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Thought for the Day - Maundy Thursday 2011

Thursday 21st April 2011

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, with his Thought for the Day on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

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Listen to an audio recording [2Mb, 3 mins] or read a transcript below

Good morning.  Today the Queen celebrates her birthday by distributing the Royal Maundy at Westminster Abbey.  It’s a curious survival, the Royal Maundy, but a touching one, looking back to the days when the monarch really was expected to be a bit like a priest for the nation – acting out the great symbols of faith on behalf of everyone.  And if anyone believes that’s entirely a thing of the past, they ought to think a bit about why interest in the Royal Wedding is so warm and intense.  It’s largely about the feeling that Someone, with a capital S, is reminding us of things that – whether we fully believe them or not – we want to believe, things we know matter for the well-being of our community as a nation.

And that’s very much what the Royal Maundy is about. What we see today is only a shadow of what used to be done hundreds of years ago, when the monarch would actually do what Jesus did at the Last Supper and wash the feet of a number of poor people.  Back in the Middle Ages, this meant that the King was just doing what priests and bishops often did, not only on Maundy Thursday but on many other occasions. 

They didn’t all do it because they were lovely humble people – some were, and some definitely weren’t – but because they accepted one great truth that needed repeating over and over again, the one big thing that Christianity had brought into the world of human imagination.

And that was – and is – the truth that power constantly needs to be reminded of what it’s for.  Power exists, in the Church or the state or anywhere else, so that ordinary people may be treasured and looked after, especially those who don’t have the resources to look after themselves.  The Bible is crystal clear that this is the standard by which the gospel of Jesus judges the powerful of this world.

Which makes you wonder…What about having a new law that made all cabinet members and leaders of political parties, editors of national papers  and the hundred most successful financiers in the UK, spend a couple of hours every year serving dinners in a primary school on a council estate? Or cleaning bathrooms in a residential home? Walking around the streets of a busy town at night as a street pastor, ready to pick up and absorb something of the chaos and human mess you’ll find there especially among young people?

I’ve no doubt some of our public figures do this sort of thing privately, and good for them.  But maybe having to do it, to do it in public and not to be able to make any sort of capital out of it because they had no choice - ?  It might do two things, reminding our leaders of what the needs really are at grass roots level, so that those needs can never again be just remote statistics; and reminding the rest of us what politics and government are really for.

Well, perhaps that’s just a nice fantasy to mull over during the holiday weekend.  But as we watch the Queen honouring some of her subjects today, it’s worth remembering this startling idea that the goal of the supreme power in the universe is that we should be nurtured, respected and loved.  What does that say – to monarchs, politicians, tycoons and, yes, Archbishops too – about how we understand and use the power we have? 

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