For Christian believers, the accession of King Charles III to be king of 'the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of his other Realms and Territories' raises the question of how the monarchy is to be understood from a theological perspective.
That King Charles is the new king is without doubt, but why is he king, and what is the nature of his calling as the king? The purpose of this article is to briefly answer these two questions on the basis of the Church of England's traditional teaching about the matter.
In the British constitution (and in the constitution of the other realms over which the king rules) authority to govern flows from the king. The government is appointed by the king and rules in his name and the laws enacted by the government and voted for by Parliament have authority because king (or one of his royal predecessors) has given assent to them. Furthermore, those who have authority to uphold and enforce the law, the judiciary, the police, and ultimately the armed forces, have this authority delegated to them from the king. They act as his officers.
If we ask who gave authority to the king, the answer is that he was elected by an electorate of one, the one in question being God. This is a point that is emphasized in the homily 'Concerning good order and obedience to rulers and magistrates' in the Church of England's First Book of Homilies. This homily notes that as part of God's appointment of all things in creation 'in a most excellent and perfect order' he has given authority to kings and other rulers:
'For Almighty God is the only author and provider for this forenamed state and order, as it is written of God, in the book of the Proverbs: Through me kings do reign, through me counsellors make just laws, through me do princes bear rule, and all judges of the earth execute judgement, I am loving to them that love me' (Proverbs 8:15, 17).
'Here let us mark well, and remember that the high power and authority of kings, with their making of laws, judgements and offices, are the ordinances not of man, but of God: and therefore is this word (through me) so many times repeated. Here is also well to be considered and remembered, that this good order is appointed by God's wisdom, favour, and love, especially for them that love God, and therefore he saith, I love them that love me.'
If we further ask what is the role given by God to those he calls to be monarchs, the answer is that the role of the king is to exercise justice by promoting that which is right and by preventing and correcting that which is wrong. This calling to exercise justice is referred to, in line with Paul's teaching in Romans 13, as the exercise of the power of the sword, and it is symbolized in the coronation service of the British monarch by the king being given a sword by the Archbishop of Canterbury with the words:
'Receive this kingly Sword, brought now from the Altar of God, and delivered to you by the hands of us the Bishops and servants of God, though unworthy. With this sword do justice, stop the growth of iniquity, protect the holy Church of God, help and defend widows and orphans, restore the things that are gone to decay, maintain the things that are restored, punish and reform what is amiss, and confirm what is in good order: that doing these things you may be glorious in all virtue; and so faithfully serve our Lord Jesus Christ in this life, that you may reign for ever with him in the life which is to come. Amen.'
The coronation service also makes clear that the measure by which the monarch is to determine what it means to exercise justice is the teaching of the Bible. Thus, at the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 the Queen was given a copy of the Bible with the words:
'Our gracious Queen:
to keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God
as the Rule for the whole life and government of Christian Princes,
we present you with this Book,
the most valuable thing that this world affords.
Here is Wisdom;
This is the royal Law;
These are the lively Oracles of God.'
The words used at the giving of the sword, 'protect the holy Church of God,' remind us that that the monarch's calling to exercise justice by promoting the that which is right and preventing and correcting those things that are wrong extends to matters of religion as well as to secular matters.
The reason for this is explained in the words of the Church of England theologian Richard Hooker, who wrote:
'A gross error it is, to think that regal power ought to serve for the good of the body, and not of the soul; for men's temporal peace, and not for their eternal safety: as if God had ordained kings for no other end and purpose but only to fat up men like hogs, and to see that they have their mast. Indeed, to lead men unto salvation by the hand of secret, invisible and ghostly regiment, or by the external administration of things belonging unto priestly order, (such as the word and sacraments are,) this is denied unto Christian kings: no cause in the world to think them uncapable of supreme authority in the outward government which disposeth the affairs of religion so far as the same are disposable by human authority, and to think them uncapable thereof, only for that the said religion is everlastingly beneficial to them that faithfully continue in it.'
What Hooker is saying is that it is part of the role of monarchs to ensure that men's souls are cared for as well as their bodies. This makes absolutely no sense if you are a secularist and believe that this life is all that there is. However, if, in the words of the creed, you believe in 'the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come', if you believe that the final destiny intended by God for human beings is not the grave or the crematorium but 'the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God' (Revelation 21:2) and if you believe, as the New Testament tells us, that participation in the life of the new Jerusalem is not automatic, but depends on our belief and behaviour in this life, then you will think that it is the proper business of monarchs to care for the spiritual well-being of their subjects.
What is more, because the Church is the instrument created by God to promote human spiritual well-being through the preaching of the word and the administration of the sacraments it follows that the monarch is properly called to 'protect the holy Church of God' from both external and internal attack in order that it may perform this God-ordained role.
The role of the British monarch as the supreme governor of the Church of England follows from the points made above. Like Hooker, Article XXXVII of the Church of England's Thirty-Nine Articles makes clear that the role of supreme governor does not mean that the Church of England gives 'to our Princes the ministering either of God's Word, or of the Sacraments.' Although they are monarchs, kings and queens remain lay people.
What it does mean is that the Church of England recognises that 'prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself, that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be ecclesiastical or temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers.'
As we have seen, as part of their overall responsibility to bring about justice, monarchs are called to ensure the well-being of the Church of God and acting as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England is simply the exercise of this role.
The final thing to note is that responsibility flows both ways. As the monarch is called to faithfully exercise their God-given responsibilities so their subjects are called to accept their God-given authority, submit to their rule and pray for them and for all others in authority 'that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way' (1 Timothy 2:2).
Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.