Stephen Cottrell offers some reflections on a momentous ten days
The death of Her Majesty The Queen fell on 8 September, the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. As Her Majesty was being called to her eternal reward so the church throughout the world was remembering the birth of she who was to become the bearer of God himself. In Luke Chapter 1 we read of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth and Elizabeth’s recognition of the Mother of the Saviour concludes, at verse 41 with the acclamation ‘And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord’.
It’s a line my mind immediately went to when I heard of the Queen’s death. Her Late Majesty was undoubtedly someone who placed her hope and trust in the promises spoken to her by her Lord. She was not only the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but also one of the most effective witnesses to the Christian faith. Her Christianity, it seemed to me was worn not so much on her sleeve, but in her heart. Prayer, the Scriptures and worship were foundational to the way she lived. Alongside this, one might observe that over 70 years on the throne, with the falling away of much that was once unquestioned in our society, the challenging of deference, the greater public scrutiny meant that, in the pragmatic way that constitutional monarchy encapsulates, we saw the Queen’s understanding of her role as one of service to her peoples become ever more explicit.
Much will be written over such things and the events of the 10 days of mourning leading to the State Funeral will be analysed by theologians, anthropologists, historians and the like. However several things struck me.
Firstly the genuine sorrow at the death of the Queen drew people together. That’s perhaps not a surprise, for many who didn’t even meet her, there was a feeling of familiarity of knowing her. She was part of our families, part of our lives, and so we grieve and our other losses and griefs are once again brought to the surface. But more than that we have, in recent years, been so fragmented and divided as a nation and as peoples that with the Queen’s death we began to see a reflection on what we could be like, even once were like. For in this life, in this archetype, we saw something that was genuinely good. Perhaps we saw a moral life, or one in which the foundation and articulation of service over personality, duty over gain, kindness over disparagement, has been so at odds with other forms of leadership we have seen. It was a point powerfully made by Archbishop Justin in his funeral sermon: ‘People of loving service are rare in any walk of life. Leaders of loving service are still rarer. But in all cases those who serve will be loved and remembered when those who cling to power and privileges are long forgotten.’
From the well-spring of her faith, the Queen was able to offer us a pattern of leadership in both her living and dying that was not only centred on Christ, but encouraged our ‘better angels.’
Then, as is not uncommon, people turned to the Church. Parishes, Cathedrals, Chaplaincies responded swiftly and well, services were organised, churches opened, candles lit, condolence books signed. Indeed one central London shrine, as far as I could tell, seemed to have requiems on the hour – each in a different set of black vestments! But of course, the liminal spaces that church buildings are, the pastoral ministry of clergy and laity visible in their communities is still looked to, needed and appreciated.
The power of ritual and ritualised behaviour became increasingly obvious. We are a nation that likes its rituals, from the armed services, to the heralds, the Earl Marshall and Lord Chamberlain, to those who came to observe and those who queued. The Queue snaking through London, became a type of pilgrimage, Chaucer came to life before us as an extraordinary diversity of all sorts and conditions of individuals came to pay their respects at the Lying in State.
Finally, the liturgy of farewell and commendation, beginning in Scotland, moving to Westminster, the Abbey and Windsor was powerful at so many levels. The sheer beauty of the worship of God was seen in the solemnity, the power of music and words carefully crafted through which the proclamation of the hope of the resurrection was explicit. Given the power of Royal weddings and funerals to shape the pastoral offices in our own parishes and places, there will be much in these liturgies that those in the Catholic tradition will wish to further encourage. The haunting power of the Kontakion in Windsor, or the clear nature of the Commendation in Westminster, together with the very straightforward way in which prayer was offered for the soul of the Queen, dare I say, represents a further welcome evolution in what we might call State liturgy.
And so I know as we continue to pray for the repose of the soul of Her Late Majesty, so our prayers are offered too for our new King. His Majesty has spoken of his own faith with confidence and conviction and in the way in which his role as Supreme Governor also enables the creation of space for all denominations and all faiths in the pluralism of our nation. This is undoubtedly for the good of all faith communities and once again begins to show us how our monarchy has through both continuity and change the power to speak deeply to the place of faith in the public square and the continued importance of the Church of England in the life our nation.
The Most Rev and Rt Hon Stephen Cottrell is the Archbishop of York.