A constitutional monarchy, rooted in Christian tradition, is wholly preferable to the fratricidal and fascist impulses that always cast a shadow over Republicanism, writes Ridley College lecturer Michael Bird. Picture: iStock
9 May 2023
As I watched the coronation of King Charles III, I was in two-minds as to whether this was an unholy and grotesque syncretism of church and state, or whether it was a testimony to how the Christian gospel has formed the peoples of the United Kingdom. The answer, most likely, it was a bit of both.
Yet as I watched the proceedings, it reminded me of why I have proudly recanted my former ill-informed republican sympathies and turned to support Australia remaining a constitutional monarchy.
The best argument for constitutional monarchy is that it separates authority (majesty, sovereignty, honour, and dignity) from power (the capacity to coerce and make demands). In our Christianised constitutional monarchy God alone is King. The national monarch serves by divine providential appointment and with the consent of those so governed, while a prime minister serves at the monarch’s pleasure, as duly elected by the people.
We could say this: God is the ultimate authority. The monarch is the penultimate authority as the living symbol of the majesty of the people. The prime minister and his or her government has antepenultimate authority as the civil power.
The advantage is that no government of any party or of any persuasion can hold ultimate authority and wield unfettered power. No one person can combine, either through demagoguery or despotism, both authority and power.
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The role of the monarch is rather like the function of the king in a game of chess as theologian D.B. Hart explains in A Splendid Wickedness: “The ideal king would rather be like the king in chess: the most useless piece on the board, which occupies its square simply to prevent any other piece from doing so, but which is somehow still the whole [point of the game].”
In the past, I’ve supported Australia becoming a republic because the head of the Australian state should be an Australian! But I have come around to supporting a monarch as a head of state pretty much for the reason that Hart lays out.
In chess, the king is the most important piece, he must be defended. In fact, the whole game, the entire strategy, rides on protecting the king. And yet, the king is one of the most impotent pieces of the board, scarcely better than a pawn, and is certainly not an attacking piece. That’s what a head of state should be! He or she has authority, but no power.
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In our age, the monarch should have authority as the one who sits above the table of partisan politics, who embodies the majesty, sovereignty, and dignity of the people so governed … and yet is powerless. Power should reside in the elected officials who govern with the consent of the governed. They manage the affairs of the state to which the monarch gives token approval.
The separation of king and parliament means there is a separation of authority and power. And the sole purpose of the king is to make sure no evil maleficent ever gets his or her grubby hands on both authority and power. The king should be a symbol of gloriously powerless authority. The king should hold authority over the power so that those in authority can never be all-powerful.
A constitutional monarchy, even if inhabited by dim-witted, geriatric, whose only achievement is turning up to flag-waving ceremonies, having tea and scones with the chief executive of a charity, or even breeding spoiled, attention-craving brats, may turn out to be one of the most efficient ways of staving off a descent of one’s country from democracy to despotism.
Yes, I am quite aware that we must wrestle with the sins of absolute monarchy and the evils of the British Empire, that task cannot be shirked off. However, a constitutional monarchy, rooted in Christian tradition, a tradition that gave birth to liberal democracy, with a separation of authority and power is, I submit, wholly preferable to the fratricidal and fascist impulses that always cast a shadow over republicanism.
And so …
Everlasting God, we pray for our new King, Charles III.
Bless his reign and the life of our nation.
Help us to work together
so that truth and justice, harmony and fairness
flourish among us;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
God bless the commonwealth. Long live the King!
Michael Bird is an Anglican Priest and Academic Dean at Ridley College in Melbourne.
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