I don’t think I could really count myself as a royal watcher. Until the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge touched down in Sydney, I was only vaguely aware that the tour was coming up. The news that Prince George would be putting in an appearance at Taronga Zoo gave me no desire to brave the crowds (and the steep entrance fee) in hopes of a glimpse of the second- and third-in-line to the throne. And I’m definitely not on the hunt for commemorative coins or stamps or tea towels.
But if I once dip a toe into the blow-by-blow coverage of the royal itinerary, it’s all over. This stuff is a black hole. Time slows down as I devour details of Kate’s outfit changes, the couple’s exchanges with adoring fans, George carrying all before him in his conquest of Commonwealth hearts. As I approach a What Kate’s Been Wearing slideshow, it ceases to exist at all.
No doubt the coincidnce of the royal visit with the Easter weekend proved a boon for preachers writing Easter sermons around Sydney and beyond. There are so many striking contrasts to be made between King Jesus – born in humble circumstances, so often misunderstood and rejected in his public work, crucified by his supposed subjects – and the glamorous, feted young family who will technically, someday, head a branch of his church.
But what has most struck me, absorbing day after day of carefully choreographed, consciously historic royal activities on my TV and computer screens, is how profoundly inoffensive it all is. The whole tour is a study in goodwill and innocuous reporting. The SMH lists the “lucky animals selected to meet the royal family during their visit to the zoo” (among them Whipley the barking owl and Autumn the quokka). The Duchess’ wardrobe discreetly includes Australian designers, and always manages to strike the perfect balance between super-conservative and impossibly elegant. I’m sure the pair are already masters of small talk and of making sure things “go off” smoothly. Everyone puts on their best face, from the Sydney weather to the visitors themselves.
Of course, this is the great strength of the royal family. They are apolitical; they are (or aim to be) unobjectionable; they make people feel good. It’s what makes them, for many, a unifying force in public life. Yet, if you examine the gospel accounts, it offers the perfect foil to what happens when Jesus comes to town. There’s nothing choreographed or sanitised about his encounters with people. There’s mess and grit and turbulence and nothing at all like glamour. Jesus described himself as rest for the weary, bread for the hungry, water for the thirsty. But he is also described as a stumbling block – people were offended by what he said and what he did. And those who tried to put on their best face with him quickly found that it couldn’t be done. He knew just what they were, and yet offered forgiveness and a new way forward rather than judgment.
Many go to church at Easter and Christmas seeking a feel-good encounter with Jesus, that warm and fuzzy feeling we get from the success of the royal visit. But Jesus is much riskier, and much less predictable, than that. Try reading the gospel of John and picturing a modern royal saying to gathered crowds the things he says to people – try, for example, this account of a woman who bumps into Jesus while out getting water. Now that the Duke and Duchess have said goodbye, the bunting will come down, the media will move on, and nothing at all will have changed. But Jesus as king is the opposite of innocuous; we can’t truly encounter him and remain the same as before.