These last twelve days for me as a British subject have been very strange ones. We have continued our ordinary lives, while all about us in the public sphere, momentous and solemn things have happened. The death of our Queen, the instantaneous transferral of symbolic power to the new King; a country in mourning. Flags at half mast, public proclamations of the new King on the steps of civic buildings, oceans of flowers in city parks, somber music in shops, and ordinary people dressing in mourning. The now famous, miles long, queue of people waiting in line for twenty hours and counting, to pay their respects to the Queen as she lies in state. The visible emotions on the faces of those in the public eye, in a country famed for its ‘stiff upper lip’. It is archaic, absurd, touching, and glorious.
And in many ways, it is also surprising.
The UK is an increasingly secular country, one with more support for the removal of the Monarchy than you might first imagine. It’s a country uneasy with its class system, divided in many ways on the subjects of politics, culture, and the relevance of religion. It’s a country with conflicting views on the Royal Family; criticism of them apparent in shows such as Netflix’s controversial drama The Crown, while at the same time positive news stories of the Family always top the ‘Most Read’ lists of even our most left-wing news websites.
Into this melee of conflicting thoughts and attitudes towards the Royal Family; (many of which are not particularly new but have existed through the decades and indeed centuries), the quiet voice of the Queen has spoken. She spoke in an official capacity rarely, but always with well chosen thought and attention. And in an age where fame is idolized, celebrities made overnight in televised villas and forgotten after the Instagram algorithm sloughs them off, and novelty prized above all, the Queen has given her life to a steadfast and consistent life of service and duty. All while being a wife, mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother.
Despite what looked like, at first glance, a gilded, privileged life, the Queen’s life of service has not been a particularly glamorous one. At times it must have been repetitive and downright boring, a life of turning up to open community centers, schools, hospitals, in searing heat or bitter cold, or most likely, in the great British rain. It has meant a life of almost no days off, of putting oneself last before duty and responsibility.
Her service has also meant being powerless in places of governmental power; the ceremonial head of a democratic state, where often her tact and social diplomacy were her only tools of persuasion. It has meant staying silent more often than not, of “never complaining, never explaining,” of getting on with the job in hand no matter how disagreeable, and doing it to the bitter end.
But her service has been more than merely showing up. While the common objection to the Monchary is its hierarchy and power, the Queen has embodied what true, pure, and wholesome authority is; that is, to serve to lead, to make sacrifices, to lay down one’s life for another. Over the decades she has served with love, showing great interest in the smallest of lives and instances in the daily round of visiting her people. She has been a warm presence in the aftermath of great disasters in the way that politicians could not pull off without partisan criticism. The tragedy of Aberfan, the Manchester Arena attacks, the Grenfell fire, the pandemic, and many more moments of suffering in her nation’s life. In these moments she has been a motherly, and latterly, a grandmotherly, figure of care and concern.
This approach to a life of service has not been accidental. She was only twenty-five when she became Queen, and she would have been well aware of the need to assure her subjects that she understood the solemn responsibility of what she was taking on. She ascended to the throne when the Abdication of her uncle, King Edward VIII, was still a scandal in recent memory, a mere seventeen years before. She had seen what the shock of the expected passing of the Crown to her father had done to his health. She knew that the Monarchy cannot simply exist as a means to a selfish life, but rather, it is an unearned position that has to be earned to be justified, through hard work and acts of service. She saw the role of Queen as a vocation. In a speech to the nation when she was still Princess, she said:
Over the years, the Queen made no secret of her Christian faith that underpinned her declaration of service. For as long as I can remember, I have listened to her traditional Christmas Day speech, a rare opportunity to see and hear her speak, and her address was always thoughtful and tailored to the particular ups and downs of the year just passed. More than that, she always spoke about the person of Jesus Christ, in straightforward and sincere language. Over her long reign, she saw her country become increasingly secular, and indeed, post-Christian, yet she never stopped proclaiming the message of Jesus in her annual address.
“Although we are capable of great acts of kindness, history teaches us that we sometimes need saving from ourselves – from our recklessness or our greed. God sent into the world a unique person – neither a philosopher nor a general (important though they are) – but a Saviour, with the power to forgive.
Forgiveness lies at the heart of the Christian faith. It can heal broken families, it can restore friendships and it can reconcile divided communities. It is in forgiveness that we feel the power of God’s love.”
How counter-cultural, how unfashionable are those words in a world where forgiveness is not a popular message. Perhaps we will never know the extent that her Christian faith influenced her decisions and healed divides behind the scenes of our national stage. As a British Catholic, it’s not lost on me the irony of two separate pulls in my life: our Catholic call to obedience to the Pope, and also the British loyalty to our (Protestant) Queen, Head of the Anglican Church. Yet her confident proclamation of Jesus, her pointing always to Him and never to herself, reminds me that in a secular society, Christians do better to find paths to unity than to dissent. It’s in this unity that others will be attracted to and find Christ. Out of everything that’s struck me in these strange couple of weeks it’s that generally speaking, our nation wants to mourn, and our nation, even briefly, is pausing to recognize that there is something beyond life, something bigger than us, something more than us; whatever people may think that is. I see that yearning for something in the interviews with those who have made it through the epic queue to pay their respects to the Queen. They talk of the silence in Westminster Hall, where her body lies. They talk of the emotion and the pathos, of the atmosphere being unlike anything they have experienced before. I believe in many ways, this isn’t just about the Queen. It’s about a recognition that there must be more to life than this; there must be a purpose and a meaning to it, and that we have lost someone who knew where they were going, and to Whom they belonged.
I will leave the last words of this article to the great Christian writer, C.S Lewis, who wrote in a letter to his friend of the Queen’s coronation:
“You know, over here people did not get that fairy-tale feeling about the coronation. What impressed most who saw it was the fact that the Queen herself appeared to be quite overwhelmed by the sacramental side of it. Hence, in the spectators, a feeling of (one hardly knows how to describe it) — awe — pity — pathos — mystery.
The pressing of that huge, heavy crown on that small, young head becomes a sort of symbol of the situation of humanity itself: humanity called by God to be his vice-regent and high priest on earth, yet feeling so inadequate.
As if He said, ‘In my inexorable love I shall lay upon the dust that you are glories and dangers and responsibilities beyond your understanding.’”
Eternal rest grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her. May she rest in peace.Amen
Photograph taken by Julian Calder for Governor-General of New Zealand, CC BY 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons