It is a bit of a tricky time for some of us right now with the tsunami of royalist outpourings - not least those like me, who, in Australia, also struggle with general Australian assumptions that, being English, we must therefore be monarchists. I’ve been trying to avoid the subject - and especially the media frenzy - but I guess, as I keep being asked about it, I’m trying to find a kind but honest answer. So I hope this doesn’t offend anyone, but other things should also be said...
Yes, in answer to others who might also ask, I acknowledge the sadness for many that a figure they love and admire has died, and her prominent role and significance in the life of both of the nation-states and wider world to which I belong. I recognise qualities in that person which must have been so hard to maintain at times in the face of both public and family challenges with extraordinary intense scrutiny. As ever, I also extend condolences to those whose family grief is greatest and I recognise that the Church of England (in particular) will of course need to offer intentional prayers.
I also feel however that, rather than a rallying of royalism (as, beyond the personal tributes, it feels right now), it would be good for a broader spirit to prevail - one that recognises that this moment offers opportunities to reconsider, and to find ways forward which move us into a new era beyond the myths of monarchy, its legacies and all that still surrounds it. That ought to be easier in Australia (though we still seem so sadly limited here by internalised colonialism), but I hope for Britain that may happen too, and in those parts of Ireland which remain under the Crown.
We must never forget history. For England is not, and never has been, even near to exclusively monarchist. Even before the English Crown did this to so many others, so many of my forebears had their lands taken by it, their common rights removed, their voices denied, their lives diminished or (in some cases - sometimes truly brutally) taken from them. As a result, we have at least a thousand years of republican resistance and many ‘alternative’ visions of England and the world. As republicans, the English toppled monarchy before even the French and the Russians - not only rightly enraged by the first king called Charles, who literally declared war on ‘his’ own people, but in doing so offering lasting contributions to other political and religious pathways since.
The Treason Felony Act of 1848 remains on the statute books - passed, at the height of powerful radical agitations right across Europe, to deal with the Chartists and better to enable the transportation of such British and Irish republicans and political dissidents to Australia as punishment. Public opinion would at that time no longer quite tolerate the death penalty for speaking out for a different kind of authority, and it is unlikely to be used again in the near future. It stands however as a monument to the power and validity of other ways of organising our polity and the crushing insistence of the establishment on the ultimate fiction of royal bloodlines. It also, for Australians, should remind us of the brutal political realities that bind us to the troubled histories of a distant single family lineage in another hemisphere.
The reality is - as John Ball, the cruelly executed hedge-priest (itinerant) follower of Wycliff and prominent leader of the Peasant Rebellion in 1381, put it - ‘when Adam delved, and Eve span, who then was the gentleman’. Liberty (with Love), as the poet Shelley wrote, should thus be the true Queen of the English national anthem.
I mean no hurt to others feeling particularly sad right now, and I honour all that was good in Elizabeth Windsor’s life, but I pray that some may restrain their royalist fervour a little in sparing a thought for the wider picture and for those who seek to sing another song (like Sydney Carter’s tribute to John Ball, written to mark 600 years since the Peasant Rebellion and sung here (see above) by British folk artists to mark 800 years since Magna Carta and the 750th anniversary of the Simon de Montfort Parliament). Britain and Northern Ireland have some choppy waters to negotiate right now and in days to come, but maybe some institutions need at least to be rethought and recast as part of renewal ahead. There are other more life-giving’ visions for a truly flourishing ‘common wealth’ and world, and they lie deep in the very soil of my native land.
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.