by the Very Revd Dr David Ison, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral
The last Sunday in November is dedicated to Christ the King. It’s a recent commemoration, started very deliberately by Pope Pius XI in 1925 to recall Christians to the truth that their allegiance is to their spiritual ruler in heaven, as opposed to the earthly supremacy which was being claimed by the new Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini, who had begun calling himself Il Duce, the Leader. Pope Pius was putting down a marker that for Christians, no earthly man is their Leader, but only Jesus Christ our heavenly king.
The feast of Christ the King is thus a symbolic and subversive celebration; it puts all earthly authorities under question, whether individuals or electorates. It proclaims that the rule of God is for truth, justice, compassion and peace, and that rulers on earth are subject to the rule of God’s kingdom; and that God cares nothing for our status or importance, our wealth or privilege, and cares rather about justice and service to the poor, and love shown to the weak and needy.
Which political party will promise to care for the poor of the world, and carry out its promise? Which democratic government will confront its people’s prejudices to have compassion on destitute refugees, or have the courage to close down the life-destroying arms trade, or confront us with the necessary cost of caring for our environment? And which Church or religious authority has the grace to admit that it has failed to live out the truth it proclaims, and that before God it has done wrong?
A strength of having an established Church in England and Scotland is that it bears witness to what Christians believe, that all of us stand under the judgement of God’s truth, love and justice. The fact that judges and local councils still come to church for legal and civic worship, and that Parliament when it meets begins with prayer, acknowledges that their values come from beyond themselves and the people they serve, and that they are liable to a higher power – which is in my view the main justification for an established church. And yet churches, denominations, sects, scholars of different faiths, can fall into the same trap as some politicians in believing that they or their human organisation or nation have absolute rather than relative power, and that they need to defend their position rather than humbly seek the truth, in politics or gender or race or sexuality.
Jesus was crucified for subversion of absolute political and religious power. In John’s Gospel account of Jesus’ crucifixion, the chief priests were more direct than Pilate: ‘Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor’, they said. They recognised that Jesus as King makes claims on the loyalty and actions of all: that in the light of Christ, the claims and orders of politicians, kings and emperors, priests and imams and prophets, are not absolute but are subject to scrutiny and question. A true love for our country and for our Church includes the need to ask questions of all authorities, to recognise human fallibility, and to refuse to sacrifice others on the altar of injustice, even if that requires the sacrifice of ourselves in the process.
For followers of Jesus the King, there can be no unqualified and absolute obedience to political or religious rulers. That’s why humility, dialogue, and the willingness to truly entertain the possibility that we might be wrong, are essential in tackling difficult issues. Because we live in divisive and dangerous times, we need more than ever a commitment to the even-handed, compassionate and truthful justice of God in the face of intolerant and violent language and actions. Those who claim absolute authority, whether elected politicians or dictators or caliphs, or those who troll on the internet or daub hateful slogans on churches or mosques or synagogues, or oppress people by claiming to know the mind of God, will be subject to the just and gentle rule of Jesus Christ our Judge.