David Houlding was in St Paul’s Cathedral for the monarch’s words as everyone tried to process the news and come to terms with what was happening
Suddenly, breaking the silence which had pervaded the whole Cathedral, the King’s voice was heard. The great bell of St Paul’s had struck 6pm and then King Charles spoke for the first time to the Nation. The silence was intense as was the emotion. It was as if a great shock wave had struck, which had permeated the whole of St Paul’s, both inside and out around the statue of Good Queen Anne. Standing in the Dean’s aisle, robed – as we had been for about an hour and a half and ready for the Procession to begin – we had not been warned of what was about to happen. Everybody stood so still; his voice was clear through the loudspeakers; we could hear clearly the emotion coming across as he spoke. It brought it home – as if there was any doubt – once and for all, our beloved Queen Elizabeth was dead. . . . and it was a shock , and great shock indeed to all of us. After all, it was less than 24 hours since the announcement had been made of her passing. It had happened, as we surely knew it would, but had also dreaded.
May Flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest. A pattern to all princes living!
Looking back on that moment, I don’t think the clergy assembled there had really come to terms with what had happened. It was the King’s voice that confirmed it once and for all. We had, as prebendaries, only been summoned that morning at about 11am. The Cathedral had been working all night on the arrangements. It had long been planned that a service would be held the day of the Queen’s death, or at least the day after. I knew an invitation would be forthcoming. Even so the number from the College of Canons attending was relatively small. The Bishop of Fulham, who might have been present, was still away on his holiday – and having to follow events from afar. Even so, I felt hugely honoured to be there. It was a privilege indeed.
We had, after all, only seen Her Majesty at work two days before, as she gave audiences to both her outgoing Prime Minister and the new one she had just appointed, both having flown up to Balmoral Castle. There were those images of the Queen still very much in our minds, looking frail perhaps, but nonetheless clearly ‘with it’ and determined, as Mrs Truss entered the drawing room to ‘kiss hands’ on her appointment. The news of Queen Elizabeth’s death would shock the whole world; the outpouring of grief, of sadness, and respect was real; it would be over whelming – as we witnessed during the period of State mourning. The BBC kept on saying we had not seen anything like it since 1952 and nor had we had a state funeral at Westminster Abbey since 1760. I think the truth is that we have never seen anything like it, not only in the history of our nation, but in the whole world. Her funeral was testament to that. Elizabeth the Great! Elizabeth the Faithful!
Like you can feel sometimes at a funeral a sense of the unreal, the surreal if you like, the service itself seemed to pass over me. I sat in my stall – Consumpta per Mare as it is named, a sunken sandbank off Frinton-on- Sea from before the Norman Conquest – opposite the Archbishop of Canterbury and a whole row of new Cabinet ministers, who had not even been sworn in since the Privy Council had been cancelled only two days before. The Speaker of the House of Commons and the Lord Speaker both looked particularly shattered but sang lustily. I was impressed at the devotion and reverence of the whole congregation, which was surprisingly young. People had queued all day for tickets at Temple Bar. security was of course tight, but even so it had been possible to target some of the late Queen’s patronages in order to secure as representative a congregation as possible. In the end, some 200 people packed the cathedral.
The King’s speech came to an end; the curtain drew back; the Procession entered to the hymn All my hope on God is founded, the hymn written by Herbert Howells in memory of his son Michael and hence the name of the tune. It is one of the best hymn tunes of the 20th century. Was this really happening? The Bishop of Burnley sent me a note afterwards to say he was pleased to see me being so correct and not singing in procession. The truth was I simply could not sing. We had Crimond too, as it was to be sung again at the Funeral. Somehow such familiar classic always work on these occasions. In my own church at the Requiem, we offered for her on the Sunday following the Queen’s death, we had both The Day thou gavest and Abide with me, both hymns of great spiritual power and effect. The latter in particular sums up in five simple verses the whole purpose of the Christian Faith. The choir sang the Anthem Bring us O Lord our God – the poem by John Donne, a former Dean of St Pauls from 1621-1631 – and it was to be sung again so beautifully in St George’s Chapel, Windsor, at the Committal.
