Celebrating a royal tyrant

While reading the Church Times in bed last night, I flicked over to the adverts and saw an announcement that disgusted me. It was advertising the “Commemoration of the martyrdom of King Charles I”. It listed two eucharistic services, in London and Edinburgh, each led by a bishop, to mark this “martyrdom”. 

All tyrants have their fans. Joseph Stalin is still popular with certain people both inside and outside Russia. I’m sure there are people who think that the Roman Emperor Nero was a good bloke. What is surprising is not that a tyrant is being celebrated, but that this celebration is listed in the official calendar of the Church of England and marked in church services led by bishops. 

The Church of England lists 30 January as the “Feast of King Charles the Martyr”. This was the date in 1649 when Charles I was executed following his conviction for treason. Charles was one of the most vicious and oppressive rulers that Britain has ever known. Convinced that God had given him the right to rule, he tried to exercise power without Parliament. He levied heavy taxes that hurt the poor and people in the middle rather than the rich. He used many of these taxes to fund very avoidable wars. Eventually, of course, he waged war against his own people.

I am not suggesting that Charles was solely responsible for the deaths of the thousands of people who were killed in the civil war. But no-one bears more responsibility for those deaths than he does. He was rightly found guilty of treason. This was an important moment, as treason had generally been defined as the betrayal of a monarch. Convicting a king of treason made clear that a ruler is expected to be loyal to the people; not the other way around.

As an opponent of the death penalty, I do not condone the execution of Charles I – or of anyone else. This was a time in which the death penalty was used for a wide range of crimes, certainly including treason and murder – and Charles was guilty of both of these. 

The services listed in the advert, which I assume take place every year, seem to be organised by a group called the “Royal Martyr Church Union”. I suspect they may be a very small group, as they don’t appear even to have a website. I would be inclined to dismiss them were it not for the people presiding at their services – Robert Ladds, Assistant Bishop of London and John Armes, Bishop of Edinburgh. 

More worrying still is that the “Feast of King Charles the Martyr” continues to be listed in the Church of England’s calendar. It was instituted after the republic was overthrown in 1660 and Charles I’s son returned from exile in France to take the throne as Charles II. He did so on the basis of promises of religious and political liberty that were almost immediately broken. 

I understand that high church Anglicans may share some of Charles I’s views on church government, although Anglo-Catholicism has included a strong left-wing strand since the nineteenth century. But it is one thing to agree with a ruler’s views on a particular issue, quite another to overlook oppression. I’m sure that many Anglicans find this celebration repugnant. Why are others continuing with it? 

Who can now say the monarchy is not political?

The important point about today’s “Queengate” scandal is not whether Elizabeth Windsor was right to be worried about Abu Hamza. It is not the question of whether the BBC’s leadership will one day develop a backbone. It is that Britain’s supposedly “apolitical” monarch has been found to be lobbying ministers and seeking to exercise political influence. 

I don’t blame Elizabeth Windsor for having political opinions. Like the rest of us, she is quite entitled to them. She does not have a right to unduly influence ministers because of a position gained through an accident of birth. 

This incident gives the lie to the notion that the monarchy is above politics. This has always been a bizarre argument. Nobody can be “above politics”, because politics affects us all. Talk of being “above politics” implies that politics is something inherently dirty and that it’s best to be above it. But there’s more to politics than parties and elections. Politics is about all of us, about our lives together, about how we run our society and economy. 

Of course, there are many other reasons for opposing monarchy. The idea of one person bowing before another and addressing her or him as “your majesty” or “my lord” is morally repugnant. It is an affront to human dignity and equality. The existence of hereditary privilege sends out a negative message about the values our society holds dear. 

The BBC’s continued subservience to the Windsor family – despite its relative independence on many other issues – is another sign of the undemocratic nature of the monarchy. 

