Even the monarch must bow to God's will
Beyond the gaudier aspects of the Royal Soap Opera, you may have missed one more edifying detail. At the Royal Carol Service, King Charles requested the poem ‘Refugee’ by Malcolm Guite to be read. It’s a haunting, seasonally appropriate statement of God’s solidarity with the suffering:
Whilst Herod rages still from his dark tower
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Christ clings to Mary, fingers tightly curled,
The lambs are slaughtered by the men of power,
And death squads spread their curse across the world.
The poem reminds us of the strangeness of Christmas’s juxtapositions, and just how geo-politically turbulent, blood-stained, and un-tinselly are the biblical narratives on which all this is based. It also stood out to me because of the significance of a King choosing a poem which ends with the line:
But every Herod dies, and comes alone
To stand before the Lamb upon the throne.
He may be thinking, of course, of the tyrants that rage in the poem and in our time, but it can’t be possible to wear that crown without hearing it for himself.
The incarnation, which millions of Christians globally celebrate tomorrow, is a deeply politically subversive doctrine. Its claim is that a power exists under which tyrants and sovereigns will bow, and that power comes through the legs of a woman, wrapped in vulnerability and dependence. That woman, when she discovered her pregnancy, is recorded as singing that God has “cast down the mighty from their thrones and has lifted up the lowly” like a teenage revolutionary. Of the tiny fragments of female speech which survive from the ancient world, it is among the most empowered. Mary, a person right at the bottom of the power pile, sounds triumphant, blazing, righteous.
Power is inescapable and coercive. I am no thoroughgoing royalist (though I hold out little hope that if we tore it all down we’d be better off), but the symbolic restraint of royal power baked into our own system feels important.
Nick Spencer, in his magisterial history of the influence of the Bible on British politics, Freedom and Order, traces how the theological doctrine of limited power has shaped both our conception of royalty and other forms of power down the centuries. From Anglo-Saxon times, “the principal way in which Church and Bible shaped kingship […] was to place it under judgement”. The church both legitimised royal authority, and limited it “by articulating what the [sovereign] needed to do to maintain [their] earthly legitimacy”. They were to be under the law themselves, to enact justice, to act morally, to seek peace and to protect the weak and vulnerable. If they did not, both God and the people could hold them to account.
This year we lost a woman who never forgot the responsibilities of her role or the limits of her power. Because of this, the world mourned her. In a context when political leaders seem to neither expect nor receive accountability for wielding their power against the most vulnerable, it seems we may have a King with a clearer, longer view. I hope we do. We need it.