From the Bishop's desk

Bishop John’s Sermon on the death of Queen Elizabeth II

St Mary’s Cathedral, during the period of our National Mourning

Sunday 11 September 2022

Micah 4.1-15; Ephesians 3.14-21; John 6.35-40

We know how to mourn. Or at least we all learn how to mourn, for death and loss and lament are part of what it means to live. Most of us here know all too well those feelings of bleak finality which accompany death: those moments when we wake in the night and remember that the much-loved face, the familiar habits of someone who meant everything to us have gone – gone for good – leaving us bereft.

Bereft all the more so for the gratitude we also feel. Gratitude not merely for memories but for the impact of another’s life on ours, the way their life shaped us and blessed us. Which means that the mix of emotions we feel at the death of our Queen are familiar to us. Sadness, certainly, and immense gratitude too.

We also know how the ending of someone’s life enables us to see them differently; allows us to see them whole, as it were, and to reach a measured estimate of what their life meant both to us and to others. Most of us didn’t know Queen Elizabeth personally, although so public was her life that perhaps we felt we did. Either way, we know enough to recognize the stature of the life now ended, and to acknowledge that to describe her as Elizabeth the Great, as some have done, isn’t far off the mark.

Greatness, not derived from genius or exceptional intelligence, but from a willingness to endure, to occupy the space given to her and to do this with all her ability, all her self-denying strength. What good fortune it was for the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth and the world that such a unique space should be filled by such a remarkable person for such an extraordinary length of time. The past few days have allowed us to recognize what we have had and to acknowledge what we have no longer.

This is what it means to mourn and it’s why we must give ourselves time over these coming days, weeks, months to allow ourselves to mourn, to weep and to laugh. All the while remembering that it’s those whose life was closest, the royal family, who will feel the loss most keenly and very publicly.

But it’s not just about mourning one person. Nor is it simply about having a different head on our stamps and coinage. The smoothness of our constitutional transition cannot mask the fact that the Queen’s death will be destabilising in all sorts of ways. For many of us, the last few years of political uncertainty and Covid pandemic have felt as if things long held precious, reliable and stable have been disintegrating. War in Ukraine, mass migration, climate crisis, not to mention soaring inflation and fuel poverty, all these are enough to cope with, surely. But now we must cope also with the cutting of the golden thread that’s given us over all these years a sense of permanence, something to hold onto. Governments may come and go, but the Queen was always reliably there, including those Christmas broadcasts we may or may not have chosen to watch.

Something has shifted, and in ways subtle and not so subtle we must reconfigure our inner pathways, our sense of who we are and the defining characteristics of our nation and the shape of our world. We must be honest about this, for it’s hard to exaggerate the destabilising effect of the Queen’s death in an already febrile, anxious and angry world. If we Christians are to be of any use, to bring any sort of comfort or reassurance, we must tell the truth to ourselves and to others, and we must admit to how this truth affects us all.

And I do think we should expect to be of some use. For, one of the most important things about our late Queen, the one thing that motivated and inspired her above all else, was her Christian faith. Our Sovereign she may have been, but above all she was, and still is, our sister in Christ. She shared our longing, expressed by Jesus in our gospel reading, that we shall be raised up at the last day.

She died on 8th September, the day the church celebrated the birth of another famous woman of faith, Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary too, as a young woman, was placed in a unique position, with little choice but to obey God’s call, yet was eager to do so nonetheless, eager to obey. Mary gave of her very best and did her duty. ‘Be it unto me, according to your word,’ she said.

We revere Mary, the greatest of all saints – but she was not our Saviour. She gave our Saviour birth, she gave him place, but ultimately it is Christ who is our rock, God the one in whom we find immoveable and solid stability. Similarly, we may revere Queen Elizabeth, we may be in awe of her faithfulness to the very end of her life, but in losing her we haven’t lost our reason to hope, lost our anchor; for we still proclaim the very same God in whom her life was anchored, the faith in which she remained a learner to the end of her days.

At her Coronation service, she pledged her allegiance to God before she accepted the allegiance of her subjects. A very young woman, she modelled the simple commitment required of every Christian person that, whether our lives are glamorous and in the public eye or not, God comes first. In whatever space we are given, whatever space we fashion for ourselves, we turn to Christ, we resist evil, we serve God in word and deed, and, to the best of our ability, we work for justice and peace in all creation. Whatever the vows of her Coronation, whatever the limitations and opportunities offered by the role she inherited, for Queen Elizabeth her baptismal promises were those that most shaped her life. So it should be for us.  

We have good reason, I believe, to trust that King Charles III will also be faithful to this calling. But let’s not ask more of him than he, a fallible human being just like us, can give. And let’s accept that all of us bear the responsibility to shape the country over which he now reigns, and to hold ourselves accountable to the same standards and ideals that his late mother so well represented.

Someone has estimated how many times the Queen heard the national anthem during her life. It was a lot! Was ever a prayer for long life more fulsomely answered? Now we sing it, and pray it, for our King, that his reign should be happy and glorious and somehow transformative of the troubles that just now beset us. But the glory we look to, as was the glory Queen Elizabeth sought, isn’t about jewels and rich apparel, power or palaces, but is to be shown in the joy of serving and loving others and of walking in the name of our God for ever and ever. May we together realise Micah’s vision of a world in which the nations gather in unity, committed to the commonwealth (in the best sense of that word), where swords are beaten into ploughshares, and where no one need be afraid. It’s a worthy aim for any royal reign. It won’t be achieved by one person alone but only by a whole people dedicated to seeking the ways of God.

The old gives way to the new, the page of history turns; but the loving call of God endures, unchanging, from one generation to the next.