Theatre or Spectacle? - a question about the Diamond Jubillee


Christianity's relationship with state or civic power has always been complex and problematic. On the one hand there have been many periods when those who were in power have threatened the freedom of our communities and, on the other, when our own communities have become linked directly to power we have often, in our turn, threatened the freedom of others. But, whatever you think about the overall rightness or wrongness of mixing religion with state and civic power, our reading from I Timothy (2:1-4) expresses what has become a widely shared position of churches within the state that, at the very least, "supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings [should] be made for everyone, for kings and all who are in high positions, so that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity."

But this general, eirenic approach with those who are currently in power should, at the same time, never ever be used to stop us turning a critical eye now and then upon such matters. Today, following the example of the great essayist Michel de Montaigne (Essay 56 On Prayer) I think we can emboldened enough to raise important questions about this power. Along with Montaigne and also, in fact, the author of I Timothy, I hope we can do this today because we are only interested in "seeking the truth not laying it down." In that spirit, the "notions which I am propounding have no form and reach no conclusion" and I will leave you simply with a question to consider. Only then will I offer up a short prayer suitable for this time.

My question hinges on the difference between theatre and spectacle and whether the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of this weekend are the former, or the latter.

A very influential attempt within our own Western European culture to differentiate between theatre and spectacle was made by Rousseau who, following Plato, was very suspicious of theatre. Simon Critchley reminds us that:


'In [his "Letter to D'Alembert" Rousseau] restates Plato's critique of the tragic poets in the "Republic" where theatre is excluded from the well-ordered polis because it is the mimesis or imitation of mere appearance, rather than attention to the true form of things which should be the proper concern of the philosopher (Faith of the Faithless, Verso Press, 2012, p. 51).'

Given this Rousseau proposed that theatre should be replaced with civic spectacle and that,

'What is essential to such spectacles is precisely that they are not representations but the presence to itself of the people coming together outdoors in daylight and not dallying in the darkness of the theatre, whose very architecture, says Rousseau, is reminiscent of Plato's cave:
"Plant a stake crowned with flowers in the middle of the square, gather the people together there, and you will have a festival. Do better yet; let spectators become an entertainment to themselves; make them actors to themselves; do it so that each see and loves himself in the others so that all will be better united"' (ibid p. 52).

Simon Critchley sums up Rousseau's basic point by noting that 'In the civic spectacle, the people do not passively watch a theatrical object of representation, but rather become the actors and enactors of their own sovereignty' (ibid p.52).

In order to help us get back to my initial question we need to ask two supplemental ones.

The first is whether or not watching the Queen and her sizeable retinue over weekend and throughout this year is an example of "we the people" becoming an entertainment to ourselves in which we are the actors and enactors of our own sovereignty? In short, are the Queen and her retinue genuinely representative of you and me and, therefore, of *our* sovereignty as a people?

The second is whether, when we take part in any other kind of public event during the Diamond Jubilee weekend where the Queen and her retinue are not present, we are witnessing an example of "we the people" becoming an entertainment to ourselves in which we are the actors and enactors of our own sovereignty as a people? In short, in these situations are *we* genuinely representative of ourselves as a people and, therefore, of *our* sovereignty?

The answer to both questions hinges upon whether we think either the Queen and her retinue, or ourselves, were, are or still can be true representations of our collective sovereignty as a people? If they/we are representive figures then there is a chance we are in the realm of spectacle; if they/we are not then we are in the realm of theatre.

So are the events of this weekend and the whole Diamond Jubilee year theatre or spectacle?

The only answer that could possibly satisfy us as a people (rather than as individuals) depends on whether there *actually* exists today something we can meaningfully call *a people* who might genuinely be able to experience and celebrate a shared understanding of in what consists its *collective sovereignty.*

I don't think I'm saying anything particularly controversial when I say that, in connection with the Jubilee celebrations, I find it hard to see what for us this genuinely collective understanding and experience of sovereignty* might be. My looking is haunted by a memory from my time teaching music in a Young Offenders Institution (a prison for youngsters) at Hollesley Bay in the early 90s. It was the first day of teaching guitar to a young lad who was inside for violent robbery and he was struggling to recognise, let alone play even the most simple musical example. Perhaps, I thought, he was a rare example of someone who was genuinely "tone deaf". So I played him "Happy Birthday". Nope, he said he didn't know it. Strong evidence in favour of my conjecture you might think but I tried another example first - the British National Anthem "God Save The Queen". "Yes!" he instantly replied and immediately added "It's the theme tune for the boxing." It showed two very disturbing things. One, that here was a eighteen year-old lad to whom no one had even played "Happy Birthday" and, two, that what I had assumed would be a tune connected to a shared understanding of our sovereignty simply didn't exist - for me it was tied up with national occasions and a evoked a remembrance of our national history (good and bad) but for him it was simply the tune that began a boxing match.

