From a supporter’s perspective, royalty has had a productive past year or so. There was the wedding of William Windsor and Kate Middleton, not quite the event concocted for Charles and Diana, despite the effort to make it so, but it did tickle a few royalist fantasies. Then, with some ingenuity, the choreographer of the Olympic Games celebrations linked royalty with the British Secret Service.
At the same games, an obviously disenchanted monarch gave up her licence to a privileged seat at the opening ceremony so that her grandson could have some of the spotlight at the closing event. This could be considered a bit of a cheek, but all part of the “follies royal”.
What was particularly irksome to me (born a Scot, growing-up in Wales and Australia – all nations with significant republican persuasions) was the number of times I heard played the British National Anthem, a paeon of praise/prayer to and about a person rather than an anthem celebrating a United Kingdom (sic) or extolling the virtues and exploits of the citizens of that nation. World records are set, winners medals distributed, but the only one to “send victorious, happy and glorious”, is a Queen. How demeaning of a people!
The London Olympic Games concluded with the announcement that the Olympic Park in which they were held was now to be called the “Queen Elizabeth Park”. No consultation with the people, then, despite the fact that the Olympic Games were the “peoples’ games” and were sponsored largely from the public purse (the Exchequer, sponsorship and ticket sales).
Before one could appreciate this shift, that famous tower with the big clock that is part of the Palace of Westminster, the seat of the British peoples’ Parliament, was to have its name changed to “Queen Elizabeth Tower”. “Big Ben” had been belittled (there is a rumour that a finger on the statue of Oliver Cromwell actually twitched when the change of name was announced).
The justification given for these changes had something to do with the sixty years of what has been called “loyal and faithful”, if not diamond class, service rendered by the Elizabeth Windsor to the people of Great Britain and the Commonwealth (as well, presumably, as Northern Ireland – though this part of the United Kingdom was seemingly forgotten in the foregoing and during the Olympic Games with the constant reference to “Team GB”). This dubious claim was ostentatiously celebrated this year with the event known as the “Queen’s Jubilee”.
There have been several other notable royal occasions, none of which were available to other than those with photographic memories. For me, however, the occasion that remains, somewhat infamously, in my memory, is that of the “Queen’s Jubilee”. This event was roundly celebrated with, somewhat unconstitutionally, “royal cooking competitions” in schools (aided and abetted by pro-royalist government ministers), street parties up and down the country, record sales of bunting and Union flags (particularly in England – the historical home of “British” royalty), and a much vaunted flotilla of ships sailing the River Thames – an event that turned out to be a bit of a damp squib, in more ways than one.
For me, the deepest source of “Jubilee” discontent was in the usurpation of the actual concept.
The background to the concept of “Jubilee” can be found in the Old Testament, the sacred text of the Hebrew faith and the first part of the Christian Bible. The term referred to a fifty year cycle in the primitive, agricultural calendar of a middle-eastern Semitic people. The beginning of this fiftieth year was signified by the blowing of a special ram’s horn, thereby inaugurating a year which discharged two primary functions.
Firstly it affected the automatic release or emancipation of a Hebrew who, for one reason or another, had, during the preceding forty-nine years, become enslaved to a fellow Hebrew, and likewise the automatic release or return to the original owner or his family the property which had been sold to a fellow Hebrew during the course of a similar forty-nine year period. The legislation for the Jubilee Year was found in the “Holiness Code” of that part of the Jewish Scriptures known as the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). The two primary functions were meant to have great spiritual, as well as social, significance. These two areas are intrinsically related.
It does not take a great deal of interpretation to understand the “Jubilee Year” as the development within Judaism of a movement to correct previous discrimination within the social history of Judaism. Unfortunately, and in line with so much biblical social reformation, the practice of the “Jubilee Year” became completely obsolete (Source: The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, Vol.2). A comparison of the biblical idea of “Jubilee” with the events witnessed during the “Queen’s Jubilee” reveals a quite different picture.
The focus of the “Queen’s Jubilee” was singularly upon the celebration of a person and her supposed royal and representative qualities and functions. There was no emancipation for any citizen or county, not to even mention Cornwall, of the UK during the ensuing celebrations. What did occur, unmistakeably, was a release of emotion and mis-placed adulation. Moreover, ambassadors, in the form of royal offspring and their consorts, were sent world-wide on her majesty’s public (but, this time, not secret) service and the usual political grovelling could be seen and heard in the Palace of Westminster. The attempt was made to transform royal liabilities into royal assets.
Not only were the politicians complicit in this royal window-dressing, the established Church also played its part. This was hardly a surprise as the Church of England, established in the 16th century by Henry VIII, in protest towards the Vatican and with himself as its head, continues to uphold the anachronism known as the British monarchy – thus ensuring and extending its own privileges. How can representative religion be so blind?
It would seem that the Church of England, too, ignores significant Christian imperatives implicit in the idea of “Jubilee” as it tenaciously holds-on to its privileged position within a British establishment encompassing a mixture of royalty, military, law, legislature and state church. The Church of England’s one great modern undertaking, the “Decade of Evangelism” during the 1990’s, failed to ignite British society, and certainly did nothing for its fabric of justice and right-living. There is no necessity to wonder too much as to why this was so.
And, of course, there is the likelihood that there will be no change in the approach of the Church of England, or the British establishment for that matter, when, perhaps inevitably, Charles Windsor assumes the royal mantel – despite how the Church of England, especially its evangelical wing, views such matters as adultery, divorce and disproportionate wealth.
There has been a great deal of horn blowing during the “Queen’s Jubilee” but, unfortunately and to the great chagrin of the British people, none of it has made any difference to the state of the nation, none has been directed to the economic discomfiture of this kingdom’s citizens, whilst secrecy and lack of transparency continues to be the modus operandi of royalty – aided and abetted, to the disgrace of contemporary British democracy, by the political classes.
What has been described as the “Jubilee bandwagon” continues to roll-on, with the younger royals increasingly taking centre stage. These persons, presumably, have less of an understanding of what “Jubilee” means than do their elders. They are, after all, living the lives of privileged celebrities and are far removed from the Old Testament victims for which the practice of “Jubilee” – release and emancipation – was intended.
Perhaps the next time we hear the ubiquitous horns blaze out at some function attended by any member of royalty, we will pause and give a thought to the ancient ram’s horn which, every fifty years, carried its message of genuine “Jubilee”.
I am a retired secondary school teacher of Humanities, having spent a major portion of my working life as a Minister of Religion with the Baptist denomination. I would now describe myself as a secular humanist and a socialist. I am married to Vicky and we have three children - two sons and a married daughter - all of whom are in their thirties. Formerly of Melbourne, Australia, we are all now living in England. My academic studies have been undertaken in Australia, the UK and the USA. I have a doctorate in religious studies from the San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In retirement I enjoy reading, listening to classical music and writing. I am a member of Republic, Sea of Faith, Dignity in Dying Campaign and the National Secular Society. As well, I have a subscription to a number of cultural and political associations, including Amnesty International and, as a committed European, The Federal Trust.