Why the monarch must wash the feet of the poor

Faith & Reason: The anointing of the head of the Queen with holy oil at the Coronation was not an empty ceremony. Rather it offers the theological key to re-defining the role of sovereign, argues Canon Alan Wilkinson.
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At the Coronation in 1953 I sat on the pavement in the intermittent drizzle with thousands of others. Most people listened intently to the service broadcast from Westminster Abbey over the loudspeakers. I remember particularly the sonorous prayer of the Archbishop as he anointed the Queen:

Be thy Head anointed with holy Oil: as kings, priests and prophets were anointed. And as Solomon was anointed King by Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet, so be thou anointed, blessed and consecrated Queen over the Peoples, whom the Lord thy God hath given thee to rule and govern . . .

I guess that this concept of the monarch as a sacred, anointed person still resonated with many people in 1953. Even if they failed to recognise all the references to Old Testament figures, they were proud to feel that they were celebrating an institution with a long tradition. They wanted a "traditional" Coronation as they wanted a "traditional" wedding or funeral. When they saw "Jones & Sons, Family Butchers" over a shop in the High Street they felt reassured. Long-established family businesses by definition gave good, reliable service.

The Christian concept of the monarch as sacred and anointed goes back to Judaism. When King Saul became jealous of David, the heir to the throne, he determined to kill him. David and his friends were hiding in the recesses of a cave when Saul came in. David stealthily cut off a piece of Saul's cloak. David's men told him that this was his chance to kill him. But David refused:

The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord's anointed . . . (I Samuel xxiv,6)

In Judaism the king was not only a warrior and a judge. He was also charged to have a special care for the poor and for the faith of the nation. So Jeremiah the prophet pointedly asked his king if he thought that it was living in a rich palace which made him a king:

Your father judged the cause of the poor and needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? says the Lord (Jeremiah xxii,15-16)

That is to say that when we act for social justice we know God.

The idea of the monarch as a sacred person is also clear in Shakespeare:

Not all the water in the rough rude sea

Can wash the balm from an anointed king

The breath of worldly men cannot depose

The deputy elected by the Lord. (Richard II)

As a sacred person the monarch was also regarded as a healer up to the 18th century. Queen Anne was the last monarch to allow people to be brought for her to touch in the healing rite then provided in the Prayer Book.

But in the Sixties people began to think that what mattered was not what office you held but what kind of person you were. When Archbishop Coggan preached in Cambridge in 1962, there were questions afterwards. The first came from a student: "What do you believe as Donald Coggan, not as Archbishop of York?" It was a very typical question of that period. People wanted to reach the "real person" behind the facade of office. Newspapers discovered that they could make money out of exposures of that type. It was not a context favourable to monarchy. The royals were torn between their desire to keep their mystique and the demand for accessibility.

In the last few years people have swung from idealisation to anger and contempt as their idols turned out to have feet of clay. Certainly one style of monarchy seems to have run into the buffers. Instead of remaining silent and embarrassed, ought not the Church to initiate a really serious debate about the theology and meaning of monarchy? Is hereditary monarchy now so untypical of our society that it can no longer represent it? When people say "We don't want Charles, we'd prefer William", are they rejecting the hereditary principle upon which monarchy depends? Are they in effect asking for an elected president, not a monarch? Some used to argue that the very arbitrariness of the hereditary principle ensured that the monarch was God's anointed, because it removed the selection from human hands. But who still believes that today?

When Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth he read from Isaiah:

The Spirit of the Lord . . . has anointed me to preach good news to the poor . . . to set at liberty those who are oppressed . . . (Luke iv,18)

For Jesus, being anointed meant washing feet, as our monarchs did up to James II on Maundy Thursday. Can we envisage a reformed monarchy anointed not for wealth and privilege but for servanthood? Though this is a Judaeo- Christian concept, it would appeal to people of other faiths and none as well. We already have hints of that concept in Prince Charles's concern for the inner city and the unemployed.

When things go wrong with hopes and relationships, we often react by wanting to rid of the source of the pain. This is how many people are reacting to the failures of the monarchy. Ought we to abandon an institution which is woven into every period of our history, out of disappointment or a fit of pique? There is still time to salvage the monarchy, but there is not as much time as some in authority once seemed to assume.

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely