David Hope who ‘kissed hands with a K’ recalls fondly the late monarch’s service and stamina
If there was just one word to describe the seventy-year reign of Queen Elizabeth the Second, it must surely be the word ‘service’. After all she promised – not just promised, but vowed, the very strongest word possible – that she would give her whole life in the service of the nation, in the service of others. And how she fulfilled that vow which typified every part of her life until her death last month. After all, just two days before her death there she was still active in service as she received the resignation of one prime minister and appointed the next. Further, that service could never be understood simply as duty imposed upon her – a burden to be resented or begrudged. In no way. Here was a monarch – anointed with holy oil – the most sacred part of the Coronation Service, overshadowed by the canopy and shielding her from mortal gaze – humbly accepting her vocation; a sacred calling for which the anointing would strengthen and fortify her for the years ahead. It was a sign that the God in whom she put her trust would indeed be her guardian and her guide in all that she would undertake until the day she died.
It would be tempting to write simply (and self-indulgently) about my own meetings with the late Queen or indeed with the present King. But one or two reminiscences come readily to mind. For example, the ancient ceremony of what is described as the Kissing of Hands on the appointment of any bishop. In fact, no hands are kissed. You go to Buckingham Palace to be presented to the monarch and there to kneel and swear an oath of personal allegiance. I had already done this in 1985 on becoming Bishop of Wakefield, again in 1991 on becoming Bishop of London, and again for a third time as I became Archbishop of York. It was on that occasion when approaching the throne room, escorted by the Home Secretary who administers the Oath and the Queen’s Private Secretary, that the Private Secretary said to me ‘You know what’s going to happen, don’t you?’ I responded that I did, having been through the procedure twice already. But then he responded, ‘Yes I know but she is going to give you a K!’ For the life of me I had no idea what this ‘K’ was, but with that the doors opened and there was the Queen smiling and welcoming as ever. It turned out that after the formalities, the others withdrew leaving myself with the Queen in private conversation at which she presented me with the highest order of knighthood of her own personal Victorian Order. No sword on the shoulders for anyone in holy orders, but a very generous and kindly smile and a word of thanks and appreciation for what I had done in London, in the Church more widely, at what was a very difficult time both for the Church, the nation and her own family too. Now I know what a K is! She further added, with a twinkle in her eye: ‘Now, bishop. I don’t think we should be making a habit of this!’
There is much more that I could say. Following a weekend stay at Sandringham, an overnight sleep over at Windsor after a more personal dinner party for just twelve people; a night’s stay at the Palace of Holyrood when visiting the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. And, of course, numerous occasions on her visits north, particularly remembering the Millennial Year when I invited her and the Duke of Edinburgh to come to York to celebrate the life of the Church in the Northern Province – an invitation she readily and gladly accepted. Arising from these occasions there is one particular incident which remains in my mind. Many bishops over the years have received an invitation to stay at Sandringham and preach at the parish church on the Sunday morning. I was invited in early January 1989. It was the year of the Kegworth air disaster in which 47 people died. At a light supper that evening with the late Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh and Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, a footman appeared with a message for the Queen. It told of the air crash which had just occurred. Without further ado, the Queen rose from the table and led the way into the drawing room to the television to find out what the latest news was. This action on the part of the Queen demonstrated, I believe, her absolute commitment to others. The meal didn’t matter one iota. The wellbeing and welfare of those involved in the air crash became her absolute priority – her deep concern for their families and their loved ones.
It would be very tempting to go on, but rather like the concluding verses of the Gospel of John ‘there are many other things…that if every one of them were written down, I suppose the world itself could not contain the books that would be written’.
I have often heard it remarked that what a charmed life the Queen must have led: her every needs met, waited on hand and foot, and all the rest of it. In fact, left to herself she actually lived a very simple life. We are told that she like to keep her breakfast cereals in a Tupperware container just like you and me. Yes, there were the grand occasions, the glitter and glamour of the state occasion, having to put on a brave face even when she may have resented having to entertain a particular individual leader. (I think for one of President Ceausescu of Romania.) But then that was all part of the service she had undertaken to pursue, come what may. And just think of how many heads of state she entertained over the years. They have come and gone; she remained steadfast and constant. Indeed, for the majority of people in this land and beyond she is the only Monarch they have known all their lives. Again, it’s not just the high and mighty if we may so describe them who have met Queen Elizabeth – the millions of just ordinary folk who one way or another have shaken her hand, seen her smile face to face, exchanged the briefest of greetings. She has been someone who made time for everyone. And so many people have said that on meeting her she has never (like some) always been on the lookout for someone more interesting or important to talk to. Not that there ever could be anyone more interesting or important, but that she would look you in the eye and give you her whole and undivided attention even at the briefest of exchanges.
One of the things which I think has hardly been mentioned was her sheer stamina – her energy, her ability simply to keep at it day by day, endless standing, going down endless lines of people with a word for everyone, the numerous handshakes, moving from one engagement to another perhaps four or so in a single day, and in quite differing situations and circumstances – rather like the new King over those first days we all witnessed so closely. All of this must have been quite exhausting and yet she never gave any hint of boredom or tedium. Even to the very end she was still standing, her winning smile and hand outstretched to greet the new prime minister in the same way in which she would have greeted so many thousands of people over the years.
Although the constitution of our country forbids any intervention in the political sphere, yet much has been made of what has been termed her ‘soft’ diplomacy, and which in some situations has been absolutely crucial, more effective than any politician could ever be. This was never more evident than when in her State Visit to the Republic of Ireland she visited the Garden of Remembrance in Croke Park, the scene of the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1920, and her use of the Gaelic language at the beginning of her speech at the State Banquet. Again, in a subsequent visit to Northern Ireland, her handshake with the leaders of the IRA as with those of the Ulster unionist leaders – all this in the service of reconciliation, that reconciliation which lies at the very heart of the Gospel, a service which St Paul reminds us all is of God himself. God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.
Again, in the more religious sphere her engagement as Supreme Governor of the Church of England with successive popes signalled a substantially closer rapprochement with the Roman Catholic Church in these islands and, of course, the close personal regard she had for the late Cardinal Hume.
And it’s in these latter years that the late Queen Elizabeth has increasingly in her Christmas messages made reference to her personal faith and the way in which this has sustained and strengthened her throughout her life. At the same time in no way minimised the contribution of other faiths and faith communities in the life of the nation.
So much that has been already said and so much more could be said. However, one of the abiding images for me is the sheer delight, the almost unrestrained spontaneous reaction, as her horse Estimate galloped to victory in the Ascot Gold Cup in 2013.
Now that Her late Majesty has finished her earthly course, and – reflecting the words of St Paul – she has kept the faith, we pray that the God in whom we trust will grant to her who wore an earthly crown, the crown of his kingdom of righteousness, of peace, and of that love which abides for ever. Or to use words spoken by her late Majesty, quoting an aboriginal Australian proverb: ‘We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love….and then we return home’.
Bishop David Hope, the Lord Hope of Thornes, KCVO, PC, was Bishop of London and Dean of the Chapels Royal 1991-95, and the Archbishop of York 1995-2005.