The Republic of Heaven
November 21 is the feast of Christ the King. If that seems an
unfamiliar name, the reason is simple: this was the first year of its
official celebration in the Church of England (though elsewhere in the
Anglican Communion it has been going for many years).
In the old Book of Common Prayer this Sunday was called The
Sunday Next Before Advent and earned the nickname "Stir-up Sunday",
from the opening words of its collect: "Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord,
the wills of thy faithful people �"
Then for the past twenty years it was demoted to the somewhat anonymous
Fifth Sunday Before Christmas. Now it has bounced back into prominence
as the feast of Christ the King.
Although new to us, the festival is already well-established in the
Roman Catholic Church. But even there it is a comparative newcomer
compared with most holy days.
It�s celebration was instituted by Pope Pius XI in a papal encyclical
of December, 1925, and it was first celebrated the following year.
Originally it was observed on the last Sunday of October. But in 1970, as
part of the liturgical reform following the Second Vatican Council, it was
transferred to the last Sunday before Advent. And that is the date adopted
by the Church of England in deciding to bring the feast into its calendar.
It may strike you as odd, at the very time when our Church is joining
the general clamour in support of democratic institutions in every country
of the world, that it should add to the Christian festivals one that
highlights the image of Jesus as a despotic ruler. That, after all, is the
kind of king that the Bible envisages - not a constitutional monarch who
rubber stamps parliamentary decisions or reads speeches written by his
No-one denies that the royal and despotic image of Christ is there in
the Bible, but it does seem a curious time to draw attention to it.
Let�s go back to Pope Pius XI to tease out some reasons.
The year 1925 was the 1600th anniversary of the Council of Nicaea, the
first great international conference of bishops. It was called by the
emperor Constantine in 325, a few years after his conversion to
The council gave its name to the Nicene Creed, which is sung or said at
the Eucharist, and it was at that council that the words "whose kingdom
shall have no end" were added at the end of the section of the creed
devoted to God the Son.
In his encyclical letter, Pope Pius specifically linked the
inauguration of the feast of Christ the King to the addition of that
clause to the creed. The one, he said, was a fitting celebration to mark
the sixteenth centenary of the other.
But why were those words added to the creed in 325? Officially it was
to counter the idea (found in Paul's letters) that Jesus would only be a
temporary king, who in the end would surrender his kingdom to his heavenly
father. That suggested Jesus might be a kind of junior or subordinate God,
and it was precisely to scotch that view that the Council of Nicaea had
So it was insisted that Paul�s words must be interpreted in the light
of those other words attributed by the author of Luke's Gospel to the
angel Gabriel, when he told Mary that she would be the mother of Christ
and that "Of his kingdom there shall be no end."
That is the official version of why the words were added.
But remember that the Emperor Constantine at the time of the Council of
Nicea had only been a Christian for five minutes - and already he was
throwing his weight around. After all, he had used his power to call
together over 300 bishops from all over the Roman empire. Those bishops
might well have thought it expedient to remind the emperor that they
served a higher king, whose rule was everlasting and before whose throne
even emperors must bow.
Whatever the new clause�s doctrinal message, there was surely a
political message as well: Don�t think you can just push the Church about
Now cast your mind back to 1925, when Pope Pius XI chose to highlight
this clause - out of all those in the Nicene creed - by instituting a
special festival. The papacy was then still coming to terms with the
unification of Italy some fifty years before, and its consequent loss of
sovereignty over the part of central Italy formerly known as the Papal
States. Popes had ruled there - as the secular power - for over a thousand
And now in 1925 Benito Mussolini, already the prime minister of Italy,
had declared himself dictator and set about rebuilding the country on
fascist principles in conscious imitation of the glory that was Rome.
Surely the timing of these two events - Il Duce�s
dictatorship and the inauguration by the Pope of the feast of Christ the
King - was not coincidental.
And so to this year of grace 2001.
Why should the Church of England choose this moment, at the opening of
the third Christian millennium, to make its own statement by recognizing
the feast of Christ the King?
Her secular power and influence have been under steady decline for at
least a century and a half. Constitutional reform is in the air. The
senior Roman Catholic bishop in the country publicly admits that
Christianity no longer serves as the natural spiritual and moral backdrop
for most people living here. Traditional doctrines are attacked from
without and questioned from within the Church, even at the highest
theological and ecclesiastical levels. Church finances have never looked
The Church of England, to put it mildly, is nervous. And at just this
moment it introduces the feast of Christ the King.
You will gather that I am not entirely happy with the motives - after a
period of seventeen centuries - that have drawn the Church to emphasize
the kingship of Christ. But this morning�s gospel gives me confidence that
any attempt to abuse this feast will backfire.
Yes, Christ is in some sense a king. But his kingdom is not of this
world, and he reigns from a cross. All attempts to use his name to exert
earthly power and influence will fail, because his rule subverts such
power. It is not those who manipulate his name and his royal status who
will be remembered when Jesus comes into his kingdom (so to speak), but
those like the penitent thief who suffer with him.
For - as a Quaker friend of mine mischievously likes to put it - of
such is the republic of heaven.