A Sermon Preached on Coronation Sunday by Canon Simon Butler
A Sermon Preached on the Occasion of the Coronation of King Charles III
Sunday 7th May 2023 at the Parish Eucharist
But not so with you; rather the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves.
The pomp of the procession ended yesterday with the strains of Parry’s I was glad echoing around Westminster Abbey; the eyes of world leaders turned to the so-called Coronation Theatre on the famed Cosmati Pavement, where St Edward’s Throne took centre stage; bishops and archbishops stood around the monarch expectantly; the King and Queen were in their place, supported by pages, heralds and the cream of what used to be called Society. And the first to speak was a young boy, “Your Majesty, as children of the kingdom of God we welcome you in the name of the King of kings.” To which the King responded, in the words of Jesus, “I come not to be served but to serve.”
This was the great paradox of yesterday’s Coronation Service, highlighted by the Archbishop’s reminder in his sermon of the nature of the service of the one in whose name King Charles III came: the one who wore the crown of thorns and whose throne is the cross is the centre of this extraordinary occasion. A milennium of tradition, wealth and pomp have been added to this simple truth expressed by the boy from the Chapels Royal: that the King of kings, the King of our new king, is the model for King Charles, for us, to emulate. For me it was these simplest moments – the voice of a child, the way in which the king stood before the altar in his simple white undershirt – that capture this paradox the most intently. Power, wealth, the arrival of celebrity culture, the inherited wealth of the nation, some of it won by the most despicable means: all of these stand symbolised in the simple words of a child and an aging man standing simply before his God.
I know the priest who prepared the Coronation liturgy on behalf of the Archbishop and when I next see him I will ask him if the words of Jesus from our Gospel reading, and the famous story of Jesus putting a child in front of him and asking the disciples to model themselves on this child, whether these words inspired him to ask a child to speak the first words to our new King yesterday. I expect and hope that they were because it was a Gospel moment in a service that could easily have all be about the show of worldly wealth and power.
Children often ask the questions that we adults avoid asking, for fear of being seen as foolish or naïve. “Why is the sky blue?” “Where is God?” “Why are people cruel?” For centuries the child in the Gospel reading has been a model to emulate, the child who trusts the parent or the elder to answer truthfully, and who takes on trust the words that they say, has been the model of faith. “Truly, I tell you, says Jesus, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Or, as in today’s reading, the greatest among you must become like the youngest Childlikeness as the model of faith: that has been the example to follow we have been told.
This is a wonderful message but, according to the biblical scholars, this is not at the heart of the reversal of expectation between the wisdom of adults and trusting of children. This, they say, only became the main intepretation of this passage during the period when children became more and more sentementalised. Maybe, they say, that’s more Dickens than New Testament. The message is a lot more radical than that.
Children in the first century did not have the same status as children today. Children were often seen as low-level subordinates to adults; often they were denied personhood; they certainly didn’t have anything like the sense of rights we assume today. If they had status at all, it was given them through their parents; often, tragically, collective punishment of families and clans saw children done away with because they were part of the family or even the chattels of the male leader.
So when Jesus tells his disciples the greatest among you must become like the youngest he’s saying something far more than become more trusting. He’s saying, almost, become non-people, give up your status, don’t cling to it. The way of the cross is about giving up status. Become like a child means giving up your power, prestige and influence, or at least using it in very different ways than the world around you.
This different view of children and what becoming like the youngest might mean has lived with me for some time. Jesus of course is not insisting that children should not have dignity, but that adults should beware of the danger of their own. That gospel challenge remains very real.
But I saw it in another light as I thought about our King being crowned yesterday because, while we thank goodness no longer see children as objects and chattels – even if some remain tragically objectified and abused in many ways – that means that the challenge of Jesus to become like the youngest no longer quite works. That’s partly why it’s meaning has been changed and perhaps sentimentalised away.
If anything, I want to suggest to you, we no longer see children in that way, but we all too easily see older people in the way that those first century folk saw children. We put children on a pedestal while, with comparative ease, our culture hides its older people away; we lionise youth and human potential, and we become embarrassed about aging and sceptical about the wisdom of age; we find it easier to prioritise public healthcare for children and the development of their educational opportunties, but governments of both parties, with precious little public outcry from the general public, continue to face up to the needs of older people or show any willingness to inject public funds into healthcare for the elderly. Culturally, perhaps, it is the elderly who those without status, who risk becoming the non-people in our society. Maybe, he says, trailing his coat tails a little, maybe the words of Jesus spoken into a culture like ours would be the opposite of those he spoke two thousand years ago, the greatest among you must become like the oldest.
So when I saw a seventy-four year old man, accompanied by his seventy-five year old wife, being crowned our new King yesterday, my thoughts were turned to the opportunity we have in his reign to turn our thoughts, if not away from our children (for he, of all monarchs, would not want that), then at least towards a greater place of honour and respect in our society for those who are coming into their true potential in the last years of their life. I saw a man, full of wisdom and held up to the nation by those who know him well (admittedly sometimes a little too gushingly for my taste) as someone with so much yet to give to this country and the world, a man who has sometimes been way ahead of his time, and sometimes paid the price of mockery for it.
Aging is not always a happy experience but it is one most of us will share in, to a greater or lesser extent. At some point, our King, will once again stand before his God as a man rather than a monarch, shifting, to quote Shakespeare’s cynical Jacques:
Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound.
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything: that’s the journey for most of us. Looking at our King standing in his undershirt before the altar in Westminster Abbey yesterday, I saw not just a monarch about to be vested in the great objects of state, but a man who would one day face death. We pray for the manner of his living, and especially that his reign will be, if not long, then at least filled with the Christlike qualities that we prayed he would be given by God in the Coronation Service yesterday; and so we see in the chorister’s invitation to him to be an example of Christlike living, an invitation to us all. But in that same man we see not just the beginning of reign, but its inevitable end, and so we pray that we too, alongside him, would live in a way that prepares us for the great reward beyond death.
As Parry’s great anthem says, I was glad when they said unto me : We will go into the house of the Lord. Our feet shall stand in thy gates, O Jerusalem. In all the pomp of the Coronation, only the hardest of hearts could not but rejoice with our King and with the nation as he entered God’s presence. We rejoice in his new reign. But we also look forward to the time when our King, and we ourselves, enter the New Jerusalem, clothed not with robes of state or even our winding sheet, but with the grace that comes as the reward of a life of Christlike service. The gift of aging is to see that as the greatest of rewards, beyond the callow ambitions of youthful optimism. Let us embrace our years with grace, for perhaps, the greatest among you must become like the oldest. Amen.
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