The momentous task for King Charles III
With the Queen’s death, might a Britain of priceless value also be passing?
For the past week, normal life in Britain has effectively been put on hold as the country has undergone an astonishing catharsis.
Since the death of the Queen, emotional scenes on the streets have been played out day by day as her casket has progressed, in full public view, from Balmoral Castle in Scotland where she died to her lying-in-state in London before her funeral on Monday.
At every stage of her final journey, vast crowds have lined the route to stand in silence as her hearse has slowly passed by.
Now her casket — draped with the royal standard and bearing the crown and a simple wreath of white flowers — rests on a catafalque under the soaring Norman arches of Westminster Hall as the public, in lines snaking for many miles through London’s streets, file silently past, some bowing their heads, many in tears.
The new King Charles III, who has been visiting every constituent nation of the United Kingdom, has touched many with his visible grief, his expressions of love for his mother and his pledge to emulate her example of selfless public service.
The word that springs to mind from these affecting scenes is devotion: the late Queen’s devotion to the people, and their devotion to her.
Devotion, of course, has a religious significance. In largely secular, godless Britain there is a strong element of the sacred in this relationship between the people and the Crown.
The monarch in Britain is consecrated to a higher king. At the coronation — which will take place next year — Charles will be anointed. The oath that he takes is not to the people but to God.
That’s why his duty to serve the people is unbreakable. And that’s why the monarch is a unifying force, and melds the people into a united nation. The royal family helps forge the country into a kind of national family.
Citizens of republics often find it hard to appreciate the benefits of a constitutional monarchy. By enshrining the identity of the nation above and beyond temporal politics, the constitutional monarch acts as a focus for unity often denied to countries that have instead elected presidents as their head of state.
Few also appreciate that the British monarchy is patterned on ancient Israel. It’s why the monarch is anointed; it’s why words uttered by “Zadok the Priest,” taken from the first Book of Kings, have been sung at every English coronation since 973 CE. Some British monarchs in the past have even purportedly traced their line back to King David.
True, ancient Israel was a theocracy and was also eventually destroyed by internal divisions. Nevertheless, it developed a concept of governance that was to serve as a template for both Britain and America.
The genius of the monarchy invented by King David was that it brought together, as one governable nation, otherwise disparate and potentially warring tribes.
Even more revolutionary was the ancient Israelites’ concept of limited governance. Their king didn’t enjoy absolute power. He was constrained from below by the authority vested in priests, prophets and judges, and from above by the belief that the supreme ruler whose laws even the king had to follow was the Almighty himself.
During the 17th-century English civil war, which led to the system of parliamentary government under the Crown, political thinkers looked to Judaism for the answer to many questions about the relationship between scripture, sovereigns and subjects.
Under Oliver Cromwell, some even advocated turning parliament into a sanhedrin or supreme council patterned on the biblical high court of Judea.
Just as Britain’s constitutional monarchy is generally not understood in republican countries, nor is the relationship in Britain between church and state in which the Crown plays a central role.
Britain has an established church in the Church of England. Because it is benign and tolerant, it acts as a protective umbrella for other minority faiths such as Judaism. It prevents a contest for power between faiths in which Judaism would be the loser.
The monarch is the Defender of the Faith, meaning Protestantism. The Queen, who treated this role with the utmost seriousness, was a devout Christian. In 1994, when Charles was Prince of Wales, he caused no little consternation when he said he wanted to be not Defender of the Faith but “defender of faith”.
Long attracted by elements of Islam in particular, he believes all faiths are linked by a common spirituality that promotes the unity of the natural world.
This raised fears among many British Jews (and others) that he would promote a multi-faith mishmash and thus undermine the protection that the Jews have enjoyed. However, he explained that he merely wanted to use his Christian standpoint to offer protection to other faiths.
And in his first address to the nation after his mother’s death, he pledged to uphold the sovereign’s particular responsibility towards the Church of England.
The King has shown much friendship and warmth towards British Jews. However, many Jews have interpreted the failure by his mother ever to visit Israel as a signal of antipathy to the Jewish people within the royal family.
This is a misunderstanding. The royals undertake no engagements overseas unless the UK Foreign Office wants them to do so. And British government ambivalence about the Jewish national home goes back to the Mandate period in the 1930s and 1940s, when Britain betrayed its obligation to settle the Jewish people throughout Palestine.
In fact, first Prince William and then Prince Charles, as he then was, did make official visits to Israel in 2018 and 2020 which were almost certainly due to a shift in the government’s attitude. This was caused by an increasing number of pro-Israel ministers in the Conservative administrations of Theresa May and Boris Johnson, combined with the developing relationship with Israel by the Gulf states towards which the British government has long been obsequious.
It is an irony that today’s State of Israel, the direct heir to the ancient Davidic kingdom, doesn’t have a monarchy. Maybe that’s one reason why its internal divisions are so raw — and potentially so dangerous to its long-term health.
Although America was created by rejecting the British Crown, the Hebrew Bible is integral to foundational American institutions and laws. The Liberty Bell is engraved with an inscription from Leviticus: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof”. America’s founding fathers made repeated reference to Biblical sources.
Few, however, acknowledge the central importance of Biblical values — which have been under sustained assault for decades from secular ideologies such as moral and cultural relativism — in underpinning the west. Principles such as duty to others, humility and gratitude for the world’s many gifts originated in the Hebrew Bible.
The Queen embodied and upheld these values. Unlike Charles, who took a stand on a number of issues as Prince of Wales, no-one ever knew what his mother thought. Avoiding anything that might cause division, she thus simply embodied selflessness, stoicism and public service. And like Judaism itself, she also radiated hope in the future.
That’s why she was so loved. That’s why there has been such terrible grief in Britain over the death of a 96 year-old woman — because people fear that, with her death, so too a Britain is passing that once stood for the principles and the society that she personified.
We wait to see whether King Charles III, the latest British monarch in the Davidic tradition, will similarly rise to that momentous task.
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