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What sort of king do we have in Christ?

Christ the King, 22 November, 2009
Nicholas Browne, Lay minister at St Peter's, Eastern Hill

When Father John told me that I would be preaching on the feast of Christ the King, I immediately looked up my Book of Common Prayer and, do you know, I couldn't find it anywhere.

Now, the main reason for this, of course, is that the feast wasn't invented until 1925. But I'd suggest that even if such a feast had existed in the pre-Reformation calendar, neither Cranmer nor the Restoration divines who compiled the 1662 book in its final form would have been too keen on it. As the art, ceremonial and rhetoric of the royal courts of both Henry VIII and Charles II demonstrate, they were far too busy appropriating Christian imagery to reinforce the power of the earthly king.

I watched David Starkey's interesting TV series Monarchy on DVD recently and it demonstrates how the English monarchs deliberately ramped up the pageantry and ritual and the priestly symbolism of anointing, laying on of hands and even touching the sick. A feast of Christ the King might well have been just a bit too much of an awkward reminder.

For, as social critics from Marx to Rene Girard have pointed out, the ritual and mystery surrounding earthly kingship — the thrones, the sceptres, the purple robes — served mostly to justify and validate the authority and power of the regime — a power that was ultimately based on violence. And this is where we need to be careful of taking the imagery of Christ the King in the wrong direction. If we dress Christ up too uncritically in the sort of robes favoured by Henry Tudor and Charles Stuart, we might find ourselves behaving like the courtiers and soldiers, the secret policemen, informers and enforcers of their regimes. Or perhaps we might get too taken up with image of royalty altogether and end up the sort of high Tory High Churchmen who confuse the earthly and heavenly kings — a heresy which would have Canon Hughes and Father Maynard, I would suggest, spinning in their graves.

For when you look at it, what sort of king do we have in Christ? After the passage we heard read this morning, St John goes on to describe Christ being mocked, beaten and dressed in a sickening parody of the robes and crown of an earthly king. But a king whose coronation is with thorns not gold. Who is raised up on a cross by those who despised him — not on a throne by flunkeys and attendants. One who says to the representative of the Roman empire — an occupying regime which was to spend 500+ years using religious imagery to justify power and violence — that 'My kingdom is not of this world' And more — who explicitly rejects the sort of violence on the part of his followers that would be necessary to keep him from harm. What sort of king is this?

I started with not being able to find the feast of Christ the King in my Book of Common Prayer. You won't find it the pewsheets of quite a lot of churches today either. It has been replaced with much more neutral imagery — like 'The reign of Christ' — avoiding what we might call 'The K Word' altogether. There are a lot of contemporary catholics in both the Roman and Anglican communions who have a bit of a problem with the notion of Christ as King — they find it far too patriarchal.

But, you see, I think they miss the point. In exalting Christ as King we are not dressing him in the sort of purple robes that validate violence and earthly power. We are taking these images and subverting them, reversing the process that Henry and Charles used in order to undermine the whole notion of sanctified violence. As the statues and paintings of Christus Rex remind us — Christ reigns — but he reigns from the cross.

So we are called — not to violence and power, 'fighting' for Christ in an earthly sense. Jesus tells Pilate quite clearly that that's not the sort of king he is and not the sort of thing he expects of his followers. No. We are called to listen to him and to belong to the Truth. And ultimately, as Christians, like the martyrs in our south window, like the many martyred by robed and crowned kings over the centuries, that is a much tougher service altogether.

In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Amen.


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