As we approach the King’s coronation, journalist Heather Tomlinson explores the biblical idea of kingship and what that means for us
We’re celebrating a new King, who is also the ruler of England’s national Church. But doesn’t the Bible say we are better off without a monarch?
The coronation of King Charles III will no doubt be a great national celebration. Many community projects, meals and acts of charity are being planned, and many Union Jack flags will be waved. Following the death of Queen Elizabeth II and the country’s outpouring of grief and gratitude for her life, the monarchy is on a high. Many churches are getting in on the action as the centre of local celebrations.
There’s no doubt that taking part in this positivity is a good way to come closer to our neighbours, as we offer communal support and prayer for the new King. The Archbishops of York and Canterbury, Stephen Cottrell and Justin Welby, wrote to clergy to encourage their involvement, the ultimate aim being mission:
“The coronation will be a historic moment in the life of our nation; a time to reflect on our history, reflect and celebrate something of who we are, and look forward…This is a moment for us to witness to the love of Jesus Christ and a chance, in partnership with many others, to reach out and serve our communities.”
Of course, the two Archbishops have a particular interest, as King Charles III is also their new boss, the Supreme Governor of the Church of England.
I risk being a party pooper by pointing out that many Christians throughout history have disagreed with this kind of alliance of Church and state. There is also a good biblical case to be wary – at the very least – of powerful institutions such as royalty and strong government, and all the politics that comes along with them. I’ve outlined this case before, in an article for Premier Christianity magazine. But given that the Bible is full of the stories of kings - two chapters of the Bible are even named after them – surely it supports the existence of a monarchy?
The history of Church and state
Ever since the Roman Emperor Constantine declared himself a Christian, there has been a complex interplay between state power and the Church. After he adopted Christianity as the Roman Empire’s religion, the history of the Catholic Church was interwoven closely with the kingdoms of all the countries in which it has operated; not least England.
Here in England, that connection was broken when Henry VIII took over the assets of the Church by force, and made himself its head in the process. Not because he particularly believed in the new Protestant religion he was adopting, but because the Pope had refused him a divorce. The Church of England was born: and ever since, the person sitting on England’s throne has been in charge of our national Church, too.
Many non-conformist Christians have disagreed with this situation; even more have disagreed with the power of the monarchy. Even during the royalist years of Queen Victoria’s reign, half those attending church in 1851 were non-conformists, the other half CofE. They won the argument in the USA, where there is a separation of Church and state.
Today, many atheistic campaigners also want these powers to be separate. Perhaps this is why many Christians, even if they do not attend CofE churches, argue that having an established church is good because it means that our faith can have more of a positive influence on our society.
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Is monarchy justified in the Bible?
What about the monarchy itself? The history of Israel was driven by its kings and rulers; the good ones brought good things and are celebrated, but there were plenty of bad examples too.
However, at the start of it all, God clearly told his people that having a king was a bad idea in 1 Samuel 8. The population wanted a King because “then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles” (v20.) But God told Samuel to warn them that such a position of absolute power would be abused.
Verses 10 to 17 clearly states the consequences - oppression and injustice. The kings will demand men to go to war, people will be forced to work for the sovereign, he will take taxes and the people’s best livestock and crops. There’s no doubt that this prophecy has proved true throughout the ages, including in England. Many monarchs have demanded punishing taxes, shown bad management, oppressed the people and started unjustifiable wars.
Today, the British monarchy is a very different institution. It has more of a ceremonial role than a governing one, and we wouldn’t associate it with autocratic power, at least in its most recent history. From a faith perspective, Queen Elizabeth II can genuinely be considered a positive influence, with her bold declarations of faith in her annual Christmas Day message, and her lifetime of duty and service.
However benevolent today’s monarchy, they are still our official head of state. And the modern democratic state imposes many of the demands that Samuel warns about, even in countries where there is no royal family. We can be conscripted in war, and we are forced to pay taxes that seem every bit as burdensome as those Samuel warned about. Taxes extract 42% of the national income of this country – an astonishing £42,000 per household every year, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility.
Though modern governments justify this by spending most of it on positive social benefits such as healthcare and social care, the OBR stats show that around 5% of the UK’s national income goes on preparation for war (the defence budget). Even spending on healthcare includes activities many Christians would consider morally wrong, such as abortion. As it stands, we have no choice but to fund these activities.
It could even be argued that the modern state wields more power than a traditional monarch, with billions of pounds at its disposal, large armies and police operations, a right to our money guaranteed in law, and prisons for those who try to dodge the tax collector. Yes, it’s possible for our votes to get rid of some of them every four or five years at election time, which in theory means we have some power, unlike ancient regimes. Even so, it still seems to be the kind of power that is criticised in 1 Samuel 8.
It’s also popular for Christians to get deeply involved in this political game. Yet the justification for this is not clear-cut. The modern state often takes the place of God in our hearts – we look to government for our hope in the future, and to solve all our problems, from war to poverty, illness to our needs in old age. The opinions expressed in newspapers and social media demonstrate that when these expectations are not met, we get very angry, and the government is blamed for our social problems. But the Bible encourages us again and again to look to God for the answer to all these problems, not the state.
Who’s in charge?
Perhaps that is the lesson we can draw from the Bible’s warnings about kings and power. Rather than getting too caught up in the debates over whether there should be a king, and whether there should be an established Church like the CofE - both of which have reasonable arguments for and against - we can look within and ask ourselves what place we have given those institutions in our own hearts.
Psalm 146 puts it like this: “Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” The alternative is to trust God, who “remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry”.
Governments and kings will always disappoint. Our true hope lies in a much greater power.
Heather Tomlinson is a freelance journalist. You can find her on twitter @HeatherTomli or through her blog http://www.heathert.org