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What a monarch’s meeting teaches about politics and permanence

A monarch meeting a prime minister is a symbol of a deeper truth in a fleeting world.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A frail old lady, the late Queen, rises from a sofa to shake hands with an approaching woman.
The longest serving monarch meets the shortest serving prime minister.
The Royal Family.

Just about the last constitutional act of our late Queen was to give an audience to Liz Truss, the (temporary as it turned out) Prime Minister and to ask her to form a government. The pictures of a frail but smiling monarch, weakened, but still doing her job, couldn’t help but evoke a mix of admiration and affection, especially when we look back and consider that this was just two days before she died.  

But those pictures raised some questions. A Prime Minister, and a political party that forms a government, is normally chosen by the people. Queen Elizabeth was not. Neither is King Charles. She was, and he now is, our monarch by virtue of birth, something that can seem scandalous to republicans, and even to many who liked the Queen, or admire the King as decent people, but have their doubts about the monarchy. To our democratic instincts, it feels, at least to some, distinctly odd, a relic of a hierarchical past, a hangover from a less enlightened age.  

But perhaps something more significant was hidden in that act. The idea of a constitutional monarch – a figure whose position is out of our hands, as it were – formally asking a politician to form a government - acts as a reminder to us that the will of the people is not the last word, or even the first word. It tells us that, important as democracy is (‘the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time’, as Winston Churchill famously put it), there is an order, an authority that stands above and beyond the will of the people. When it has worked well, the monarchy, a source of rule above that of people and parliament, has always been a symbol and pointer to a divine authority that can work through, but essentially stands above all human government. 

Because, of course, ’the will of the people’, and governments that claim to enact the will of the people, sometimes get things badly wrong. History, even that of democracies, is littered with tales of nations that have elected bad governments, or regimes that went on to enact a rule of terror in the name of ‘the people’, or where a majority has oppressed minorities. Republics of various kinds have ended up as oppressive and authoritarian. Even Hitler was elected in the first place. 

That a Prime Minister only governs at the pleasure of the Monarch is a reminder of a deeper truth - that all governments are subject to a higher accountability.

Of course, there are good monarchs and bad ones. For most of our lives, those of us who live in the UK are fortunate to have had a very good monarch in Queen Elizabeth, and we hope and pray Charles will prove to be one too. Bad monarchs, whose personal failings and moral selfishness betray the office they hold, blur the picture. They tell a different story, that authority is in itself abusive, oppressive and not to be trusted. But at its best, the continuous institution of the monarchy has served as an anchor for us, pointing away from itself to an unchanging divine presence in the course of history. The fact that a Prime Minister only governs at the pleasure of the Monarch is a reminder of a deeper truth - that all governments are subject to a higher accountability, to a moral law they did not invent, a law that tempers justice with mercy, that our lives are subject to a deeper and more lasting reality than the shifting sands of politics or times and that there is an even higher loyalty than that which we may have felt to our late Queen, or to our democratic political system. 

At the coronation, King Charles will be presented with an orb – a symbol of the world with a cross perched on top of it. It is a sign that ultimate power in this world belongs not to the King, or even the people, but to God. It is a reminder to the King, and to us, that he (and we) are accountable to an authority that stands beyond our own desires, or even the general will of the people. It is an authority represented by a cross – the symbol of love and self-sacrifice for the good of our neighbour, or even our enemy. It is one of those valuable reminders that stops any ruler from starting to think he can become a despot.  

As our constitutional system has evolved, it is the custom that Monarchs don’t get involved in the nitty-gritty of politics and it’s vital that they don’t. That is left, quite properly, to the crucial hard work of democratically elected government and politicians, who have to get on with the important but messy business of governing, working out what to do about the cost of living crisis, how to respond to conflict in Ukraine, or how to respond to those fleeing to our shores from war-torn or poverty-stricken parts of the world.  

The monarchy is a symbol of ultimate permanence, not the source of that permanence 

Over past decades, Queen Elizabeth kept to this custom. She avoided expressing opinions on particular political issues and disputes because that wasn’t her role. Her role was to be a reminder that there is an order of things beyond the temporal, a moral structure to the world that is just given, not created by us, a structure that tells us that compassion, truthfulness, integrity, justice and honesty matter in all the calculations and compromises of political decision making. 

The Queen’s death removed something steady and sure from our lives, as most of us have never known another monarch. Her death shook our sense of permanence, as the Archbishop of Canterbury put it at her funeral. Many of the vox pops we heard during the period of mourning pointed to that longing for permanence, the sense she gave of something enduring and reliable. Yet she was a symbol of ultimate permanence, not the source of that permanence.  

As King Charles is crowned, he becomes a pointer to the unshakeable and steady presence that surrounds us, upholds us and all things - the God that Christians see revealed in Jesus Christ. Queen Elizabeth understood that and showed it in her own faith – the one aspect of her personal life that she was quite open about. And there are signs that King Charles understands that too. Faith in that God is meant to be the foundation of a monarch’s rule. It can also provide a sure foundation for our individual and less public lives too, a sense of permanence in the changes and chances of this fleeting and unstable world.  

