Readings Ezekiel 1.4–10, 22–28a, Revelation 4
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
If you are a republican with no interest in boats, this has not been a brilliant day for you, though if you are a militant republican you might have felt some shameful joy at the weather. Both things, monarchy and life afloat, are remarkable for the many images they give our language, which (whether or not we are fans of either) we apply without thinking. Royal headgear supplies the metaphor when, say, you call your mother’s legendary peach melba the crowning glory of Sunday lunch; and if a colleague at work has come through an unsettling period you draw on our nautical heritage when you say that so-and-so is back on an even keel. That’s the way we make sense of the world, using one thing as an image for another. And if we do that with what we can see, like puddings and workmates, how much more must we do it with God, whom we cannot see?
That’s what’s going on in this evening’s readings. Ezekiel has a vision of God’s glory. What is it like? Ezekiel paints the picture. Notice how often he uses the phrase ‘a likeness of’ as he describes the features of his vision. He is working at the limits of perception, describing the indescribable. In the book of Revelation, John the Divine receives another such vision. If he is to help us see what he sees, then he must compose a picture with colours and shapes that we recognise: it must describe the unknown in terms of the known, the heavenly in terms of the earthly, the infinite in terms of the finite.
What John sees is a vision of thrones, a royal court, grand beyond the riches of this world, yet recognisably an earthly image. As it must be, if we earthlings are to make anything of it. Heaven as a throne room, God as monarch: not a definition but an image of God. Is it still a fertile image? On this Trinity Sunday, when we meditate on the distinctively Christian vision of God as Father, Son and Spirit, can we see any images of God in the monarchy that it the centre of this weekend’s celebrations?
Many cultures have seen in the absolute power of a human ruler an image of the power of God, and some have been keen to see divinity and monarchy as a two-way street: if kings show us something of God, then perhaps kings are themselves godlike. Ancient Rome promoted some emperors to deity on their death – Claudius’ last words, we’re told, were, ‘Oh dear, I think I’m becoming a god.’ – but why wait? Why not be a god as you rule, and put your divinity to work? Because, if you are a god, there is no authority in heaven or earth beyond your own. Useful, and a trick pulled by Claudius’ predecessor, Caligula.
That was not the route ancient Israel took. To begin with, God was their king. The prophet Samuel warned them off having a human king – far too expensive, he said (1 Samuel 8.10-18.) – and even when they did get one, there was never any doubt about the relation between king and God. The Jewish scriptures show that, while at their best kings might reflect God’s wisdom and justice, they remained servants of God, and often pretty bad ones at that.
It is this tradition that has generally been reflected in the British monarchy. The collect for the sovereign in the Prayer Book communion service prays for her subjects to obey her, ‘duly considering whose authority she hath’, but first prays that she – ‘knowing whose minister she is’ – should be obedient to God. And, anyway, much has changed since Thomas Cranmer wrote that prayer in the mid-1500s. Gone is the political clout of the Tudors (or even the dynastic string-pulling of Victoria). Now we have constitutional monarchy, in which the monarch reigns but does not rule, a Queen’s Speech that is composed by elected politicians and must be read out whether the reader likes it or not. And quite right too. But is there anything here that might point to God?
I’ve read a few evaluations of the Queen’s sixty years. Peer through the journalistic bunting, and one theme that persists is that of the Queen providing continuity in the face of rapid change. Constancy is indeed is one of the things that we look for in God – ‘Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever’ (Hebrews 13.8) – but it is not intrinsic to monarchy. Think of the circumstances in which the Queen’s father came to the throne in 1936, the year of three monarchs, while the Royal Family (if not the Queen herself) has changed as much as any. And anyway, nothing here below lasts for ever. John Ellerton’s hymn at the end of this service was written at the high noon of Victoria’s reign, yet it still says of God that
Thy throne shall never,
like earth’s proud empires, pass away.
Other commentators note not just the Queen’s long service but what she has done with it – AN Wilson in the Standard mentions her discrete but definite stand against apartheid – though I have been struck by those who see value in what she has not done, or not said. The Guardian’s Marina Hyde calls her ‘the last silent celebrity’: while others have fallen over themselves to tell us everything about themselves, she has ‘always grasped that silence is the most intriguing statement of all.’ We hear the Queen speak, of course, yet Hyde observes that ‘we know more about someone who has been a contestant on a reality show for one week than we do the woman who has been on the throne for six decades.’ Playwright David Hare catalogues the besmirching of so much British public life but singles out three exceptions: the BBC, the NHS and the Queen: thanks to her inscrutability, the helpful distance between her and us, the Queen ‘is perceived today to be where we might all wish to be – floating some way above the stink’; and so, ‘as democracy’s fortunes have fallen, hers have risen.’ For Hare too, ‘The secret of her power has been her silence’.
Silence, inscrutability, distance. Any images of God here? The silence of God is a persistent theme of faith – and of the failure of faith. Racing Demon, David Hare’s play about the Church of England, explores both, as he has some of his characters pray out loud. Team vicar Donald ‘Streaky’ Bacon seems a bit of a clown until we see him at prayer, smilingly content with the wordless mystery of God. Not so his boss, care-worn team rector Lionel Espy. He tells the Lord that the inscrutability routine is wearing a bit thin. ‘God,’ he prays, ‘where are you?’ He asks God to talk to him – ‘Is that unreasonable?’ – and adds (in a way reminiscent of the tabloids after the death of Diana), ‘There are an awful lot of people in a very bad way, and they need something besides silence.’
There is of course more to God than silence, and we are on to something real when we say that God speaks. That too is a metaphor (you won’t catch God’s voice on your phone) but it is not just a another way of describing us talking to ourselves. And as for silence, there are different kinds. There is the silence of indifference, or absence, and there is the silence of closeness, when to utter a word would be to create distance between you and the other, such as with two people in love, or when you are with someone whose suffering is beyond words.
What kind of silence is God’s? God too keeps a helpful distance, so that we creatures are free to be ourselves and not ‘overwhelmed by omnipotence’, and silence is a way of holding that distance. How we each experience the silence of God will differ, but let’s be guided by this day when we remember the image by which God chooses above all to be known. There are so many figures in our world that might point to God, but today God chooses no image of naked power, nor even of royal grandeur. God chooses not an image of distance but of intimacy, of human closeness: God, the origin of all that is, God whose face we see in Jesus, bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, God whose life is the life of our lives, this God we know best as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
John Ellerton’s hymn ‘The day thy gravest, Lord, is ended’.
AN Wilson http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/comment/maybe-its-because-shes-a-londonerhappy-anniversary-maam-7810890.html?origin=internalSearch
Marina Hyde http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/01/her-majesty-last-silent-celebrity
David Hare http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/jun/02/queen-strength-above-market-forces?INTCMP=SRCH
Overwhelmed by omnipotence A phrase of Austin Farrer in his Christmas sermon ‘A Grasp of the Hand’ (Austin Farrer – the Essential Sermons edited by Leslie Houlden, SPCK, 1991, page 209).