800 years of the Royal Maundy

By March 29, 2013Business, Theology

Sermon for Maundy Thursday, Christ Church Chelsea, 28 March 2013

Earlier today, the Royal Maundy took place, in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford. I thought I might tell you a bit about the Royal Maundy, as a way of framing the themes of Maundy Thursday.

I’ve brought a Maundy set with me, from 1867, together with a page from the Illustrated London News. It depicts the ceremony that day, 146 years ago, and includes a written account of events. Do pass them around, for those of you keen on visual aids, or who need a distraction during the sermon.

While it’s now customary for the monarch to distribute the Royal Maundy, as you’ll see from the picture, in 1867 Queen Victoria delegated the task to her Lord High Almoner, the Bishop of Oxford. Maundy was distributed to as many poor men and women as there were years in Victoria’s reign, amid much pomp and ceremony. The format for the Royal Maundy hasn’t changed much over the years, but the changes that have been made are noteworthy.

When the Royal Maundy was first introduced, probably by King John in 1213, the ceremony started with foot-washing. This involved a lot of nosegays – which are still ceremonially carried today – and several pre-washes by B-list dignitaries, before the monarch got anywhere near a poor person’s foot. After this, the poor were given food, clothes, and as many pence as there were years in the monarch’s reign. The monarch would then take off their gown, and give it to a particularly needy-looking pauper. This practice continued until Elizabeth I baulked at parting with one of her spangly numbers, and gave the poor extra money instead.

The foot-washing doesn’t happen any more, either, although it was briefly reinstated by Rowan Williams in 2003, after a break of 400 years. To be fair, there may be health & safety reasons for this, given that St Oswald, then Archbishop of York, died during the foot-washing ceremony of the year 992.

The gifts of clothing have stopped too, because the poor had a habit of getting their kit off during the service, and trading with each other until they found items that fit. The amount of female flesh on display made the men present rather twitchy, so more money was given instead. Neither is food now given out, because the poor were caught selling it for less than its value immediately after the service. This gift has also been converted to cash.

The cash itself is the only thing that remains, and remains special, in that it is minted as special Maundy coinage. The current sets unusually still bear the ‘young’ bust of Queen Elizabeth, and comprise 1, 2, 3 and 4 pence pieces, in sterling silver, of a design that hasn’t changed since the 1867 set I’ve brought with me. Apparently Maundy sets have always been flogged to coin-collectors. They used to gather outside the Maundy service, but now they lurk on eBay. The coins have always fetched more than their face value, so the replacement of the other gifts with a financial equivalent has had the effect of increasing the value of the Royal Maundy to the poor. Or has it?

You are probably familiar with arguments over the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ poor, especially in the context of the Coalition Government’s welfare reforms. It seems that the Royal Maundy has always been distributed to the ‘deserving’ poor. Nowadays it’s a bit like getting an OBE – the churches recommend pillars of the community who happen not to be wealthy, and they receive the Royal Maundy in recognition of their contribution to society.

I love this Maundy tradition, but on closer inspection it’s actually rather suspect, and reflects some of the basic problems of our age.

First, money is now the sole Maundy gift, in the same way that welfare payments are supposed to salve the nation’s conscience. Money! It’s so easy! Do you, like me, not feel a bit relieved, when you can walk past a vagrant, with a vague smile, reminding yourself that you pay your taxes and give regularly to Shelter?

Second, Maundy recipients are no longer really ‘the poor’. The poor have smelly feet, and they do things like take their kit off in church, which is all rather embarrassing. And that’s just the deserving poor. Don’t get me started on the other lot.

Third, foot-washing, if carried out at all, is certainly not performed by the monarch, and doesn’t involve dirty feet. I’d like to bet those of you involved in it today have gone to great lengths to avoid any embarrassment in that department. Just imagine if Brian saw that corn plaster!

Finally, the whole point of the ceremony is for the monarch to humble themself in direct response to the mandatum that we heard in John 13:34. While our own Queen is a shining example of a monarch actually showing up to the ceremony, for most of its history, the job has been delegated, to the clergy. And in our own parish, aren’t we rather grateful that the clergy do all that pastoral visiting, and speak to weirdos, and that there are charities we can support to avoid us having to do any actual charity work ourselves?

Back in Christ Church Oxford today, the Royal Maundy ceremony itself has been sanitised to the point of arcane ritual. Pageantry now replaces everything about it that matters. Media reports are invariably long on the Queen’s hat and what a trooper she is, and short on anything to do with Christian humility or charity. And I worry that this leeching away of meaning might distract us from the heart of the Maundy message.

What always strikes me about Maundy Thursday is what a devastating reproach it is. We can blame Good Friday on power and politics, but Maundy Thursday is a tale of ordinary human failure, the sort that could affect any of us. Like Peter, we’ve questioned the crazy logic of Christ’s actions, we’ve been hasty in our own actions, and we’ve denied Christ at least three times. Like Judas, we’ve betrayed a friend, perhaps accidentally through gossip or through neglect. Like the disciples, we’ve been actually or metaphorically asleep on the job [Poole casts a beady eye around to check that the good people of Chelsea are AWAKE at this point]. Like the naked man, we’ve run away when our friends needed us, and we’ve all been scared that Jesus might not be who he said he was.

At a national level, we’ve seen that the Royal Maundy is now only really about money, and the ‘deserving’ poor, and there is a real danger that government policy on welfare is going the same way. Maybe we really do get the society we deserve. But while many are gloomy about this, I see it as a huge opportunity for the churches.

Before we had a welfare state, the Church was it. We ran the schools and the hospitals, and took care of those in the community who were in need. John 13:35 – by this all men shall know you are my disciples, if you love one another. But, post-war, we’ve had a long period of outsourcing Christian charity to the government. Now, the churches are back, leading the way in running homeless shelters, foodbanks, fairtrade, and credit unions – filling the gaps left by the State. Of course, we should be leading this agenda, not following it, but that’s for another day. Today, we should think about what the Maundy message means for our Easter lives.

The Guardian ran a piece last week, about how many non-Christians now keep Lent. It argued that while a period of abstinence is a worthy goal, diving straight back into our old habits rather misses the point, like my nephew giving up chocolate, then eating so much on Easter day that he was sick. The ‘maundy’ – mandatum – is that we should love one another, as he has loved us, and not just for Lent.

In 1867, Thomas Barnardo opened his first shelter for homeless children. That year, the last convict ship sailed for Australia, and women again failed to get the vote. Looking at that page from the Illustrated London News, 1867 feels very far away. But in 2013, are we better at helping the homeless? Are we better at dealing with convicts? Are we better at valuing women?

Maundy Thursday is the ultimate wake-up call. We have indeed erred and strayed like lost sheep, and we continue to do so. We know it all comes good on Sunday, but while we are held in the Maundy liturgy, we should let our guilt galvanise us into becoming people who strive to be better every day, not just during Lent. 1867 also saw the introduction of the blue plaque. Maybe we could all aspire to be the sort of philanthropist that merits such an accolade, by heeding Christ’s mandatum, and resolving anew to be his hands and feet in our world today.

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