One of the quirks of working in an established church is that, before being ordained as a deacon or a priest, the person to be ordained has to swear an oath of loyalty to the Monarch of this country. So, in one of the small buildings next door to St Paul's Cathedral, in 1999, I said the following before the Registrar: “I, Sam Charles Norton, do swear that I will be faithful and bear true allegiance to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, her heirs and successors, according to law: So help me God.”
This was not an oath that I particularly wanted to give. When we were being prepared for our ordination, our Principal said that if anyone had any concerns about being able to say this oath, that he would be very willing to have a chat with them. I took him up on that offer. At the time my inclinations were not particularly monarchist – although I've never been an out and out republican, in anything except the US political sense. I just felt – in line with many recent comments offered up in these pages – that our monarchy was an anachronism, and that it bolstered a corrupt hierarchy. Talking things through with the Principal, however, I came to a point where I was content to say the oath – I placed great weight on the phrase 'according to law' – for if there was going to be a change in the arrangements I certainly wouldn't want the change to be carried out in a lawless fashion! Yet, as with many other things, my views on this have changed much. I'd like to pick out the one main error that I believe that I made when considering the issue all those years ago.
In discussing the constitutional arrangements, in an academic culture, the debate was about what was most rational – what was the best way to order our arrangements, what system made the most sense? Of course, the criteria used to assess the answer were all rational criteria, and this is not an accident. The purge of monarchies in Europe at the time of the French Revolution and after was intimately tied up with the project of the Enlightenment, the project to bring all of our understandings into a rational system. This is why the Republican regime in France abolished the existing calendar and replaced it with one that was much more systematic. Each month was split into three weeks of ten days each, and each day was split into ten 'hours', each of a hundred 'minutes'. I do not doubt that such a change – or many others of like character – can be defended as rational. In the same way, criticisms of our present constitutional arrangements can be admirably rational and logical. The trouble is, as I have come to realise, that such rationality takes no account of the quirks and gnarls of human nature. That is, we are not rational creatures; we are human beings, and our rationality is simply one part of a broader human nature.
If we were purely rational creatures, then developments such as those imposed by the French Revolutionaries would not have led to slaughter and horror – people would simply have said 'oh yes, that makes sense', the system would have shifted overnight, and nobody would have looked back. As it was, human beings fell into horror and long warfare, simply because their wider values were not taken into account. The Enlightenment project had a profoundly deficient understanding of what it meant to be human and placed far too much weight on our capacity to think, disregarding the importance of how we feel – and how our thinking and feeling interact. As part of this Enlightenment project all of the building blocks of human culture are dismantled and we become, not so much creatures planted in a garden, but programs operating within a computer. Fortunately, the problems with the Enlightenment project are now widely recognised, the ideal of a purely rational re-building project is rejected, and the monarchy tends mostly to be rejected by the crustiest of procrustean republicans who believe that it is somehow radical and revolutionary to be supporting a centuries-old project that has been a proven failure! At least, that is how I now view my former self.
As it is, my respect and admiration for our Queen has continued to grow year by year, and the meaning of that oath I swore has deepened similarly. We have so much to learn from her, so much to be grateful to her for, and we will surely miss her when she has gone. She has upheld the dignity of her office, not least through her reticence – and that is something which your Reckoning Rector particularly needs to ponder. In the meantime, I look forward to the festivities of the Jubilee, when we can celebrate her life and work and when I shall say with a glad heart these inimitable words from the Book of Common Prayer:
O LORD our heavenly Father, high and mighty, King of kings, Lord of lords, the only Ruler of princes, who dost from thy throne behold all the dwellers upon earth: Most heartily we beseech thee with thy favour to behold our most gracious Sovereign Lady, Queen ELIZABETH; and so replenish her with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that she may alway incline to thy will, and walk in thy way: Endue her plenteously with heavenly gifts; grant her in health and wealth long to live; strengthen her that she may vanquish and overcome all her enemies; and finally, after this life, she may attain everlasting joy and felicity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen