The marks of kingship

Here is the text of Fr Charles’s sermon on Sunday 25 November, the feast of Christ the King. It was given in the wake of the decision by General Synod not to approve the ordiantion of women bishops.

Some congregations have felt that the title of this feast has served its purpose, and that it is more helpful to speak of the rule of Christ, or the reign of Jesus. But I would be sorry to lose it.  We, after all, are quite happy to speak of the Kingdom of Heaven, so why not the King?

But I have another reason.  The Feast was first announced in 1925 as an antidote, as a challenge, to ideologies which were sweeping across Europe and beyond.  The rise of bolshevism, fascism, and nationalism was already strengthening.  The Feast was proclaiming that whatever our nationality, ethnicity and culture, we were all alike subject to the just and gentle rule of Jesus Christ, the King of all.

But above all the feast always reminds me of the sermon preached in St Paul’s Cathedral by the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple.  War had not been declared but it was clear to most people in the autumn of 1938 where events were likely end. In this extraordinary sermon, preached to all the Bishops of the Anglican Communion, as the clouds were gathering throughout the world, his refrain, “God reigns” rang out within that great building which was to come so close to destruction. Despite everything which we can do to each other, “God reigns”.

What is this power to reign? In what ways may we describe Christ as King?

It is curious that Sunday by Sunday we are given a clue in the words of our creed. In the same breath we mention two people who saw this kingship at the beginning and ending of Jesus life. In the same breath we say, “Born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

The words spoken by the angel to Mary clearly spoke of power and kingship. “Do not be afraid Mary, for the child will be called great, the son of the Most High God, and he will be given the throne.” Everything about the events surrounding his birth proclaimed his kingship, and yet as his ministry progressed how many times must she have watched as her idea of power and authority in her son was turned upon its head.

Throughout his ministry he proclaimed by word and action that the Kingdom of God had come close. But by the time he had come to Jerusalem for the last time he was being accused of a different kind of kingship altogether. “We have found this fellow subverting the nation, opposing the payment of taxes, and saying that he himself is Christ, a King.”

And the final scene with Pontius Pilate is a declaration that his kingship is unlike any other.  The crowds played with this kingship, but they could not avoid the belief of Pilate when he had written over the cross, “This is the King of the Jews”

Throughout his ministry all notions of power, authority, and kingship had to undergo constant revision. He had immense power over disease and the elements, but he went very rarely to the places where kings were to be found. He was a king, but a king who never rose so high that he couldn’t see those who were low down.

The fact that beliefs about kingship, monarchy, authority have to change should come as no surprise to us in this country.  Monarchy for this country and for the Commonwealth has changed profoundly in a short space of time. So it is with the kingship of Christ.  In Jesus we see the King, but in a stable.  And his kingship is still to be found in the stables, shelters, dug-outs and refuges of our time.

Therefore it is legitimate for us to ask, what are the marks of his kingship on our Church?  What are the marks of his kingship on our lives? The marks are diverse and glorious, but I believe that the sadness of this past week has been because we know that the marks of his kingship are to be found in embrace and not in exclusion. It means that we want to proclaim that the marks of his kingship are to be found in our Church and that  its ministry is open to all.  To black and white, gay and straight, to male and female.  And that therefore the ministry of lay and ordained, priest, deacon and bishop should also be open to all as a mark of his kingship.

For us at St John’s these are the marks of his kingship and we should use every avenue in our power to ensure that the Church understands that the issue of women bishops should be revisited strenuously, passionately and speedily.

We pray daily “thy kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven” and as we do so we recognise that we have nothing to be ashamed of in declaring that Christ is King – King of the universe, king of our Church and king of our lives. A king who seeks embrace and justice in our lives and not exclusion and inequality.  Whatever our anxiety and disappointment at this time we may still be proud and hopeful enough to echo the words of William Temple as we say to each other and to ourselves, “God reigns”.