An article by Giles Fraser from the Guardian.
Last Sunday was the Christian feast day of Christ the King. Or to give it its full, fancy title: the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe. Instituted in 1925 by Pope Pius XI, it was intended as a pushback against the rise of secular political movements – the isms – that demanded the sort of allegiance that Christians could only give to God. “It must be clear that not one of our faculties is exempt from his empire,” wrote Pius XI. “He must reign in our minds … He must reign in our wills … He must reign in our hearts.”
It is easy to read this as something profoundly reactionary, reinstating that mutually reinforcing combination of monarchy and religion that the French revolution diagnosed as the epitome of human oppression. The church supplies the moral authority, the monarchy supplies the power. Together they form an alliance of dangerous glamour. And the return of royal wedding fever to Britain, including the decision by Meghan Markle to get baptised and confirmed before her marriage to Prince Harry, offers a disconcerting reminder that this world has not entirely passed.
But there is another way to read the whole idea of Christ the King. When, during the English civil war, the Roundheads charged into battle against the forces of the king, they were often accompanied by banners saying: “No King but Jesus”. Among the most revolutionary of these were the Fifth Monarchists, who believed the kingdom of God would topple and replace all human despots. In other words, to say that Jesus is the only true king is to say that no one else is – not Charles I, not Robert Mugabe. For Christians, temporal power can only receive a provisional allegiance. Which is to say that the doctrine of Christ the King, properly understood, is far from reactionary.
It was a similar logic that had the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, having a go at the government’s definition of extremism last year. In an address to school leaders, he described a conversation with “a very senior politician” who thought it was obvious that an extremist could be defined as someone whose faith is more important than the rule of law. Welby responded: “Well, you’ve got a real problem here because for me personally my faith is more important than the rule of law, so you have an extremist sitting here with you.” He went on: “We do not believe as Christians that the rule of law outweighs everything else, we believe that the kingdom of God outweighs everything else.” It was a version of the “No King but Jesus” banner.
But the theological picture is not yet complete. Because, for Christians, this monarchy is not as it is popularly imagined. Indeed, the kingship of Jesus is a total inversion of the whole power and gold crowns and wealth thing. Power is renounced. His coronation was on a cross, wiping spit from his face. His crown was made up of thorns, digging into his head. The moment in which he becomes king looks to all the world like an abdication. He may have been born in royal David’s city, but that is where the comparisons end. In Jesus, monarchy is redefined, upended.
This is why it is so disappointing that the coronation service draws almost exclusively from Old Testament ideas of kingship, and the servant king hardly gets a mention. Perhaps the priestly courtiers over at Westminster Abbey would think it rude to remind the monarch that Christian kingship is an indignity. They want the coronation to be all about the glamour of dressing up and processing, all ermine and orbs and the music of Handel’s glorious Zadok the Priest – King Solomon’s priestly courtier.
I don’t know if the impressive Meghan Markle believes that she is entering a fairytale family. And I do slightly worry that the introduction of Hollywood glamour into the royal family serves only to reinforce the wrong sort of monarchy, the bread-and-circuses version. On the other hand, if she can bring some of her campaigning spirit for the dispossessed into the mix, the monarchy will be all the richer for it. And also be brought much closer to the spirit of that troublesome servant king into whose service she has decided to become baptised.