“For the first time in her 69-year reign, the Queen did not deliver the opening address to the Church of England’s annual General Synod last week.” So begins an article in The Sunday Times that I can’t read because I’ve already used up my free trial and I’m not going to dish out ten pounds just now. The title of the thing is “Anglicanism Was Never Really About God,” and the rest of the bit you can see without paying is not very enlightening: “This was certainly not a royal commentary on the state of the English Church (there’s a non-abdication abdication now stealthily under way) but still there’s something melancholy, something epoch-marking, something bleak about the monarch’s absence. For Anglicanism, it is not going well.” Scrolling around Twitter, looking for any more information at all, it seems the piece is written by “a rather nice atheist.” Of course, it is disappointing not to be able to see what it says and whether the thing is just pure click-bait, but we will have to cope with our feelings of sadness as best we can because today is the last Sunday before a new Church Year dawns bright and clear.
Skipping away from Twitter, for just a small moment, we arrive at the usual curious mash-up of Biblical texts concerning the identity of Jesus and the implications of that identity for the whole earth. We discover, in some sort of inscrutable and startling twist, that Jesus is called…well, it’s an old kind of word that many people may not have heard before, unless they’ve gone in big for the Disney motif. I don’t want to get too far above anyone’s intellectual or theological sphere so I’ll try to speak very slowly, so that even The Sunday Times would be able to understand if they ever got it in mind to do so….
Jesus is a King. Actually, not “a” king, but The King—the only King whose opinion, authority, dominion, and rule matters at all in the great sweep of history.
The prophet Daniel, seeing Jesus the King from a long way off, tried to grasp hold of the picture, shoving it into words:
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The people who first encountered this text, rather like us, would have been confused and troubled. No ordinary ecclesiastical sanctuary, the prophet appeared to have been transported to a cosmic throne room, but rather than only one throne with a nice long aisle that you could toddle down when you were given permission to mumble some appropriate, not too outlandish request to the kindly, bearded, benighted old man sleeping quietly away, happy for everyone to do as they please as long as they are happy, there are “thrones.” And on one of the thrones sits someone called “The son of man.”
The original readers would have furrowed their brows and gone on with their lives. And no one knew enough to whisper into the ear of that unfortunate man, so much later, who had to stare down this very One—this Ancient of Days—and, blankly, ask, “Are you the King of the Jews?” For, there was no throne in that room, though there was a magisterial chair, and that beaten and battered man wasn’t the one sitting on it. What could all the fuss be about? How could it be that such an unprepossessing man could be throwing the whole city into such turmoil? But then, in one unhappy blink of the eye, it seemed the questioning is not about what other people think about this man, but Pilate himself was forced to wonder who he is.
Even so, it is true on that face that whoever he is, as so many unfortunate writers in The Sunday Times, and indeed, many church-going people around the world, want to insist, none of this has to be about God. You don’t have to believe any of it if it doesn’t suit you. Or, if you want to believe some of it, you don’t have to believe it all. Even better, take what you already believe and pour that right straight into the hollow receptacle of a once nice church. There won’t be any consequence to taking your own thoughts and feelings and plunking yourself down in whatever chair happens to be lying around, stretching out your feet, and fingering the bright screen in your pocket.
I suppose many people, let’s call them Anglicans, which means we have to scrap the word “many”…let’s start again. I suppose a few Anglicans will go to church this morning and hear the lections, and hear the glorious words of the Psalm sung:
The Lord reigns; he is robed in majesty;
the Lord is robed; he has put on strength as his belt.
Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved.
Your throne is established from of old;
you are from everlasting.
The floods have lifted up, O Lord,
the floods have lifted up their voice;
the floods lift up their roaring.
Mightier than the thunders of many waters,
mightier than the waves of the sea,
the Lord on high is mighty!
Your decrees are very trustworthy;
holiness befits your house,
O Lord, forevermore.
and then they will wander out into the gray morning and go on with their lives, moved, of course, by the beauty of it all, but, like that poor Roman sap, completely ill-equipped to deal with…what?
Well, a Truth so complete, so total, so strange that it—or rather He–would get up off that Throne, leave aside all that glory, and come down here and stand in the place of Judgement and be the One who is judged so that you won’t have to be.
If Anglicanism isn’t really about God, God is certainly about Anglicanism. In fact, God is concerned with every single idea, every single person. In the final reckoning, which will come even if you don’t expect it, every single person will have to get up out of whatever kind of chair he or she is lolling in, and stand up, and kneel down before that Throne, and say to that One—You are the Lord, the King, and there is no other.
You don’t have to wait, of course. You could do it this morning. You could leap out of your bed and go and sit in that hard pew or that plush chair, and in the darkness of your own spirit, you could bow your whole being before his glory. You could wonder about what kind of King this is, whose searching power can reach into every corner of the cosmos. Go to church. Jesus is King.