Category Archives: Christianity

Reinstating Holiness in life today.


The Strange Word.

Holiness does not seem to feature much in our general culture, and many of us will not have thought about the word for ages. A year could pass in the Daily Mail or Channel Four without the word occurring, and “holy” is number 2396 in the corpus of words used in contemporary American English, hardly a front runner. It seemingly hovers at the edge of cultural consciousness in the modern world, part of the secular incomprehension of Christian words in our culture. Yet, as this article sets out, it may be the most widespread attitude to life on the planet, the most important cultural construct, and our ability to ignore it merely reflects our inability to think about who we are as a world-wide community.

The most normal English reference to the word would be in the phrase, “holier than thou attitude”, which means to be insufferably morally superior, hardly a selling point for the idea. Yet a word can be dismissed, but the reality it represents stays put. There may be alternative cultural expressions which ebb and flow on the tides of public dissatisfaction, but they swill around the truths this great word contains, for it is a word to live by, as billions do with varying degrees of success.

The understanding of the term in contemporary culture is narrowed and slightly dismissive. The closest many can probably get is that it means to be goody, goody, to be separate from sex, gin and overeating. Many secular people would associate it with nuns and holy gurus who separate themselves from the normal business of life. They try to get rid of the profane by running away from the world, but usually do not succeed. They fall in love or get drunk when they are caught unawares, and the world catches up with them and spoils their holiness. In any case their life is not practical. It normally depends on the charity of others, whether it is a nunnery or Buddhist monks. The polarity holy/profane probably sums up the most aware perception of the term, and most people like to keep in touch with the profane. One sociological indicator of this is the use of swearing; the terms, “My God”, “Jesus Christ”, “Holy Cow” drop off the lips of a large number of people.

This holiness as withdrawal from life model does not quite work. The term “Holy Matrimony” is in our collective memory, and that definitely includes sex. In the Old Testament holy days seem to be the ones where God proscribes feasting and a good time, hence our holidays. In reality, a bigger question lurks behind the word. Most people seek to live a good/holy life, not a successful, exciting, rich, popular, applauded life, but a good one. Just being good or holy, because the two do hang together, is ambition enough for most of us. So, what is holiness?

THE Biblical Word – God and Holiness.

The Bible conveys holy as a central God word, even the central God word in the Holy Bible. We are told God is a holy God. We are to worship God in the splendour of his holiness. The Lord our God is holy. But what does holy mean? Is it just a foot-loose adjective or does it have some substance? A bit of wider biblical exposure shows that it is one of the biggest words in human culture. It is the word of monotheism. There is to be worshipped one God, because there is one God. “Do not profane my holy name” is to acknowledge God as God of everything. We can see this clearly in the great creation narrative at the beginning of the Bible and its climax. “ … God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening and morning – the sixth day. Thus, the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing by his word of power; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done.” (Gen. 1:31-2:3) Thus, the whole business of creating – the big bang, quarks, time, atoms, galaxies, nebulae, stars, heavy elements, planets, continents, life, animals and humans is brought under the complete understanding that this, some kind of fulfilment, is God’s work. The Sabbath is the artist standing back from the painting, and it is very good. It is blessed. The sand, as made by God, is holy. The moon, as made by God, is holy. The wholeness of the creation made by God is holy, and we mere mortals are invited on this seventh day to see the full picture and the God who has made it. This is the holiness of God, the Creator of the whole creation. So far from holiness being some kind of separation, some kind of retreat into smallness, it is our relation to God and the whole creation. It is being in a dark valley and seeing the glory of God’s local galaxy in a moonless night, or a newborn child, or facing one’s beloved, all in the super-text of knowing that God is God. Every Sabbath we are invited to see the whole Holy Creation and honour the God who made it, to face this ultimate truth about everything.