The end of the service came; the Archbishop had given the Blessing; the second shock wave of the service echoed around the cathedral and outside, and was to be heard by the millions watching. We sang the National Anthem. It was a struggle to get through it. The words had changed, new words. Of course, they had changed, but I don’t think anyone was ready for it. We sang God save the King. Not for 70 years had those words been heard. I simply cannot describe what it was like.
I had the honour of meeting the Queen three times. In 2005 and 2010, as I has sat on the platform for the Opening of the General Synod, as acting Prolocutor of the Convocation of Canterbury (both times the outgoing prolocutor had not been re-elected). I can see even now the diamond broach she wore gleaming in the strength of the television lights, and then again, when in 2012, I went to Buckingham Palace, as part of the Church of England’s delegation with Archbishop Rowan, to present a Loyal Address with the other Privileged Bodies, for her Diamond Jubilee. Gathered in the Ballroom, the Archbishop, as Primate, duly went first; he read his address, presented it to Her Majesty, then stepped three paces backwards from the throne. Boris Johnstone followed, as Mayor of London. He tripped stepping backwards and only just managed to retain his balance on the bottom step. How the Queen laughed – and so did we!
I met the King, when as Prince of Wales, he and the Duchess of Cornwall attended our local Candlemas celebration at St Michael’s, Camden Town. Bishop Richard Chartres was escorting him to see different parts of the Diocese of London and to observe the various traditions. He asked to see me for a private audience beforehand, to explain further the nature of traditional Catholicism in the Church of England. He was so well versed, and his understanding of our Church was most impressive. He listened so carefully to everything and asked some poignant questions. He has a genuine interest and commitment to the Church of England. There is no doubt of his fervent Christian Faith, as with his mother, and of his determination to continue to be an active, if not constitutional, Supreme Governor of our Church. We are fortunate indeed to him as our Sovereign Lord. I have no doubt that he will fulfil this promise and vow he will make at his coronation, in the same manner as his noble mother before him. Never was a vow so faithfully kept.
We have in these days been living through history; because of the past, we can face the future with confidence. We shall not see her like again. But in the Christian hope of resurrection, we can say with her that ‘We will meet again’. Our task as Catholic Christians is to pray, as we do for all our beloved dead, for the repose of her soul, that she may rest in peace and be granted the reward of her labours here on earth. So, in faith and trust we can pray: God rest the Queen, of such blessed memory. And God save the King, in all his gracious undertakings, for he is the Lord’s anointed.
The Rev Preb David Houlding, SSC, is the Vicar of All Hallows, Gospel Oak.
I was lucky enough to have time to spend, on the last day of my holidays, in the now legendary, almost personified Queue which attended upon the mortal remains of our late and beloved Head of State. Beyond the chapped lips that come from being stuck for two of the smallest hours on the chilly riverbank opposite St Paul’s (which I must agree with Sir Nikolaus Pevsner doesn’t look its best seen in profile) it wasn’t for me, in the end, especially difficult.
But it did give me an insight into the value of commitment and cost. On the way I met young and old, black and white. I met decorated veterans, one mentioned in dispatches. I met a man called Chris, who – understandably, like many in our nation – was not at all sure of the value of the institution of monarchy but somehow needed to be there, and to whose girls in bed at home aged 3 and 6 his pilgrimage meant a great deal. I met a couple who’d camped out at every royal event since the Silver Jubilee. A couple by chance on holiday from York who gave me Jelly Babies and endless banter for being a Lancastrian, and a young gay refugee from Syria for whom Elizabeth II was a symbol of all that we have, at our best as a nation, to offer the world. I even saw David Beckham with my own eyes ten rounds ahead in that interminable chicane. Co-operation, joy, tears, gentleness, cost, smiles. Not words of exaggeration, I promise. It would take a modern Hegel to synthesize this wondrous cacophony. Or perhaps, just a faithful Queen.
So much has been said about our late Sovereign but what a gift she offered even in death – a glimpse of another way of doing things and a model of the Christian life. The Christian life to which she was called, to which she was faithful and to which in our liturgies we recommit ourselves. To duty and sacrifice. To difference and cost. To listening. To letting ourselves go, heartily, into a world of interminable contingency and anonymity, exclusion, estrangement and division, and to build community.
Fr Alan Rimmer
St Stephen’s Gloucester Road