What is royalty for? The Prince Andrew shenanigans make royalty seem superfluous, outmoded and absurd. Why is he still styled a Vice-Admiral? He did not earn that rank. A normal Navy officer would be dismissed for comparable extra-curricular activities. This is an example of the privilege that marks royalty. Queen Elizabeth has earned much respect for her long and faithful reign. But this hides the issues that monarchy as an institution present. It perpetrates aristocracy, class division and inequality of opportunity. There is bowing and scraping, deference and social ambition. There are honours and preferments, titles and appointments. There are such roles as ‘lady of the bed chamber’, ‘gentleman of the back stairs’ and ‘silver stick in waiting’. What does the description ‘His Royal Highness’ actually mean? That the rest of us are lower in status? Socially that may be true but it is not true in the sight of God. The Queen signs bills into law but has no say in their content. It is a formality. Queen Elizabeth is the mother of the nation. She has a gracious disposition and a winning smile. She is actually ‘unregal’. Elizabeth is also a spiritual figure due to her transparent Christian Faith which has inspired her devotion to her calling and duties over her lifetime. It is her Christianity which people love and respect, the more so because they themselves do not live as Christians any more.
Republicans want an end to monarchy. Their opportunity will come when Charles becomes king. What is the alternative? President Tony Blair? President Adele? President Boris Johnson? President Harry Kane? Most nations in the world function with an elected president although there is much corruption amid the processes. Stability beyond the exigencies of politics is a good reason to continue with monarchy, perhaps less grand than at present reflecting Britain’s reduced status in the world.
The word ‘royal’ comes from Old French word ‘roial’ meaning regal, splendid, magnificent and from the Latin ‘regalis’ meaning ‘of a king, kingly, royal, regal’ which in turn comes from the Latin for king ‘rex, regis’. The root ‘reg’ means to ‘move in a straight line’, with derivatives meaning ‘to direct in a straight line’, thus ‘to lead, rule’. Saint Regulus or Saint Rule was a legendary 4th century monk or bishop of Patras, Greece who in AD 345 is said to have fled to Scotland with some of the bones of St Andrew, thus founding the town of the same name. He did not however play golf.
The word ‘king’ is derived from the Old English 'cynn' used for the chiefs or representatives of kin groups, into which Anglo-Saxon society was organised. These early ‘kings’ were primarily arbitrators, leaders, and warriors. Later, the word came to be used to translate the names for rulers in other European languages such as the Greek 'basileus' and the Latin 'rex'. The origins of greater kingship lie in military conquests and defeats of rivals and alternatives.
There were kings and royals aplenty in the middle east as the Israelites prospered in the Promised Land. The prophet Samuel lived around 1070 to 1012 BC. He had been dedicated to God from infancy, a significant birth as God’s response to the prayers of his mother Hannah, considered until then unable to have children. Samuel faithfully served the Lord all his days and was universally respected for his integrity. However his two sons, Joel and Abijah were reprobates. 1 Samuel 8 : 3 says, ‘They turned aside after dishonest gain and accepted bribes and perverted justice’. We do not know why they did so. Was Samuel a weak father? Was he an absent father travelling around all the time hearing and judging cases? Was the mother a bad influence? Was it just that they were not called to anything as special as their father’s ministry? Did they despise his piety, prayer and devotion to God? My generation has participated in the very large abandonment of the Christian Faith we inherited. The Church of Scotland today is unrecognisable from the Church of Scotland into which I was born, baptised and in which I grew up, whose ministry I was called to and which I have served thereafter all my life. There are many heartbroken parents who have witnessed the rejection of Jesus Christ by their children. Ours is the prodigal generation. Christianity is not automatically passed on. Each person has to discover Jesus Christ and become committed to Jesus Christ individually and personally. Each soul has to have a moment of self-realisation as a son or daughter of God. However God has called many over the centuries into life witness and service who never had any form of Christian upbringing.
We read further in 1 Samuel 8. ‘So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.” But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. Samuel told all the words of the Lord to the people who were asking him for a king. He said, “This is what the king who will reign over you will claim as his rights: he will take your sons and make them serve with his chariots and horses, and they will run in front of his chariots. Some he will assign to be commanders of thousands and commanders of fifties, and others to plough his ground and reap his harvest, and still others to make weapons of war and equipment for his chariots. He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use. He will take a tenth of your flocks, and you yourselves will become his slaves. When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.” But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us. 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.” When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.” (1 Samuel 8 : 4 – 20). Samuel anointed Saul as king. It did not end well. Saul turned to spiritualism when he knew he had lost contact with God. He was killed in battle. Samuel then anointed David as king and he became Israel’s greatest ever monarch, establishing a middle east empire that fulfilled the word given to Joshua. ‘Moses my servant is dead. Now then, you and all these people, get ready to cross the Jordan River into the land I am about to give to them—to the Israelites. I will give you every place where you set your foot, as I promised Moses. Your territory will extend from the desert to Lebanon, and from the great river, the Euphrates—all the Hittite country—to the Mediterranean Sea in the west’. (Joshua 1 : 1 – 4).