There, it is out of the bag. Holy and whole. Are they related? Yes, they are, but it might be in a way. The Christian meaning of holiness is often seen in terms of being separate from the world, of withdrawal. But we note that this focus ignores the full and most basic meaning of seeing how the whole creation is held together in God’s power. Shortly, we examine the derivative meaning of separation. Rather, we see that the whole meaning is more central. Indeed, we can understand the word through its prostitution. “Hal” (Old English) “heel” (Dutch) “heil” (German) means whole. But, wait a minute you say, what about “Heil Hitler” or “Seig” (victory) “Heil”? What is going on there? Heil, is a greeting, health, wholeness, “Hail Caesar” towards the leader. So, in 1934 Rudolph Hess came out with, “”The Party is Hitler. But Hitler is Germany, just as Germany is Hitler. Hitler! Sieg Heil!”, which, of course, is a load of rot, but it shows the wholeness of conception. God is God of the Heil creation. Far from being a word of separation, it is the word that includes everything, including us. So the biblical meaning focusses first on the way the whole creation is God’s, and the Israelites are called to acknowledge this among cultures to whom the whole idea was alien. The separation bit is merely recognising that Hitler is not God, but merely “examine my armpit”.

The Old Testament cultures were usually polytheistic. The Egyptians looked to all kinds of particular deities, pushed by their local priests and surrounded by myth, magic and ritual. A careful look at the books of Moses shows the absence of these kinds of religious manipulation and their deconstruction under the aegis of the Lord of the whole earth. The worship of the Golden Calf, the construction of shrines to particular deities, sorceries and magic are forbidden in the culture, so that they might know God. The disentanglement from polytheism is complex and protracted. The children of Israel are first taught the presence of God especially in the Tabernacle, and are then taught in the prayers of David and Solomon that the God of all creation does not need one specific Temple for worship. “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heavens cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built.” (I Kings 8:27) This understanding of the Creator, free from the mumbo-jumbo of countless religions, is the holiness in which we are invited to dwell. To know God is holy is to see the whole creation as God’s work and be free of the fragmented view of the cosmos which comes from polytheism, and we might add modernism.

Humanity and Holiness.

The biblical theme of holiness thus rests on humankind; we dwell with God. “You be holy as I am holy” is a refrain of the Mosaic Law, but it is even stronger than this, because ….”so that you may know that I am the Lord who makes you holy”. How does God make us holy? We are in the image of God. Even on this speck of extraordinary planet we reflect something of the God of all creation. We can know the coherence of life and existence in relation to God; we can think, relate, love, have consciousness, understand time, space, laws, principles, see beauty, harmony, and what underlies the surface, unlike helium, rock and mackerel. To know God is to be whole in this human sense, and holy. First, to acknowledge God, then to recognise the glory of the whole creation, then to honour and steward the bit of creation we have been given, then to be whole, or holy, as persons before God, and then to dismiss all the idols and polytheistic rubbish cultures can sling at us. And then to acknowledge the richness of life before God – relationships, education, art, music, economic life, care of the creation, politics, law, mathematics, travel, history and more. It is T.S.Eliot’s quest in Little Gidding, “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Holiness is not a retreat from the creation, but truly inhabits the creation God has made. In holiness, everything is in the right place in relation to God, the rest of creation and ourselves. All things are relative, but relative to God. These, then are some of the themes that arise in human holiness.

The person and holiness.

The first is “Unite my heart to fear thy Name.” This is the great Spring Cleaning of the Soul. All our life can be drawn together to worship God. This is worshipping God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, the centre of life and existence. Christ insists on it being the Great Commandment. We note it is a commandment because this is the way we are. Of course, it was easy for Bach. He could let go in a Toccata and Fugue to the glory of God and then write another one next week. But, it is also easy for us. The sunset, or the new sky, or the acorn, or the dandelion, can prompt our response to the God of the acorn or the new sky. To put God truly and rightly at the centre is also to bring all of our life into synchrony with God, wherever it has been. “Our Father, who art in heaven, holy be thy Name.” is the centre of life. The modern call to “be centred” has its real meaning here. To fear thy name is to unite my heart, reversing Psalm 86:11. However our living might have been strung out, fragmented and compartmentalized, before God we are truly whole, because God has made us. Christ teaches us to pray so that this rightness may be ours, day in and day out. God is God also to us, Creator of the whole universe, to you alone be praise and glory, not because you need it, but because we need you, because we are through you.