Elizabeth has generally thought to be restrained in terms of political interference. Charles Windsor seems to have expressed opinions on any subject that occurs to him. If even Elizabeth is lobbying from the throne, how much more can we expect Charles to do so? Today’s revelations are another reason for holding a referendum on whether to continue with monarchy once the current postholder dies.

 Please click here to read a longer article that I wrote recently for Third Way magazine, criticising monarchy from a Christian point of view. 

Historic handshakes and the cycle of violence

We can only guess what was going through the minds of Martin McGuiness and Elizabeth Windsor as they shook hands in Belfast last week. One of my favourite takes on the event was a cartoon of the handshake in Thursday’s Independent. It showed Elizabeth saying “Renouncing command of an army and seeking democratic approval – nawt bleddy lakely!”.

As a republican pacifist, I have little natural sympathy with either Martin McGuiness or Elizabeth Windsor. However, I applaud the efforts of various politicians on several sides in the Irish peace process. Even more so, I applaud the people of Northern Ireland themselves.

I was truly heartened by the photographs of this handshake. Thankfully, neither party to the handshake – nor their advisers – felt the need to rush out statements in advance clarifying what they did or didn’t mean by it. McGuiness did not bow to Elizabeth Windsor. Nor, I suspect, did he address her as “your majesty”. It was good to see her talking to someone as an equal. McGuiness was quick to tell the media afterwards “I’m still a republican”.

The handshake said far more than words could, despite all the questions it leaves open. It says a lot about the frustrating but inspiring nature of reconciliation that a handshake like this can happen while the questions are still so open. Reconciliation is not easy. It is not fluffy or comfortable. Reconciliation is messy. It is painful. Reconciliation involves seeing people you’re not keen on doing things that you’d rather they were not doing.

It’s been good to see several newspapers applauding the reconciliation symbolised by this handshake. Some of those same papers took a different approach throughout the troubles, insisting that it would be both wrong and unproductive to try to engage in dialogue with terrorists. They now speak about reconciliation and the need to break cycles of violence.

Sadly, some of them are as reluctant to apply this message to Afghanistan, Syria or the streets of Britain as they were to apply it to Northern Ireland in the 80s and 90s. Reconciliation is a rather easier thing to support once it has gained widespread approval. It is much harder for the brave individuals who are prepared to advocate it while others are screaming for blood.

Violence and hatred breed more violence and hatred. This is surely one of the most obvious lessons of history as well as one of the most ignored. As Martin Luther King put it, through violence you may destroy the hater, but you will not destroy the hate.

I would find it hard to shake hands with either Elizabeth Windsor or Martin McGuiness, although I hope I would readily do so in the unlikely event that the situation presented itself. I applaud them – and their advisers – for the handshake, for the equal, respectful body language and for the fact that neither side felt that lots of words were needed to justify themselves.

Even more do I applaud the people of Northern Ireland and the many others who have played a part in the long, very incomplete but truly inspiring process of reconciliation. Let’s applaud the courage of those brave enough to support the first steps to reconciliation, as well as those who came to the process late and were prepared to lose face by putting reconciliation first.

One of the most poignant reflections on the handshake was written by Tony Parsons in the Daily Mirror. He noted that we cannot know what went through the heads of either party as they shook hands. We can’t know what ghosts haunted them. He added, “But this we can say with certainty. The human soul grows sickened of hatred”.

Amen to that.


The above article formed my latest column on the Ekklesia website. To see more Ekklesia columns – by my colleagues as well as myself – please visit http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/news/columns.

The anti-monarchy, anti-cuts protest

I’m about to leave for the rebpublican protest against the monarchy and the royal jubilee. For me, this is not only a demonstration for democracy, important though that it. It is also an anti-cuts demonstration.

This is because the original meaning of “jubilee” is being scandalously abused this weekend. Jubilee is described in the Book of Leviticus as a time when debts were cancelled, slaves set free and the economy rebalanced.

