A sermon preached by Andrew McKearney at St Mary’s Iffley on Sunday 7th May 2023
Monarchy has ancient roots that we heard about in our first reading this morning. Saul, David and Solomon were Israel’s first kings, around 3,000 years ago. Surrounding nations had a monarch and the people of Israel wanted a monarch too.
‘Give us a king to govern us, like other nations’ they pressed the prophet, Samuel. But Samuel was not pleased and nor was the Lord:
“Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say
to you,” the Lord replied to Samuel, “for they have
not rejected you, but they have rejected me from
being king over them.”
It’s a mixed picture in the Old Testament, but the predominant sense is that kings are not just a bad idea but a betrayal of faith – God is the only king human beings should honour. And gradually a hope emerged that one day God would give his people a king who would reign with justice and mercy – the long-awaited messiah.
The New Testament tells the story of that long-awaited messiah who is so radically different from any human king that he’s unrecognisable.
His understanding of leadership we heard summed up in this morning’s gospel reading:
“The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and
those in authority over them are called benefactors.
But not so with you; rather the greatest among you
must become like the youngest, and the leader like
one who serves.”
And this was one of the distinctive aspects of monarchy that our late Queen highlighted. Famously on her 21st birthday, she made a declaration that would become a defining characteristic of her reign:
“I declare before you all that my whole life, whether
it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.”
Five years later, in her Christmas message before her Coronation, she asked for her people’s prayers precisely for that purpose, though nowhere in the Coronation service itself was this explicitly stated, that kingship is a ministry of public service.
Yes, service had been an implicit aspect of monarchy for generations, not least through the ceremonies of the Royal Maundy, remembering how Jesus washed his disciples’ feet as the symbol of service.
But near the end of our late Queen’s long reign, on the Diamond Jubilee of her Coronation in 2013, prayers offered in Westminster Abbey developed this language very explicitly, giving thanks for “Her Majesty’s example of humble service; for her commitment to the needs of others and for the affectionate service of her peoples”.
This idea of leadership being essentially service is a deeply Christian one:
“I am among you as one who serves”,
we heard Jesus say to his disciples, as they argued with each other about which one of them should be regarded as the greatest.
Our late Queen made it the hallmark of her reign.
And then yesterday, after that long and grand procession into Westminster Abbey, in the opening greeting at the start of the service, a completely new aspect to a Coronation was introduced, when the King, after being greeted by a chorister, said:
“In his name, and after his example,
I come not to be served but to serve.”
Those words had never been used before at a Coronation.
As one commentator has written:
“Of all the gifts a monarchy can give contemporary
culture, insisting that the highest office in the land,
consecrated to rule, is most fully expressed in the
service of the vulnerable (as the King does with his
passion for refugees and marginalised communities,
for example) is one of the greatest.”
It was a redeemed understanding of leadership, that the Coronation held in front of us, for Royalty and all of us to take to heart:
“I come not to be served but to serve.”