And then each little thing in the creation is brought into perspective. This is the heart of modern science mainly formed by Protestants in Britain, the Netherlands, Germany and elsewhere in the 17th century. They conceived science as thinking God’s thoughts after him. Swammerdam could see and draw a louse for the first time under a microscope and proclaim, “The glory of God in the body of a louse!” Borrow, Newton, Boyle, Gay, Grew, Huygens, Leeuwenhoek and a bevy of other Christian scientists looked to the intricacies of creation in the greatest leap of scientific development in history, although Faraday, Clark Maxwell, Kelvin and J. J. Thomson produced a similar Christian inspired movement at the end of the 19th century around the birth of the Cavendish Laboratories in Cambridge, which had inscribed over its door, “Great are the works of the Lord” from Psalm 11:2, under Clerk Maxwell’s direction. Holiness is, in part, seeing the works of the Lord in their fulness and inter-relatedness, not just in science but in the daily experience of the creation, for the heavens declare the glory of God and the earth declares his handiwork. Durer’s painting of a clump of weeds is seen with a holy eye. Whatever we see is not a thing in itself, ein ding an sich, but points to the Creator and innumerable creative stages.

Then, holiness is also not idolising any part of the human persona. In the past the mind, the soul, body, psyche, subconscious, the will, the ego, existence, experience, image, identity, actions or emotions have all been seen as the centre of human life to which the other faculties must do homage. Not so says the Bible. All human faculties are called to worship God and no human faculty is independent of the God who made it. The footballer who scores a great goal and praises God, not his or her body, is right. The mind is not an organ of self-rule, but of integrated thought before God. So, in this sense we are whole before God. We are not minds telling bodies what to do, or emotions leading thought, or social persons driving psyche, or will dominating body and mind. The biblical motif for this truth is the heart – neither the beating biological thing or the emotions, but the whole person before God, needing understanding, healing from sin and shaping by faith. Christ’s beatitude, “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” is this human wholeness before and in God. So, holiness is the central human motif, around which our lives take, or lose, shape.

This integration of needs expressing, too, in terms of the different aspects of human life. Our lives have social, economic, law and justice, biological, psychological, educational, political, geographic and other aspects to them, but none of these areas is autonomous, a law unto itself. We know that it is not usually holy to break the law, or to feel hate, but in all aspects of our lives there are holiness issues. And in contemporary culture in this post-modern era, we face the disintegration of thought. Let us consider education in the UK, whether at Cambridge or at school. A strong motif, made stronger by discrepancies of pay by one to a hundred, is the idea of education as personal economic success. What! Learning reduced to self-promotion! School made into a horse race with hurdles. Wisdom reduced to the quest for salary. Research dominated by the companies which will pay for it. Gone the humble business of learning how the whole great creation fits together. The poor student, the professor of the faith to learn, despised in favour of “my career”. The study and learning subverted as eye-catching performance. Lost is the great diamond of education, the pearl of great price, the foundation of all education. “The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Right there, underneath everything, acknowledge and see God, and the integration of knowledge, understanding and education is possible. Here is the universe of knowledge, the university, gathered under God’s great creative power – science and arts, each discipline, note discipline, area of humble studentship. As here in Cambridge St John’s, Peterhouse, St Catherine’s, Magdalene, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi, Trinity, Trinity Hall, Christ’s and Jesus College gathered round the sluggish Cam in pursuit of knowledge, so the humility of learning can again take place. As the painting of Trinity College at the top conveys, roughly from Newton’s staircase, our local lights of knowledge are gathered under God’s great sky. Recognising economics as stewardship before God rather than acquisition or plundering the earth, seeing natural science as uncovering the intellect of the universe, seeing politics within the rule of God’s law not as assertive power, seeing maths as part of God’s tool kit, this is where education holds together, this is the wholeness which post-modern, but really post-Christian culture, has lost in a smorgasbord of fragmented knowledge.

The Human Idols.

