When the Queen Dies
It’s been a quiet few weeks here on the blog, I know. There are a number of reasons for this, but chief among them is that it has been a season of dying in our church. Since I’ve returned from holidays in late August, there have been three deaths to mourn, three lives to honour and celebrate, three occasions to proclaim with joy the great Christian hope of a life that swallows up death. I’ve been writing a lot of sermons and planning a lot of services, which doesn’t leave much time for writing here.
Death has also figured prominently in the news of the last few weeks. One death, in particular. I’m referring, of course, to Queen Elizabeth, whose funeral the world watched yesterday. I’ll confess that I have spent a vanishingly small amount of time in my life thinking about the monarchy. It has seemed (and largely still seems) to me an enormous and elaborate waste of time and money, a rather large piece of useless, antiquated theatre to keep the tabloids occupied and the rest of us distracted. This view of mine does not make me particularly popular with others, I know. My wife, for example, who loves shows like The Crown. My ambivalence/antipathy toward the monarchy is one of the many things I shall no doubt require forgiveness for in the end.
I did glance in on the spectacle yesterday, though. And I found it strangely moving, even thought I couldn’t quite articulate why. What I saw was an ornate, meticulously choreographed, no doubt horrendously expensive affair. Nothing simple or humble about this. This was literally a day that was decades in the making. And even while part of me—a big part of me, truthfully—still resists this amount of fuss over one human being who was no more or less important than the three people whose services I conducted over the last few weeks, the Queen’s funeral seemed like something of a blessed irruption of a more dignified, meaningful, and ordered past into our crude, careless, and trivializing present that seems to care little about anything that ultimately matters.
This morning, Paul Kingsnorth gave some better language to what I felt as I watched a sliver of the Queen’s funeral yesterday. His essay is an extended meditation on the image above, taken from the tower of Westminster Abbey, looking down at the queen whose body lay at the intersection of nave and the transept of the cross-shaped sanctuary. It spoke, Kingsnorth says, of a time when people believed that power and authority flowed down and outward, from God, through the monarch, to the broader society. It was a visual of a view of the world that is dying or has died.
For now, of course, we believe (or claim to believe) that power is legitimated in exactly the opposite way:
The understanding now is that authority flows upward from below, from ‘the people’ and into the government, which supposedly governs on our behalf. In this model there is no sacred centre, and there is no higher authority to whom we answer. There is no heavenly grant of temporary office which will one day be returned, and a tally made. There is only raw power, rooted in materiality, which in itself has no meaning beyond what we ascribe to it. There is only efficiency. There is only management. There are only humans.
Indeed. This is what our post-Christian husk of a society is left with. Raw power with no essential meaning. Efficiency. Materiality. Management. God help us.
Except, when the Queen dies, maybe it opens up a little bit of space for us to ponder. Is this really what we want? Is this really all there is? Kingsnorth continues:
And yet: watching the vast, snaking queue that all week has spreadeagled across London, as the crowds came to bow their heads before the coffin; watching the emotions on display today, and the massed crowds again across the country, bringing something to this event that perhaps they didn’t even understand themselves, I thought: no. We don’t really believe that there is nothing else. It is just what we think we have to say. Look: we believe in a bigger story. It is still there. It never left.
I have been puzzling over these last few days over why so many people seem to care so very much that a ninety-six year old woman who they’ve never met has died. What could possibly account for all the nostalgia and emotion? What could possibly motivate someone to queue for fourteen plus hours to spend a few seconds near her body? Why this wall-to-wall media coverage for someone who seemed to only pop up once a year to give some pleasant, inoffensive Christmas greeting to the Commonwealth? It surely can’t just be because we all really, really liked The Crown!
After reading Kingsnorth, I thought, yes, he nailed it. We want to believe in more than we do. We crave order instead of the chaos we have created. In spite of ourselves, we long for meaning and transcendence and liturgy and dignity. We crave a bigger story than the small and selfish ones we so often settle for. We (gulp) may even have a hunger to worship and a desire for God. When the Queen dies, we get a window into a world that we have largely cast aside. It is a world that we are mostly happy to ignore, but are glad other people keep alive on our behalf. It is a fire whose embers we would prefer that other people tend so that it’s still glowing when we need it to warm our secular bones.
Kingsnorth concludes his piece thus:
I am just watching. I am just looking down from that height, onto the nave and the transept and the coffin draped in the standard, and I am thinking: I have just heard the last post sounded for Christian England. We are in a new land now. We should pray that we find our way.
Yes. We should indeed pray that we find our way.
A very interesting thought on “… why so many people seem to care so very much that a ninety-six year old woman who they’ve never met has died.“ I will ponder that thought some more. Thanks for writing.
Thanks kindly, Bart.
I have a higher regard for the British who honor a royalty that respects service, dignity, tradition and humility rather than Hollywood actors who are full of themselves and have eight marriages under their belt.
How should we respond to Elizabeth’s death?
I think Trudeau sang it best for many of us…” Scaramouche, Scaramouche will you do the Fandango. Thunderbolts and lightening, very, very frightening”…
Yes, JT certainly hit it out of the park again 😉
Along with governments, human beings have lost their transcendent origin. No longer a divine creation in the divine image, humans are merely another form of life evolved from other forms of life, no different than trees or lizards really.
In The Crown, when anyone approaches the Queen, they bow and say ‘Your Majesty’ with deference. Seeing those scenes has made me wonder if I approach God too casually and not as the Sovereign of the universe.
Queen Elizabeth was my favorite world religious leader, precisely because she was reticent and conventional. She didn’t try to reinvent the faith or change the world. She only lived out her calling.
Yes, this is sadly true. And it’s bewildering when combined with a lingering vaguely Christian moral impulse that demands purity at every turn. We claim to believe that we’re no different or more significant than any other organism thrown up from the clay, but in fact our moral assumptions betray us at every turn. We have become a bundle of walking contradictions, incoherent mysteries to ourselves.
You ask a good question about approaching God too casually. I will ponder this further. Somehow, we have to combine the God who dwells in unapproachable light with the Jesus who says, “Don’t worry about fancy words, just tell your Heavenly Father what you need.”
The reformation addressed much that needed to be confronted but sadly apart from some within the Anglican community and likely inspired by the blatant hypocrisy of the existing RC church of that time, most reformed churches abandoned the sacred and sacramental ritual of the Mass for a form of worship that was decidely more material in its scope.
Kinda like abandoning democracy because it occassionaly produces incompetant, even malevolent, governments.
In both cases, sacred and secular, the processes are true. Sadly, the people entrusted to impart and sustain these truths often betray their responsibilities, the people entrusted to them and our God.