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year and you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you… The land shall not be sold in perpetuity… If any of your kin falls into difficulty and sells a piece of property… in the jubilee it shall be released and the property returned… If any of your kin fall into difficulty and sell themselves… they and their children with them shall go free in the jubilee year… I am the LORD your God”. (Leviticus 25, NRSV)

As Gareth Hughes, Anglican chaplain to Hertford College, Oxford, pointed out last week, “our society is crying out for this sort of jubilee”. Instead, this weekend’s “jubilee” will celebrate earthly power, obscene wealth, hereditary privilege and military might.

The economic dimension of “real jubilee” is a key reason for the involvement of Christianity Uncut in the weekend’s protests. Sadly, many churches are celebrating, rather than challenging, the abuse of the concept of jubilee. This makes it all the more important for other Christians to make clear that they want to celebrate justice, not privilege.

Kate and William are our equals

BBC Radio 4, so often a voice of intelligence and relative impartiality, began this morning’s news with the extreme bias and simpering tones they reserve for reports on the Windsor family. It was announced that Kate Middleton would be “transformed” from a “commoner” into “Her Royal Highness the Duchess of Cambridge”.

I hope that Kate Middleton and William Windsor have a very happy marriage. Marriage is about love and commitment, not about privilege and hierarchy. If Kate Middleton has been “transformed”, it is because she has become a married woman.

She has not become somebody else. Her blood has not turned blue. She has not stopped being a human being, equal in value to you and me. All that’s happened is that her grandmother-in-law has said she should be referred to by a medieval title.

I continue to be amazed that so many otherwise caring, respectful, intelligent people can demean themselves by happily addressing somebody else as “your royal highness” or “my lord”. I respect those who consider they are doing so out of necessity, such as lawyers committed to justice who call judges “my lord” when they would rather not. But the acceptance of such titles in a supposed democracy, and the self-contempt implied in them, has never made sense to me.

It has made even less sense since I became a Christian. Christ is my lord, my king, my queen. Early Christians died for refusing to say “Caesar is lord”. They wouldn’t acknowledge an earthly monarch even when this led to their deaths. How much do we insult their memory if we idolatrously recognise another lord simply out of habit or acceptance of social norms?

When William and Kate’s engagement was announced, some said it was a sign of “social mobility”. This is laughable. An upper class man is marrying an upper middle class woman.

The government talks of social mobility while slashing public services, education and the welfare state, driving wider the already vast gulf between the poorest and richest in our society. The very phrase “social mobility” implies a few individuals being allowed to move through a hierarchical system. We don’t need social mobility. We need equality.

We cannot achieve equality and uphold human dignity while grovelling in front of privileged individuals. We are not subjects. We are not servants. We are not “commoners”. We are human beings, created in the image of God. 

Churches should not uphold monarchy

 I appeared on Channel 4 on Wednesday (13 April), suggesting that a monarch should not be head of a church. I spoke for just under two minutes, as one of a series of short clips in which people with different views responded to the question “Should the queen stand down as head of the Church of England?”.

The clip can be viewed by clicking here.  My Ekklesia colleague Simon Barrow blogged about it here.

The 4thought website also shows the others expressing views on the issue.

4thought is on after Channel 4 news every day, featuring a different religious or ethical question every few days. 

It felt rather odd to be interviewed for over an hour and then see the result edited down to less than two minutes. However, I’m very grateful to the people at 4thought, who have managed to edit me very fairly and summarise my view very well.

My concerns about the Church of England’s links to the monarchy are partly about symbolism, but also the practical consequences of that symbolism. The royal link implies an endorsement of values of hierarchy and privilege at odds with the teaching of Jesus. This constrains the Church’s ability to speak out for independent and radical views and values.

Of course, the monarchical ties are only one factor among many that constrain the Church’s progressive voice. Like most of the other factors, it is a legacy of Christendom – the time when Christianity was linked to wealth and power, holding considerable sway over society. As we move away from Christian privilege in a multifaith society, we can welcome post-Christendom as an opportunity to look again at Jesus’ radical teachings. The injustices of monarchy are the last thing we should be holding on to.