Perhaps the biggest task for human holiness is to defeat the idols of life, something that dogs every day of life. As the Bible insists, idols are made by human hands; they are our manufacturing. We make them and then bow down to them. How silly! How counterfeit! Always, people can sell their souls to power, sex, money, status, pleasure, experience, the state or nation, to family, romantic love and many other idols. One of them, the whisperer tells us, will provide the ultimate meaning of life. And all of these idols have a vast priesthood who will promote their idol. Banks tell us we can borrow and make money, but we make money for them. The idol enslaves the weak to the priesthood. Weapons will give you power, say the arm manufacturers, omitting to say that they are also selling to the other side. Here is sex, say the pornographers, divorcing it from the love which makes it meaningful. Get drunk and have fun say the ads and tomorrow the idiot is groaning with a hangover in a police cell. The idols are gross and destructive, but they are also subtle, used by those who do not believe in them but can manipulate them to make money or get their way. Those selling sex for money do not believe in sex, they believe in money. Those selling missiles do not believe in war, but will be safely in the rear when the bombing starts. The love of money is the root of all evil, says Paul, in a plausible summary of the mess. The idols will be used, every one, in ingenious new but old forms. Become powerful, power dressing, how to win promotion, use soft power, fast, powerful cars will get you a woman, power cleaning products do it, not just cleaning, and so it goes on. Most people have played with power of one kind or another. It will be your magic.

So, the idols pop up in every area of life. In our media age it is partly popularity. You have two thousand followers on the web? How impressive, at least until you meet Jesus. He didn’t give a damn about the number of his followers, but about each one – the self-harming outcast among the tombs, the hated chief tax collector, the leper and the thief hanging beside him on the cross. In the parable of the lost sheep, the Shepherd leaves the 99 that are safe to search for the one that is lost. Far from seeking followers, the Shepherd trails off after the lost sheep. He had something under twelve followers when he died and now he has well over 2,000,000,000. Now that is impressive. Partly, we follow because we know he has freed us from the idols and through him we can see through popularity and status. In relation to the Son of God all these idols keel over. You cannot serve God and Mammon. Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth. Do not laud it over others. Do not do good to be seen. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Do not even think about aggression. Here with Christ the idols are dead, and there is another way.

Nevertheless, these blown up promoted idols bury into our culture, enslaving millions directly and indirectly and costing all of us – especially those who do not believe in them. There are millions, perhaps billions, who are working for profit, other people’s profit, who do not believe in the aim of their work, but they have no alternative, no other employer. The great god, profit, the personification of greed, feeds and gorges on the wealth of the earth, but millions are servicing its sewers. It distorts life, families, and it is given great respect. We view stately homes, full of inflated junk, and are impressed, but we have missed holiness. The great self-worshipping empires enslave and destroy, blighting the lives of millions. Pleasure is cashed in obesity, wealth in loneliness and power in being hated. The rewards which the gods (speaking through their human mouthpieces) promise, turn out to empty and without value. They are not good. They depart from God’s holiness.

This is also a deep world-wide structural economic issue. The quest for making money leads to dishonesty, bribery and destroys markets. We are told that profit seeking capitalism “creates wealth”, when actually wealth comes from God-given resources, technological knowledge built over generations, education and service, and the production of goods (note the word, “good” again). Actually, the “wealth creators” were often raping free resources, buying up public goods cheaply, using cheap and near slave labour in poorer countries, exploiting monopolies, selling addictive and dangerous products, avoiding taxes by using havens and building financial empires which collapsed in 2008. Mixed with that were lots of companies seeking to provide goods and services in a fair way, respecting their workers and paying them properly, looking after the environment and loving their neighbour as themselves rather than exploiting them. So, either economies can grow in a holy and good way, where the place of resources, workers, people is balanced and good, or there can be an unholy exploitative mess. The economic choice is there. More immediately people can do good work, be fair in dealings, thrifty in their choices, live within their means, work well with their colleagues, learn how to improve their work, co-operate with others, or they can use other people, not take their fair share of effort, be unsafe, unpleasant and working only for themselves. The business of holiness is intertwined with work in hospitals, transport, building, manufacture, mining and logistics. A good or holy lorry driver sleeps properly and does not drink and drive, and all good work requires holy living which sees the place of that work in a God-respecting economy. The opposite is the capitalism which worships money rather than God. As Jesus said succinctly, “You cannot worship God and Mammon.”
So, to be holy, a follower of Christ, is to be free from idols and to see their danger in our culture.