The villagers of Bédarrides present to themselves
Anyway, in my own adult life my only personal experience of what seemed to be a true civic spectacle has not been here but in France where, over the years, I have spent a good deal of time. One of my most striking and memorable experiences of this was had only last year. Susanna and I were staying with our friends in a small village near Avignon called Bédarrides which was holding a "Spectacle de Reconstitution Historique" celebrating the moment when, in 1791, the village was the place where the local region, the Comtat Venaissin, joined the French Republic some two years after the Revolution first created it. The event in 1791 marked the moment when the people of the region took sovereignty into their own collective hands and away from the Papacy.

What struck me as I sat on a straw bale in the village square surrounded by hundreds of happy spectators was that this was a true civic spectacle which spoke with a national resonance about the people's sovereignty. Firstly, even though evening was falling, we were coming together outdoors in daylight and we were not dallying in the darkness of the theatre; this village square was most certainly not Plato's cave. Secondly, most people in the village were involved in the spectacle in some way or another having either made the costumes, built the sets, provided the horses and the lights, written the script or, of course, by playing the parts. They also took time to eat and drink together before hand and continued to celebrate together long into the night after the re-enactment had finished. And, thirdly, it was clear that I  was witnessing a people who were an entertainment to themselves, who had become actors and enactors themselves and by so doing it was possible, for a while, for them each see and love themselves in the other so that they would all be better united. This unity was no better expressed than in the collective proclamation of "liberté, égalité, fraternité" which is, of course, a succinct expression of in what consists their sovereignty as a people.

(Click on this link to see some photos of the occasion)

Now I am not making here a claim for the perfection or desirability of either the past or present French Republic - or indeed this individual spectacle - rather I'm simply trying to point you towards in what consists a genuine civic spectacle.

The history of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is, of course, very different from France's and so one cannot make a simple, direct translation from one to the other. However, this illustration from France can help us ask where, in our own celebrations this weekend, do we see truly see in ourselves the actual presence of us as a people who are speaking of our sovereignty?

It matters because I hope that as a people - and not merely as individuals - we want in these celebrations each to see and love ourselves in others so that we can all be better united as a people. I hope and pray that for the most part we are this weekend not meeting merely for an ultimately empty entertainment which is simply the bread and circuses of which Juvenal once spoke (Satire 10.77–81).

One of the great pleasures and privileges of being part of a small, independent, religious community like this one is that, at our best, when we meet we *are* present to each other in a way that can help us see and love ourselves in others and so become better united as a community. We do this because, holding to the enabling claim that to love God is to love neighbour as ourselves, our self-understanding of our sovereignty as a liberal religious community is expressed by *showing* to each other (and those whom we meet) what this means in practice. One of the chief reasons I continue to encourage more of you to become involved in both the provision of services - as today - and in the wider, general daily life of this community is because only this kind of real engagement with each other will help keep us engaged in spectacle rather than creating merely religious theatre in which we only play with appearances.

But this, our local religious spectacle, is clearly not representative of the state of affairs that always obtains today more widely in our national civic life.

So, given this I ask all of you, however you choose to celebrate this Diamond Jubilee weekend, please to look around you and ask: "At this moment, now, are we actors and enactors of our own actual sovereignty as a people or are we merely playing with appearances?" In short: "Are we witnessing spectacle or theatre?"

*****

And now with my question asked, following Timothy's advice, we conclude with a prayer. Let us pray:

O God of all humankind and nations we are grateful this day for the surpassing heritage of our nation; for all those who in former times by whose labours and whose sacrifices we have been made free; whose courage in times of testing inspires us to face up to our own fears and trials. 
We particularly hold in our prayers today Elizabeth, our Queen and all who are in positions of civic authority; that they may continue to play their part in helping this nation lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. Make us all worthy, O God, of what has been bestowed upon us, that with faithfulness and fortitude, together we may go boldly forward, honouring in the present all that is precious from the past, and keeping bright the promise of the future. Amen.


(Adapted from a prayer by A. Powell Davies in The Language of the Heart)

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