than the values of inequality, lavish wealth and armed
force glorified by earthly monarchy? Can we renounce the divided
loyalty that comes with ascribing titles such as 'lord', 'king' and
'queen' to someone other than God? Can we hear Christ's challenge
as he looked at an idolatrous coin and endeavour to render no
loyalty to Caesar, and everything to God?
In New Testament times, as in the 17th century, belief in King
Jesus posed a direct challenge to human authority and to the
world's kings and queens. It still does.
1 Quoted in Quaker Faith and Practice: The book of Christian
discipline of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Britain
(Britain Yearly Meeting, 1995).
2 Cited by Andrew Bradstock, Faith in the Revolution: The
political theologies of Müntzer and Winstanley (SPCK, 1997).
3 Robert Booth, 'Prince Charles has been offered a veto over
twelve government bills since 2005', Guardian website, 30 October
4 1 Samuel 8, 4-22 (NRSV).
5 Justin Meggitt, 'Taking the Emperor's Clothes Seriously:
The New Testament and the Roman Emperor' in The Quest for Wisdom:
Essays in honour of Philip Budd, edited by Christine E. Joynes
(Orchard Academic, 2002).
6 John 19, 15 (NRSV).
7 Acts 17, 7 (NRSV).
8 John 18, 36 (NRSV).
9 John 18, 36 (AV).
10 Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers (Augsburg Fortress,
11 Mark 12, 17 (NRSV).
12 Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A political reading
of Mark's story of Jesus (Orbis Books, 1988).