Christ’s Transformation of Holiness.

God with us is deceptive. The understanding of God is so much beyond our own that we can easily not see how we are being taken apart. So, when Jesus walks into his own culture it is one where the rule and establishment people make the rules in another sense. They claim to cudos of God to their rules and regulations. God’s law is elided with their regulations and self-interest, whether it be the Temple Tax of the Temple Party or the Sabbath Observance rules of the Pharisees. Nor is this a little local problem, for in all societies the establishment self-serves, sets up the system to suit itself. Within weeks of being in power Lenin is self-serving. But of course, monarchs, dukes, aristocracies, colonial powers, overlords, plutocracies, oligarchies and establishments in every culture have produced self-serving moral cultures which the poor, slaves, bureaucrats, serve. And, of course, Churches, despite their leader, have settled into the same pattern. They are established churches. They are rich. They insinuate themselves with rulers saying what the rulers want them to hear.

More than this, the establishment wants to capture holiness. If it can be in charge of holiness, rather than God – aha, you see the enormity of the move – then all will be well. Whether at the Palace of Versailles, within the Wall of China, at the whiter than White House or at the Temple in Jerusalem, wherever the establishment dwells it seeks to put holiness, moral rightness within itself, so that it can be the Sun within which behaviour orbits. The rulers make the rules and the ordinary folk conform. Of course, the rulers are not holy. They have mistresses. They are full of their own vanity. They kill or imprison if they have opposition. They enslave people for their pyramids, ziggurats, palaces, courts, landed estates, finery, banquets and freedom from work. There is a great industry in quasi-holiness, what is right. The holiness of God is borrowed to settle on the Sun King, William the Conqueror, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung, Queen Victoria or President Trump, whatever they are like. So, holiness is subverted. Except, Jesus has taken it apart, ripped it to shreds, showed its hypocrisy and restored the holiness of God.

The Temple at Jerusalem is the Holy of Holies, the place where the people are invited since Solomon to meet with God. Solomon is quite clear that because God is everywhere, the idea that God can be contained in one place is ludicrous. So, the Temple is for our benefit, not God’s. After all, if the whole universe is yours, a poky bump in Jerusalem hardly counts, but we can gather to meet with and worship God, and with a sense of the holiness of God. The Temple is for us not God. All ground is holy, but this Temple is the recollection of holiness. So, what does Jesus do with the Temple, its rules and regulations, its establishment, its exclusions?

At Passover time – the Passover was when God confronted the Egyptian Pharoahic establishment for the freedom of the children of Israel – Jesus moves into the Temple in his first confrontation. It was a money-making machine where offerings and the Temple Tax made the High Priests and their establishment very rich. Their income almost equalled the Romans. When the Temple was sacked in 70AD it contained so much gold that the price of it halved throughout the Eastern Mediterranean. Jesus overturns the money-changers tables, scattering their coins and drives the sacrifice animals, shortly to die, into a frenzied stampede out of the Temple Area. He named the attack on the money system. ”How dare you turn my Father’s House into a market!” The meaning of the attack was clear. The holiness of God, the worship of God, was subverted into the money hypocrisy of the Temple Authorities.

