A review published in the journal Crucible (Church of England Unit on Mission and Public Affairs, now produced by the William Temple Foundation), Spring 2004.
Ian Bradley, God Save the Queen: The Spiritual Dimension of Monarchy, Darton Longman and Todd 2002. £14.95. ISBN 0 232 52414 9.
Contemporary attitudes to monarchy are profoundly ambiguous. On the one hand a prying, sensationalising, emotive and intrusive popular media has exposed individual members of the Royal Family in a way that for earlier generations would have been unthinkable. This has led to intense scrutiny and criticism. The painful dysfunction of demi-gods has shown them to have feet of clay much like ours.
At the same time there have been waves of adulation and intense, cathartic identification in which the core, inscrutable mystique of ‘royalty’ has undoubtedly been affirmed for many people. I am thinking of the dominant response to the recent death of the Queen Mother. The funeral of Princess Diana was the paradoxical meeting point of these two phenomena, adulation and dismay.
Throughout all these media-conveyed shenanigans the persistent commitment of a majority to the institution of monarchy and of a minority against it has been maintained, with an increasing number of waverers in the middle. But apart from the hardened loyalists, few can have had no occasion to ask ‘what does all this really mean today?’
Ian Bradley, Reader in Practical Theology at the University of St Andrews, throws himself into this hall of mirrors with a work aimed at refocusing a very specific question: what is the spiritual value of monarchy? Bradley is best known for his illuminating work on what gets called Celtic spirituality. Early on he is keen to establish his liberal credentials and to disavow notions that his commitment to the Queen and all that surrounds her is a matter of backward looking romanticism, deference, or commitment to a social order based on inequality and hierarchy.
Even so, this book is clearly a statement of faith. No doubt the publishers encouraged the acclamatory title and the (rather poorly reproduced) cover image of Her Majesty surrounded by prelates at her Coronation. But it clearly sets the tone for what follows. Bradley has interesting things to say about monarchy in the Bible, about sacred kingship in Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Medieval Britain, about the sacred symbolism of Coronation, Protestantism, the Victorian legacy, and ‘current debates’. In his final chapter, ‘The Way Ahead’ he advocates a religious (though pluralistically attuned) vision of monarchy as a founding institution enabling us to transcend the in-fighting of the political realm.
Overall, this is the best single attempt at a justification for monarchy on spiritual grounds that I have come across. But I fear this is not saying very much. For in spite of all that Bradley’s smooth cadences and reassuring explanations seek to achieve, the underlying implausibility of his project is rarely far from the surface. However construed, the central institutions and ideologies of monarchy come to us from a different age rooted in very different understandings of the relationship between God and the world.
Bradley does his best to affirm the very finest intentions and realisations of these earlier formulations. Even so, his readings are partial and highly contestable. The attempts at monarchy recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures were disastrous and falsely premised, as the prophetic tradition finally declared. For Christians, the whole point of Jesus’ Lordship is that it undermines power based on worldly title and pretension. After all is said and done to ameliorate it for a modern democratic age, monarchy remains the lynch pin of a class-based society and the key expression of pure ethnic and eugenic privilege. It is an illusion based on a form of religiosity that falls far short of the Crucified One.