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Sermon on the 80th Birthday of The Queen

Thursday 15th June 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury's sermon on the occasion of the Service of Thanksgiving for the Eightieth Birthday of Her Majesty The Queen at St Paul's Cathedral

The curse of our age has been the inhumanity of absolute ideology and of myths of racial supremacy, the great lies that have plunged our continent and our world into darkness and butchery so many times since the nineteen twenties. And in the new century and millennium, what we have to fear is a toxic mixture of religion that has become inhuman, economic power sustained at massive human cost, and the technologies of destruction that can be used by armies and by terrorists alike for impersonal killing.  Holocaust and Stalinism and ethnic cleansing, fanaticism and terror and mass destruction - all varieties of power without a human face, demanding blind loyalties and disregard for the diversity of human life, all working for a false kind of unity or solidarity. But these great lies remind us what a tough question it is when we ask - as we so often do these days - what it is that gives cohesion to a society.

Is it racial identity and solidarity? a monochrome culture? a governing ideology or philosophy? In our country, it is none of those things; instead, and among the several other things that give us such cohesion as we have is a common loyalty to the monarch. You may sometimes hear complaints that in Britain we suffer from being subjects rather than citizens, and that this produces a culture of deference and passivity. But what if our common allegiance to the monarch were in fact something that helped us to be adult citizens?

The identity of the United Kingdom has had something to do with the development of a critical democracy within the framework of symbol and tradition. At our best, we have found solidarity in a network of relationships and practices quite hard to codify, but variously connected with the personal focus that is the monarch. And the British monarch is not an absolute ruler demanding mindless loyalty, but the one who guarantees space for the rest of society to argue and negotiate and change, as mature citizen-societies must, who 'defends our laws' as the National Anthem puts it.

Our experience in the United Kingdom - not a smooth progression, not easily won - has shown us something of what a society might look like when it refuses to see its unity and cohesion in abstract terms, in terms of ideology or race or even some great imperial project. After all, in the last half-century we have made a transition from Empire to Commonwealth, a transition whose success no-one could have guaranteed; yet what remained intact was a sense of international convergence and kinship that would have been a great deal harder, perhaps impossible, without the steady presence of a single personal focus.

In other words, monarchy as it has developed here is a way of keeping power human. At the symbolic centre of our political life is a person. There are risks to this: Your Majesty has more reason than most to know the cost of a culture fanatically eager for gossip and trivia and the exposure in public of what should be private. Yet it is also true that something of immense value has been made possible in this climate. We have seen something of a monarch who has shared the vulnerability of ordinary people, and that has been moving in itself. But more importantly we have been able to see a bit more clearly the personal depth of our monarch's faith, more and more evident in successive broadcasts and testimonies, and her keen sense - to borrow the blunt and resonant words of the Prayer Book - of 'whose minister she is', who she is answerable to.

And this means that at the hub of our political life is not only a person with whose vulnerability we can identify but a person visibly standing before God and God's judgement in humility and hope. Monarchy has been for us as citizens a sign of the humanity at the heart of power, a sign that we can be held together not by the furious rivalries of theory or ethnic exclusion but by acknowledging the common debt of our humanity to its maker and redeemer. The logic of this kind of monarchy is the logic of the Christian recognition of Christ as King - the monarch whose credentials are to be found in his human vulnerability and in his utter dependence upon God his Father.

Birthdays are among the most vivid reminders we can have of our common humanity, and our common call to journey through time with each other. Today, your Majesty, we give thanks with you simply for the gifts of life and experience - and for the beginning of a new year of challenge; we wish you and Prince Philip, who has so devotedly supported you and all that you have stood for, many more happy years. But we also give thanks for a human face to our systems and processes, a human symbol that helps to hold us together. May our thanksgiving strengthen our resolve to resist the great public inhumanities that still menace us all. When we try to be more than human we become less than human. - that much we should have learned in the past century. So may God keep us now in human fellowship as we learn how we may grow in grace into eternal fellowship with him.

© Rowan Williams 2006 

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