The primary need for kings and queens was national security. Expansion, conquering other peoples, empire-building and the ingathering of wealth followed. There was also rule, the coherent ordering of society. There was a quasi-spiritual or religious or mystical element in kingship. Cleopatra was held to be semi-divine. Caesar August proclaimed himself a god to be worshipped. The early Christians did not do so and suffered for it. Some monarchs became egomaniacs such as Henry VIII with his six wives, Catholic Queen Mary, ‘bloody Mary’, with her persecution of Reformation Protestants and French monarch Louis XIV who declared ‘L’etat c’est moi’. The Stewart kings thought themselves possessed of ‘the divine right of kings’ to rule absolutely. Cromwell & co disabused Charles I of that notion by beheading him on 30 January 1649. Britain has a constitutional monarchy, one which rules only with the will of Parliament. Monarchs are national figureheads. The usefulness of this was seen during the Second World War when King George and Queen Elizabeth identified themselves with the British people in the struggle against Hitler’s fascism. They were unifying figures as is Queen Elizabeth to this day.
The English idolise their monarchy in a way that Scots do not. We have a quiet respect for Queen Elizabeth and we recognise the good that Charles has done with his position. But there will, I think, be few street parties for the 70th jubilee here. In London, the Mall will be overwhelmed by well wishers straining for a glimpse of Her Majesty on the balcony of Buckingham Palace. It is not necessary to bow to someone else. Even the Queen knows that. Irrational excitement accompanies royal events. But the best of royalty have a magic about them. Everyone smiles in the presence of the Queen. Even Charles manages to uplift and encourage people. Diana did too, in a big way. There is no such thing as ‘royal blood’. Kate Middleton has no royal or aristocratic pedigree but she has learned how to do the job of a royal. The family also known as ‘the firm’ play their part for good and ill.
The Christian Churches are monarchists to the core. Maybe the Brethren are not so obsessed. Neither perhaps are Pentecostals. But certainly the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, established in law, enjoy privileged status and ministers of the latter especially compete for favours, offices and honorary positions. Monarchy is subtly organised throughout all society. Many charities depend on royal patronage. There is an entire non-governmental dimension of the nation which promotes good works and honourable involvements without which life as we know it would not be possible.
In Desmond Schum’s book ‘Red Roulette’ the author writes that in the ‘tight circle of people near the height of power in patriarchal China, there were very few women other than flight attendants and waitresses’(p 173) and speaks of ‘the paranoid delusions particular to China’s ruling elite’ (174). He distinguishes people of low social origins from members of the communist aristocracy. These had family connections to Mao and the origins of the Chinese Communist Party and lived in privileged and indeed extravagant circumstances becoming fabulously rich after Deng Xiaoping’s liberalisation of the economy beginning in 1979. Schum describes party apparatchiks as ‘pretenders to China’s throne’ (175) and mentions ‘rooks, knights, kings and queens’ as well as pawns (178). He concludes that ‘Party officials had taught the rest of the world to afford them and their country special treatment’ (188). What is the difference between this and royalty? So too in Russia. Western journalists describe the kleptocracy surrounding Vladimir Putin. Those who purloined state owned businesses for knock down prices as communism collapsed after the fall of the Berlin wall and became mega-rich, some laundering their vast funds through London banking institutions. The Czar of today and his monetised aristocracy are little different from those of pre-revolution Russia. America has its own forms of royalty. There is Hollywood royalty, Super Bowl royalty, Silicon Glen royalty, Wall Street royalty and dynastic political royalty such as the Kennedys, Bushes and perhaps even the Trumps to come. All of these have one thing in common. They are winners and they have reached the top.
And that is what royalty represents. Life at the top. For the very few and not for the many. So the many outsource their aspirations and worship at a distance. There are May queens, Pearly kings and queens, Gala queens and champions. There are small monarchs all over the place acting out their respective parts. Maybe simple societies can do without royalty. Perhaps large complex societies require forms of royalty.
Nevertheless, Jesus advised his disciples, ‘You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’. (Matthew 20 : 24 - 28).