The death of Queen Elizabeth II, like many great public occasions, made us do things we don’t usually do.
People who hardly ever darken the door of their local church came to sit in silence for a while and sign a book of condolence. The staunch Republicans found themselves shedding a tear for a queen. Foreigners who have never met the sovereign feel as though they have lost a member of their family. People lit candles and stood in line for hours. We bought flowers on an industrial scale and bowed and signed in front of a casket, maybe even without really knowing why. There’s something about a major event like this that suspends our normal behavior and allows – even forces – us to reveal hidden desires and ask questions we wouldn’t normally ask.
A time of mourning like this stirs something in us. It uncovers deeper layers of meaning and questioning. When the prospect of a very long queue weaving through the streets of London arose, the dioceses of London, Southwark and Lambeth Palace came together to hastily organize the chaplaincy of the queue; as a spirit said, perhaps the most British thing ever.
I work at Lambeth Palace so I spent time debriefing with members of the clergy who had volunteered to spend several hours walking up and down The Embankment, talking to anyone who wanted to chat while waiting to see the coffin of the queen in state. What was a bit of a party atmosphere quickly turned into something darker as the crowd began to move on, remembering that they were here for a solemn task. Normally, if you approach people on the street to ask them questions about their personal life and their emotions, you are short-circuited, but this time people were eager to talk. They wanted to tell the stories of their own grieving experience, the reasons why they had come to London; they talked about family, religion, faith, life, death – pretty much everything. It was as if the occasion had opened up usually hidden channels of conversation and made people realize that they were in the presence of a reality greater than themselves; one that demanded a hushed bow instead of the usual chatter.
The Christian faith is intimately tied to the fabric of our national life
Most of the time, of course, we don’t address these issues. Issues like sex, death, and politics are topics for newspapers and websites, but not for conversations with strangers.
Blaise Pascal wrote: “Unable to cure death, misery and ignorance, men have decided, in order to be happy, not to think of such things. The problem is that a public death like this – especially a death that removes from our lives a figure who was such a stable and reassuring presence – makes us face death, misery and ignorance.
The Queen was always there on the Christmas Day shows, Trooping the Colour, FA Cup Finals, Remembrance Day at the Albert Hall, on all our coins and postage stamps – in fact, featured almost everywhere where we turn. Such a death confronts us with our mortality, our own losses, and the fact that we do not know and cannot control the future. It stirs up the sediments that have settled deep within our souls, bringing uncomfortable and unknown things to the surface.
But it’s not just that we don’t think about deeper things very often, it’s also that we don’t have the structures to help us deal with life and death. Perhaps because we no longer have regular religious rituals in our lives, new rituals spring up at times like this – laying vast carpets of flowers or reverently laying marmalade sandwiches at sites related to the life of the Queen; the practice of paying homage by queuing for hours for a brief glimpse of the coffin or waving flags in front of our homes; until the almost ritualistic raising of countless hands among a crowd, not in praise or greeting but to take a picture of the funeral procession as it passes.
All of this reveals a spirituality latent beneath our seemingly secular mentality; a deep longing that comes to the surface at times like this.
A symbol of permanence
One of the main themes that has cropped up repeatedly from vox pop that has circulated across all media is nostalgia for permanence.
For most of us, the Queen is the only monarch we have ever known, so she represents a sense of permanence to us; something stable and fixed in a rapidly changing world.
The pageantry of the last few weeks – the colors, the horses, the swords, the spears, the uniforms and the march – is a kind of link to the past. They root us in rituals and practices that we did not invent yesterday and which give us the feeling of being rooted in history; in a time span longer than the brief horizons of our own lives, let alone the fleeting lifespan of a tweet or Instagram post.
Yet the queen was, of course, only a sign or symbol of permanence. She may have lived longer than any other British monarch, but she would have been the first to admit she was part of a very long line – part of an institution that speaks of a much longer tenure. The fact that the very moment she died, Charles became king tells a continuous thread that survives any particular individual who occupies the throne.
Yet the monarchy itself has always been only a sign of an even greater permanence – the faithfulness of God. He is the one the psalmist describes as: “our home through all generations [who] spawned the whole world [before the mountains were born]” – God ‘from eternity to eternity’ (Psalm 90:1-2).
Perhaps under the latent spirituality of the last few weeks lies this desire for permanence. A very public death like this reveals our own frailty and mortality. It confronts us with the quicksands of time and yearns for stability. The rapid evolution of our social and political life, the cultural shifts that make our world so different from that of the Queen’s generation have perhaps nurtured within us a deeply felt, often unspoken and unrecognized longing for something more sustainable ; something you can count on.
Even the longing for a photo, demonstrated in the seas of cell phones stretched out in eager hands, is a longing for something permanent – a sure record to capture the experience forever, so much so that we can barely live the moment itself. And in all of this is the haunted sense of what Wordsworth called: “a presence that disturbs me with the joy of high thoughts; a sublime sense of something much more deeply intertwined”.
The role of the Church
The prominent place of the Church in public rituals in recent weeks, flags flying at half mast on steeples, archbishops performing important liturgical functions and acting as signatories to the mandate confirming the new king, has reminded us of how much Christian weaving faith is in the fabric of our national life.
Despite our pretensions to being a “secular” society, the roots of Christianity go deep into the soil of our national life. The chanting of the ancient psalms, the recitation of prayers in the Elizabethan language all provide this framework of permanence. Just compare this to the rituals and ‘liturgies’ of Jubilee celebrations – if it had been due to a government committee, rather than the psalms accompanying the state setting, we would have had Elton John’s looping songs, and maybe -be the coffin guarded by Harry Styles or David Attenborough rather than the Grenadier Guards!
A major event like this suspends our normal behavior and forces us to reveal a hidden desire.
Somehow, the solemnity of the form, the tested nature of the words, and the dignity of long-regarded Christian worship help sustain us through these times of grief and change. And yet they remain unknown to many who are steeped in more familiar but ephemeral ritual forms – what James K. A. Smith calls the “secular liturgies” of the mall, the school assembly, or the sports stadium.
The Church’s task from here is to show how this ancient faith has the wisdom not only to provide consolation in times of bereavement, but can also be a guide for ordinary life. He must have the confidence and the wisdom to live and speak of this as a spirituality for the everyday – one that can permeate and renew politics, the arts, schools and offices, work and home.
This faith in the God of the ages – the God who raises the dead – can give us the permanence and stability that we all long for, and fulfill the aspirations that our newly developed spiritualities are trying to satisfy. He just needs a Church that really believes that.