September 11, 2022

It was always said that people could remember just where they were when they heard of the death of President Kennedy. I am just old enough myself to remember it and I can indeed remember just where I was. By the same token I am sure we will all remember just where we were when we heard of the death of Her Majesty Elizabeth II, of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of Her other realms and territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith.

We will all remember just where we were when her death was announced. Ruth and I were sitting eating dinner by the river in Dinan in Brittany, when the news popped up on my phone, which necessitated us scurrying back home across the Channel the next day. But I know to my dying day I will never forget that time or that place

We will remember just where we were when we heard the news because Her Majesty’s death marks such a very significant turning point not only for this nation but for the whole world: I was particularly struck by the strength and the warmth of the reaction in France as well, of course, as elsewhere in the world.

A page of history has turned that can never be turned back

A page of history has turned that can never be turned back. Now we have a new King: and how remarkably he has conducted himself in the hours since, in the blink of an eye, he both lost his mother and became King. Now, too, we have a new Duke of Cornwall, who we will look forward to welcoming here, with his Duchess, in due course.

But today I want to dwell not so much on the future, but on the past, and on the one we have loved and lost – and because she is one we have both loved and lost, inevitably today we feel grief and pain. As Her Majesty herself said at the time of the 9/11 atrocities, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love’. We did indeed love her and so of course we grieve her loss. But in talking about our late and much-beloved Queen, I also want to bear something else in mind. As I was preparing to preach for Her Majesty at Sandringham a couple of years ago – of which more anon – her domestic Chaplain this said to me, ‘People ask me whether the Queen is High Church or Low Church, and I reply, “She prefers Short Church, because she has to do a lot of it!”’ So I promise, in her memory, not to go on at too great a length today.

‘3 Ds’ and the 2 ‘Ss’

What I want to say above all else about Her Majesty, is something that so many have already commented upon: that hers was a life marked very strikingly by what you might call the ‘3 Ds’ and the 2 ‘Ss’: that is to say: dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice. Those were the hallmarks of her life: dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice, and we have all been so very greatly blessed by them – far more perhaps than we might imagine. On her 21st birthday, she uttered these now famous words: “I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong.” And all her life thereafter did indeed reflect that very devotion and dedication. I’ve heard it said that when plans were being discussed for one or other of her Jubilee celebrations, someone suggested, ‘Perhaps, Ma’am, you might like to reaffirm your Coronation oaths?’ to which the Queen simply and directly replied, ‘Oh no, I don’t need to do that.’ And nor did she. The vows she took, she took for life and lived by them throughout her life. No reaffirmation of them was remotely necessary.

But we should not take those sterling qualities for granted: not at all. It is tempting to do so because the Queen made them so deeply a part of who she was. But they were not accidental. She inherited them from her father certainly, and our new King has dedicated himself to them in a very similar manner. It’s speculative, of course, but I dare to suggest that had her uncle, Edward VIII, remained on the throne we might not have seen those same values demonstrated: at least not to the same degree. I was also struck at the Platinum Jubilee how those values of dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice which we rightly celebrated that weekend, seemed very far removed from much of what we have seen demonstrated in public life in recent years.

So, no, we should not take those sterling qualities for granted: not at all. They are of course deeply Christian values. One of the things the historian Tom Holland demonstrates so well in his book ‘Dominion’ is just how profoundly the Christian faith has shaped the culture in which we live, in more ways than we might imagine, and in ways, indeed, which we can so easily take for granted. But he points out that no pagan ruler in the ancient world would possibly have thought that things such as dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice were values by which they should live. In fact, quite the opposite was true. They despised such things as signs of weakness. They lived rather through the demonstration of power and of might, of domination and of violence.

No, these virtues are deeply Christian. And as such they do not stand alone. You simply cannot separate Her Majesty’s demonstration of these virtues from her faith in Christ which was the bedrock of her life. For where do we see those virtues of dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice most clearly demonstrated, but in Jesus Christ? In Jesus who did nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility counted others better than [himself]; who looked not to [his] own interests, but to the interests of others; who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.

Our Queen was simply following in the path of the Lord she loved and served

In taking the path of dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice our Queen was simply following in the path of the Lord she loved and served. As she never failed to remind us each Christmas, it was her faith in him that was at the heart of it all. Indeed I would make so bold as to suggest that you cannot possibly give yourself to a life of dedication, devotion and duty; service and sacrifice unless you commit yourself to the one who first walked that path for us: to Jesus Christ, our Lord. For these are supernatural, not natural qualities: and it is only as in our weakness that we learn to lean on him and find in him the strength we need, as Her Majesty most certainly did, that we can possibly follow where he has led.

So the best homage we can pay her Majesty is to follow her ourselves in a life of dedication, devotion and duty; of service and of sacrifice, by giving ourselves, surrendering ourselves, into the hands of the one who has loved us even unto death: to Jesus Christ our Lord who lives and reigns for us today, and whose eternal life Her Majesty surely now enjoys.

And there is no better was for us to honour her memory that by entrusting ourselves into his loving hands. And if you have never done so then I urge you to do that today – perhaps through the simple act of holding out your hands, in need, at Communion, ready to receive all that he has for you. For he is the Bread of Life and whoever comes to [him] will never be hungry and whoever believes in [him] will never be thirsty. And [he] will never drive away anyone who comes to [him].

I mentioned earlier that I preached for Her Majesty at Sandringham in January 2020, not long before we went in to lockdown, and in closing I want to share two brief stories from that time, which say a lot I think, about our late Queen.

The service I preached at was Book of Common Prayer Mattins in Sandringham Parish Church, and as you can imagine the Church was pretty full. After the service the Queen said, ‘You see, all those people come because it’s Mattins. They like Mattins!’ To which I really wanted to reply, ‘Ma’am I think they come because it’s you. I don’t imagine the church is quite that full the rest of the year.’ But of course I said nothing of the sort. But I tell that story because it just seems to me so typical of her fundamentally servant-hearted, self-effacing nature that she would not imagine for one moment that all those people had come to see her: though of course they had.

My second little anecdote is that at some point during the weekend I found the General Thanksgiving from the Book of Common Prayer and read it to the assembled company during pre-dinner drinks. I have to say I can’t remember why for the life of me it seemed an appropriate thing to do, but it was, and Her Majesty seemed to think so too, which was a relief. But I thought I would end with it today. It might seem inappropriate to close by praying a prayer of thanks on a day like today, but in her Majesty we have so much to give thanks for, and indeed as we reflect on our future there is nothing better we can pray than the words with which this prayer closes. So let us pray:

ALMIGHTY God, Father of all mercies, we thine unworthy servants do give thee most humble and hearty thanks for all thy goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all men. We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And we beseech thee, give us that due sense of all thy mercies, that our hearts may be unfeignedly thankful, and that we shew forth thy praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives; by giving up ourselves to thy service, and by walking before thee in holiness and righteousness all our days; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost be all honour and glory, world without end. Amen.

And for all God’s many mercies, and for the great blessing of the life of our late and much-beloved Queen, we give our God our thanks this day.