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Belief
5 min read

Dawkins is wrong about the nature of belief

You can’t rejoice in its collapse and like its cultural inheritance too.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A man sits and speaks, against a background of a bookcase.
Dawkins on LBC.

Richard Dawkins sat in a tree,  

Sawing every branch he could see,  

As he sawed through the branch on which he sat,  

He raged, "It's not fair that I should go splat!" 

I am a recovering New Atheist. I was such a New Atheist that I have a claim to fame: I have given what-for to Anne Widdecombe and the Archbishop Emeritus of Abuja. I was there, as a spotty, greasy haired, angry teenager when Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry socked-it-to the Roman Catholics at an Intelligence Squared debate. The motion was ‘The Catholic Church is a Force for Good in the World’. The question I asked was so poorly formed that the moderator deemed it a comment.  

I was a callow youth. Forgive me.  

I am now not quite so young and not quite so spotty. Now that I am a man, I have put away childish things. I have abandoned atheism and embraced faith in Jesus Christ. I am a priest in the Church of England, fully in favour of the Ten Commandments and the moral framework of the Church. Clearly, I’ve been on a journey.  

So, it seems, has Professor Richard Dawkins.  

The author of The God Delusion, and scourge of many public Christian thinkers and apologists, has recently made some turbulent waves. Having surfed the tides of New Atheism, he now seems to be swimming against the current. He is a proud ‘cultural Christian’. In an interview on LBC he forcefully defended the Christian inheritance of this country: 

“I do think that we are culturally a Christian country…I call myself a ‘cultural Christian’… I love hymns and Christmas carols…I feel at home in the Christian ethos… I find that I like to live in a culturally Christian country…” 

Professor Dawkins went on to clarify (several times!) that he doesn’t believe a single word of Christian doctrine or the Bible. He was cheered by the continued decline in the numbers of believing Christians in this country. This wasn’t his Christianity. He argued that the distinction between a ‘believing Christian’ and a ‘cultural Christian’ is such that one can be both a very firm atheist and a ‘cultural Christian’. He doesn’t want people believing the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, but he does want us to keep our Cathedrals and beautiful parish churches. At first reading this could be seen as positive - an unlikely defender of the Christian faith coming to the rescue of a beleaguered Church.  

It isn’t. 

What the interview demonstrated was that Professor Dawkins doesn’t really understand the nature of belief or the nature of culture. If he did, he would understand a basic principle: culture doesn’t just magically appear and grow. Culture is formed and maintained from fundamental beliefs.  

You can’t have the fruits without the roots. 

Professor Dawkins likes church music. He likes the architecture of grand Cathedrals. He likes living in a society with a Western liberal ethic. All three of these fruits have grown from roots of the Christian tradition, and not just any Christian tradition. They have grown out of the BELIEVING Christian tradition.  

Why on earth would people spend inordinate amounts of time and money building Cathedrals if they didn’t actually believe the worship of God was important? Why would musicians pour out the best of their creativity into sacred music if not for a love of Jesus? Why would they structure our society in a way that sees the care of the poor and oppressed as a fundamental necessity if they don’t take the Sermon on the Mount seriously? 

People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

Professor Dawkins finds himself living in a world that has been so shaped and saturated by Christianity that even our secularism has been called ‘Christian’. He lives in a Christian house. He likes it. Now he thinks he can have it and keep it while seeking to undermine and destroy the very beliefs that are the foundation, the stones, the mortar. 

He can’t.  

You don’t get to demand that everyone build their house on sand, and then complain that it is collapsing…and he does worry that it is collapsing. Predictably, he opened the interview by discussing his qualms about Islam and how he wouldn’t want this country to change from being ‘culturally Christian’ to ‘culturally Muslim’: “Insofar as Christianity can be seen as a bulwark against Islam I think it’s a very good thing.” I find this invocation of my faith offensive - not just because I believe my faith is ‘the truth’ (not just a club for angry atheists to bash Muslims with), but because it is so stupid! 

I use the word advisedly.  

It is a comment from a man who can’t seem to understand cause-and-effect. People who don’t believe strongly in something don’t fight for it. Rejoicing in the collapse of Christian belief while expecting it to protect you from other religions is about as obtuse as an individual can get. The Church grew, and spread, and produced the hymns and cathedrals and ethics that Professor Dawkins loves so much, because of people’s firm belief in Jesus Christ as our Risen Saviour. People died to spread this faith - THIS CULTURE! As Tertullian said: “…the blood of martyrs is the seed of the Church.” People don’t die because they quite like a soft cultural inheritance - they die because they believe! 

It was this realisation that led me to where I am now. I found that everything I cared about flowed from the Christian faith I rejected, so I rejected it no more. I wanted to continue enjoying the ‘fruits’ of my ‘cultural Christianity’, so I stopped hacking away at the ‘roots’ of ‘believing Christianity’. Professor Dawkins is seemingly wilfully blind to this fact: ‘believing Christian’s make it possible to have ‘cultural Christians’. Take away the belief and just watch what happens to the culture. 

“I don’t was to be misunderstood. I do think it’s nonsense.” 

As a believing Christian I respond: can we please have our culture back, then?