And then comes the joke. The Jewish leaders wanted a sign of authority, and Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple and I will raise it again in three days.” It is a hoot. The last thing the Jewish leaders want is to destroy the Temple. It makes them money. It gives them authority. As they point out they have laboured forty six years, especially manipulating Herod the Great, to get Their Temple. By accusing them of destroying the Temple, Jesus left them completely nonplussed, and they could not possibly understand what he meant. Yet, the great momentous transition of meaning had taken place. The Holy of Holies was Christ, not this money-making hypocritical system. Later they would set out to murder him and he would be raised in three days and the disciples would have an inkling of what was going on. The Christ, who insisted on being outside every self-righteous establishment, was and is the holy of holies, redefining holiness into radical integrity before God – not just murder but hate, not just adultery but lust, not just divorce, but dishonour, not just aggression but retaliation, not just friendship of allies, but love of enemies, not just public good, but good in the heart before God, not just the cudos of good public acts, but unrewarded goodness, not just money rewards, but God service, not things, but God’s righteousness. While the Temple authorities defend the hypocritical holiness of their Temple, Jesus helps each of us to be a Temple of God. Of course, the Jerusalem Temple authorities cannot understand, and after the second confrontation, set out to kill him, which they seek and achieve. But aside the “Wailing Wall”, a fitting epitaph, the Temple is destroyed – not one stone was left upon another, and the followers of Christ see something of holiness before God.

Pietism, Integrity and Holiness.

Some years back the holiness movement was a powerful force in British life. It was also labelled pietism. The main idea was that people would live a holy or pious life, marked by prayer, pure living and the attitudes which Christ encouraged. It has a long history but surfaced more recently in Methodism, the Anabaptist groups like Mennonites and Amish, the Brethren, the Keswick movement, and in many mainstream Catholic and Protestant churches. More recently it has been mocked and a travesty of it has been conveyed. One of the false understandings was of moralist censure. Pietism was against sex, drugs, drink, dancing, films, television and rock and roll, as indeed many pietists were. The kind of sex they were against was prostitution, sex that got girls pregnant, predatory sex and a whole load of other stuff that the world is now again recognising destroys people, especially women and girls. They were against addictive drugs, but so really are all of us. They were against drink, and ran temperance movements rescuing men from alcoholism, an obviously repressive move. They were against dancing, or rather they were not, but Anabaptists had their own dances. They were against films and television, but since most of us spend five to fifteen years of our waking life slumped in front of a television that may be no bad think, and to the contrary they were keen on talking to one another. In other words, pietism had a whole range of, arguably, good attitudes and everyone is free not to like rock and roll. It was charged with being repressive, but actually war, hate, greed, drunkenness, self-importance, addiction and slavery need repressing. Nor is pietism, self-righteousness. Sinners are miserable sinners, not self-righteous ones.

The pietist position was not moralism, but an emphasis on holiness or piety before God, the basic Christian point. We try to live as God intends us, and that often means not accumulating things or doing things that might be harmful to others and ourselves. There was an underlying obedience to God which included basic things like not stealing, coveting, lusting and hating others. And this requires an underlying integrity of action. The word, “integrity”, needs some unpacking. None of us has it, because we sin, compromise, self-excuse, hide failures, pretend outwardly and are double minded. But areas of life require integrity, as Christ pointed out repeatedly. Truthfulness is not secured by an oath. Marital fidelity cannot co-exist with lust. Real good intentions do not sit with receiving public approbation. We cannot serve two masters. A lovely statement of this principle in the Sermon on the Mount is Jesus’, “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” Yes, how we see shapes how we think, feel, act. Let’s watch how we see. Postmodern culture has tried to get rid of sin, repentance, remorse, forgiveness and this integrity. Sexual harassment and rape are wrong, but lust is OK. You can hate your enemies as long as you love your friends. But integrity of actions, in Jesus’ words, “practising what you preach” will not go away. Temptation is a real phenomenon, as advertisers recognise and broad is the road that leads to destruction. So, the need for piety and holiness, needed in all cultures, is especially needed in ours now.

The worldwide Christian truth of holiness.

We live in a fragmented western culture, disintegrating under the influence of vast media messages, a consumer culture where we can buy anything, people taught to shout their messages, politicians raised on falsified messages and religions worshipping the self, the experience, the reward, the state and the future. It has no real grasp of the holiness of the creation and God’s good planet and has undertaken a rape of the earth and seas. It is prepared to treat the death and ill-treatment of millions with indifference. It has adulated the self-vindication of millions of human actions with no sense that they might be held to account. I did it My Way rules in lives and funerals. Personalities dominate and persons are forgotten. The dark clouds of famine, refugees, desolation of the earth, war and economic failure are gathering. It is time the deep truth of God’s holiness, also given to us by Christ, is rediscovered and owned in our lives, so that we can find again whole, and holy, people, families, nations and steer by the holiness, not of the establishments, but of Jesus and the content of this great word can align our lives before God in humility and some truth.
More than this Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and other worldviews each seek in their own way the Holy Life, representing the majority of the world’s population by far. This Christian understanding speaks both of God and the human condition in its fullness, and a proper discussion on holiness, and the holiness of Christ, may be the way to unlock relations among these faith communities as well as in the wider population in the west.

The Servant Queen and the Whole Earth

The Bible Society, HOPE and the London Institute have just published a lovely book, entitled “The Servant Queen” as a tribute to the Queen on her 90th birthday. It shows Elizabeth’s clear sense of duty and devotion to God, and her conception of being the servant of the state of the United Kingdom and of the Commonwealth. The book shows through what she has said in Christmas broadcasts, but also through decades of service to the State and to the ordinary people whom she serves, how this has worked out. It is built upon the example of Christ and with Jesus as her focus, as she fully acknowledges. She is, simply, another Christian, learning and living the lessons of the Christian faith.
I’m not the kind of person who believes that Britain is Great, or even great, or a monarchist, but Elizabeth’s understanding and practice seems to me to be one of the defining principles of governance throughout the world. She has taken the words of Christ, and lived them. Jesus said, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead the greatest among you, should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” And that is the kingdom service Christ conferred on his disciples. The ruler is the servant. That is not only the personal commitment of Queen Elizabeth, but also a principle of governance that applies everywhere and throughout history, as Moses also was the servant of the Lord. It is the reversal of state control, self-glorification, conquest, empire, using nations in our self-interest, militarism, ethnic superiority and the attitudes which generate wars and international crises which have dominated much of history.
It is also the deep undergirding of democracy, for democracy is the service of the people by the rulers. Slowly the self-service of the monarchy and the government has dropped away under the influence of Christ’s words. They are for us. They are not the lording people. They are not serving themselves by corruption and manipulating the law, by passing the resources of the state to their cronies, by building themselves big houses, by being like Caesar or Herr Examine My Armpit. They are not masters, but servants. We have Civil, or nearly civil, servants. We have ministers who answer to us. When we call, they should come running. For the least of us, whoever is the least, and in Christ’s kingdom there is no least, because the lepers come first, they are our servants. They are not to get uppity. That is democracy, the normative structure of the state, the service of all the people by the stewards of law, justice and the common good – and we know She knows.
Of course, the British monarchy has the trappings of imperial and national self-glory – palaces, servants, crown jewels, a gold coach, titles, soldiers with furry hats who march up and down, an aristocracy who shoot birds and play silly games on horses and Lords dressed in vermin. The Queen was born into this set-up and it is still substantially intact. The British establishment state has a bloody, “send us victorious, happy and glorious” insufferability, and for some inexplicable reason wants to punch above its weight, but She knows differently. She knows we need to renew ourselves in God’s love and become better people. She knows we need to love our neighbours as ourselves and that what the quiet people do moves the world. She knows that you do not have to be rich or powerful to change things for the better, and the unseen and unrewarded often do the best stuff.
She also has a grasp on peace and reconciliation, and understands the Common Wealth of nations, what they can give to one another, like few others, and her international visits and welcoming of foreign visitors, has given that dimension weight in the life of the nations. She understands “healing old wounds”, and does it well whether in Ireland or elsewhere.
Her governments often do not see things the same way. They are often into winning, self-promotion, and putting down the opposition. They, contrary to Christ’s words, are constantly parading themselves as our Benefactors and telling us how good they are for us. They frequently go out and fight other states, and see them as enemies or threats. They have the power. They govern and shape the laws. But they also fail by their failure to serve. The principle of service rules, even when it is ignored or compromised. In Christ, and by obedience in Elizabeth, it does, and should, rule throughout the earth.