Turning the values of leadership and greatness on their head
David Williams, 7 May 2023
I wonder what’s uppermost in your mind on this Sunday morning. If you’ve got a chance, if you weren’t in the cathedral, the YouTube channel still has Professor White’s short address that he gave in Winchester Cathedral on Friday night. I found it utterly inspiring. He started by buttering us up a bit, because he said, Winchester is a much bigger place than Westminster Abbey. This is where the coronations all started: the first kings of this nation were crowned in Winchester Cathedral. He went on to say, what do you think is happening at a coronation? And he then said, nothing at all. And he quoted from the legal documents and said, he became King constitutionally when Queen Elizabeth died. So what are we doing at the Coronation?
He rather elegantly slipped through three or four scenarios. He said, is it now a nation allowing nostalgia to return and trying to revive fading institutions? He moved quickly on. Is it us trying to rediscover a place in our world? Is it a family looking at the last quarter of their life with a new vision and a new equipping for the next stage of service? Again, quite an elegant way of just bringing the humanity as well as the Constitution into one place.
But then he said, no – and you’ve brought this out so beautifully here this morning in the drama – it is turning the world upside-down. It is turning the values of leadership and greatness on their head. The moment those first words of the Coronation service, when a 14-year-old boy looked His Majesty the King in the face and effectively said, what have you come here to do? he replied, I have come not to be served but to serve. And with disarming simplicity, did you notice, every vow he made pretty well just said, ‘I will’?
The only time that I take huge notice of the words ‘I will’ is in a wedding service, when you’re not asked, are you in love with the bride or are you in love with the groom? You’re simply asked, will you love, honour, protect and be faithful? We only get one answer in that vow: I will. And the King said that. ‘I will.’ In the English language it’s an unusual piece of grammar, an emphatic promise. There’s nothing casual in the words ‘I will’. It’s a promise that you will do something.
I wonder if dramatically, the moment in the service that spoke to you – I found myself surprised, maybe it’s because most of us have not seen a coronation – was to see the King just in a simple white tunic, kneeling, and then those screens were elegantly put around him as he was anointed with oil. The moment was saying, symbolically, it’s all about God’s equipping of you.
It was all over slightly quicker than I expected in the end. The Communion – I couldn’t believe how fast it was, with only the bishops and the King and Queen taking Communion. Liz Stuart put something on social media that made sense of it: the reason they took Communion was because of the covenanted vow the King had just made.
And that brings us to today. The new Communion table, the altar, isn’t just a piece of craftsmanship, it’s pure art in front of us, symbolic simply in the physical. Today I’m going to say a series of prayers over it, and I’m going to put a very tiny cross of oil on each corner and in the middle, setting it aside to echo a covenanted relationship, to echo the commitment to sacramental ministry that is yours as the people of God. For every time we say ‘I will’ to the Lord, he’s already poured his grace, his goodness, his mercy into our lives.
Every time we say ‘I will’ to the Lord, he’s already poured his grace, his goodness, his mercy into our lives.
And how can a fallible man in his mid-70s become King? Because the Lord calls and anoints. How do you and I become children of the heavenly Father? How do you and I become children of God? He calls us to be that, and as we respond he pours his grace into our lives.
And then, my final point is, if it does nothing else, I think what Communion does is mandate us to recall the story of Jesus, his death and his resurrection, every time we gather to worship in a Communion service. That on the night that he was betrayed, he took bread and broke it and said, every time you eat this bread, remember what I’ve done for you. Taking the cup of salvation and giving thanks, he gave it to them and said, every time you drink this, remember my blood poured out for you – a covenant given for you. It is extraordinary, isn’t it, that that’s what Jesus gave us: bread and wine.
And 2,000 years later, in St Paul’s Church in Winchester, you are deeply committed to retelling that story. So the outworking of that grace is that our preachers this morning (the children acting in the drama) can come and simply point us to what it means to serve, and to serve God. Amen.