In this Jubilee year and month, David Nichol welcomes a revised edition of a book which seeks to emphasize the sacred nature of the British monarchy; a gift which gives us a sense of national identity focused upon God
GOD SAVE THE QUEEN
The Spiritual Heart of the Monarchy
Continuum, 334pp, pbk
978 1441193674, £12.99
MUCH HAS already been written about monarchy in this Jubilee year, and some will include a passing nod to the arcane relics of its religious past. Few, I suspect, will show so thorough an understanding of the theological heart of this national institution.
Ian Bradley, you may already know, is a Church of Scotland minister and professor, and a prolific writer on a whole range of subjects (the next one is to be on the spirituality of water), a sort of touchy-feely counterpart to Alistair McGrath. Hardly standard New Directions fare, but I really warmed to this book, and am grateful for his efforts. He writes with grace and ease, and his coverage is comprehensive.
Bradley outlines the Old and New Testament origins of England’s sacred monarchy, before proceeding to the Saxon origins and its embodiment in the elaborate ritual of the coronation service, and pursuing its chequered history through the Stuarts and the ‘Protestant Project’ of the Glorious Revolution. All this makes for a distinctively British understanding of monarchy.
I particularly enjoyed his chapter on Victoria, and her marked preference for the Scottish church and its ministers, and the lack of bishops. Indeed, his wider critique of bishops is salutary, and probably more telling for not coming from an Anglican. He is even-handed in gently criticizing those from earlier decades who sought to build up their own importance on the back of the Sovereign, and those in our own day who mock or belittle the institution.
For the current Queen’s reign, he covers much the same ground as all the other books and articles now appearing, but with many telling comments of his own. He does not over-egg the Diana funeral hysteria (a rare feat), and gives a generous interpretation of Prince Charles’ desire to be known as ‘Defender of Faith’, pointing out (fairly) that it is a perfectly reasonable translation of the Latin, which has no article, definite or indefinite.
OK, so it is an admirable and easily readable text book for one of the principal subjects of this year, and a valuable resource for theological teaching or conversation. But this alone is not going to commend it to you. What gives this book life is Bradley’s unexpected and vigorous commitment to the monarchy as a sacred institution. As he rightly points out, ‘Monarchy naturally appeals particularly to those of a conservative, traditionalist and High Church persuasion,’ so it is genuinely encouraging to find the same enthusiasm from one who is none of these. ‘I understand why some of the fiercest critics of monarchy should be those who share my own liberal theological and political outlook.’ His analysis is all more persuasive because of this natural bias.
The manifesto with which he ends the book is an unapologetic exhortation to re-sacralize the monarchy, not to remove the ancient and embarrassing accretions but to re-emphasize them, not to disestablish the church, but to re-integrate it into the life of the nation in the person of the monarch.
He doesn’t quite say that the Queen has the potential to be one of the most valuable evangelistic tools and a fresh expression of church, because he is not governed by CofE norms, but his commitment is unequivocal. ‘As an essentially sacred institution, the monarchy is particularly well placed to lead the recovery of our lost metaphysical imagination and the resacralization of our secularized society.’
1,378 years of English Christian monarchy (I count from King Oswald’s victory at Heavenfield as its clearest beginning) is a great gift. It should be cherished, not set aside: Bradley is full of detailed advice as to how the next coronation service may adjust to modern sensibilities without losing the core of its historic power.
A Christian monarchy of service is above all the context for a particular form of national identity, focused upon God and therefore also upon the individual, and able to include all within its embrace.
It is a fragile thing, this British heritage, and much of what is greatest value within it is expressed through the person of the Sovereign. It is one of the means by which we share a common identity, and by which together and individually we approach God and learn of his will for us. Not the sort of thing you can say these days in polite society, so all credit to Bradley for saying it so clearly and passionately on our behalf. ND
Michael Fisher’s new study of Pugin, ‘Gothic For Ever’: A. W. N. Pugin, Lord Shrewsbury, and the Rebuilding of Catholic England, will be next month’s ‘Book of the Month’.