Hugh Baker on the Funeral
It is a surreal experience to sit in a hotel bedroom in Tenerife, looking out at grey skies, and watching rather bluer ones in London, courtesy of BBC World. Hardly anyone was by the pool, or even in the public lounges: we were all watching the Queen Mother’s funeral.
The whole thing had, of course, been carefully planned years ago; there were to be no surprises. Except, of course, that there was. The miles of patiently queuing people, the scale of the crowds and their evident warmth of feeling towards the dead monarch, caught the planners flat-footed.
The media, similarly, simply had to push the appropriate buttons, and the pre-planned coverage was rolled into place. I don’t know what you had here at home, but the BBC World pundits had evidently concluded that the whole thing was good for a laugh. Only the blue-rinse brigade would be sad at her departing, and younger, more streetwise commentators could dance with impunity on the old lady’s grave. A foul, spiteful analysis by Polly Toynbee had even her fellow chortlers struggling to laugh. The Queen Mother was presented as an immature natf, living in a gilded cage and not even realizing it, never having done a day’s work in her life.
I have no idea, of course, what (if any) changes were made behind the scenes as the ten days between death and funeral passed: by the funeral itself, the Beeb had opted for pure Dimblebyesque hush and reverence. Not only had the size of the homage confounded them; so had its age structure. The supposedly iconoclastic, rebellious young were turning out in force to mourn the National Grandmother.
What forms a crowd? What forces bring them, spontaneously, together? Or, to look at it another way, what do the people who attract the support and adulation of crowds possess? Lenin, or the Czar? Napoleon or Wellington? Margaret Thatcher or Arthur Scargill? They are granted leadership by the crowd because the crowd sees them as an encapsulation of themselves. They embody the crowd’s beliefs, aspirations, and ideals: thus, the crowd, in gathering round them identify themselves. ‘This is who we are,’ they say, pointing to the platform.
There are, I suppose, similarities between the Queen Mother and Lady Diana. They were both, in one important way, good Royals, in that they served as icons. (How interesting that this moribund word, redolent of the religious edifice that the communists toppled, should be making a comeback in a society that increasingly professes to worship nothing. “Fashion icon”, “sports icon”, “computer icon” spring to mind.) They were icons in the sense that only royalty, even when stripped of any political power, can be: manifestations of the God whose power on earth the society expresses. The monarch is society’s conduit whereby the kingdom plugs in (if I may express myself in electrical terms) to the power of the protecting deity. Carrying bread and wine in his hands, he is both Priest and King. When political kingship is taken from their hands, they can yet remain potent priests to a nation. One could argue their iconship on behalf of Christ in that” Just as Christ refuses to sit in his palace polishing his tiara, but joyfully decides to come to us where we are, and serve and love us there, so East Enders through the blitz, or Aids sufferers in our own times, would testify to both these ladies being pictures of Christ’s love. Whoever you were, be you ever so lowly, you felt they would take you seriously, want to spend time with you, value your friendship.
Having said that, their crowds were drawn from different constituencies, for they embodied the values of different religious systems. Dianna, surrounded by an increasingly eclectic coterie of New Age advisers, embodied the aspirations of a new generation espousing an old spirituality; that of self-help. If it helps you get to wherever you want to get to, that justifies your doing it.
Divorce, abortion, occultism are all justified by an over-riding good: me, and my goals. The Queen Mother, fortified by Anglican liturgy and the Racing Post, stood for something very different: the path of duty. For her, the desires of the heart were to be subsumed to Someone greater than our little selves. There were right and wrong things to do, and if doing the right thing thwarted human wants, then the bullet was to be bitten.
Thus the two Royal icons we have now bidden “fare well” to speak to us of two parallel spiritualities now to be found in our nation: a free-wheeling neo-Buddhism and a structured, propositional, obedience to an unmovable faith statement (of which, it has to be said, Islam is the present strongest protagonist). Would that our Church showed itself to practice the latter, rather than being a syncretistic mix of the two! What makes matters more galling is that our latest national mourning shows us that there are plenty of people out there, including considerable numbers of the young, who would find the Queen Mother’s faith and self-discipline a natural thing to embrace.
Hugh Baker is Vicar of Fazeley in the Diocese of Lichfield.