One of the things about the Prayer Book Communion Service is that it has a short section just before the Prayer of Consecration which is usually called the ‘comfortable words’ – words of comfort. They are a few short passages of Scripture which offer words of reassurance. One of them comes from this morning’s epistle reading from 1 Timothy: ‘This saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’. Paul then goes on, ‘so that in me, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life’. And then he finishes with some words of praise: ‘To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honour and glory for ever and ever.’ Ultimately, then, everything is done for the glory of God.
I think that’s particularly relevant for today as we reflect on our late Queen and pray for our new King. We do so in the context of worship of the invisible and immortal God, and even if it is often forgotten, that same God rests at the heart of our British Constitution. It was only a few weeks ago at the jubilee that I reflected on the coronation and on the nature of service which has marked the reign of our Queen – and once again in sadder circumstances we can reflect on her sense of duty and commitment and service to her people but also to God in whom she found strength to pursue her unique destiny.
As King Charles said in his moving address, Queen Elizabeth’s was a life well-lived. She was active right to the very end. The Moderator of the Church of Scotland said that she was razor sharp at Saturday dinner and Sunday lunch only a week ago. Her last official engagement was to swear in the new Prime Minister on Tuesday. After that, she must have died quickly and unexpectedly. There have been remarkable outpourings of affection ever since – to me the mood feels less like the grief and bewilderment that often follow death, and much more like profound gratitude for what the epistle called ‘an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life’. Everybody has described her humility and a sense of duty rooted in Christian service. Of course, we mourn but we do so with a sense of thankfulness.
But at the same time it’s the end of an extraordinarily long reign, a reign that has seen a vast number of changes. Most of us will not be able to remember a time beforehand and few here will have ever sung God save the King: it is the end of an era, of what they called ‘The New Elizabethan Age’ at the beginning of her reign. That is something else that we are mourning. It just so happened that I heard the news of the Queen’s death in Germany where I was leading an exchange programme between the Oxford and Bonn Theology Faculties. I was actually in a floating Chinese restaurant on the River Rhine – the last seminar paper of the conference happened to be on theological and geological time, on those very long periods that geologists discuss. Set against such a conception of time, 70 years is but the twinkling of an eye, but even geological time eventually changes and history is reshaped. As a historian I tend to work in much shorter timescales – and I have been reflecting on transitions; those periods when things seem to change beyond all recognition. Like after the First World War or after the Second World War.
And being in Germany I couldn’t but reflect on the seventy years from 1952 from that context: in Europe a new world was being forged from the collapse of the terrors of the 1930s and 40s. In this country the new Queen brought a new sense of hope after the destructive heresy of Nazism; like the Welfare State and the politics of consensus of the 1950s, she was a sign that the world did not have to be built on conflict and power. But still there was conflict and anxiety. Despite the sense of hope, the world was still torn between the competing power blocs of the Cold War.
As I look back on her reign I think that the Queen has played an important symbolic role over the past 70 years through this consensus and conflict. Her sense of humility and service and perhaps just being a woman in a man’s world have said something extraordinarily important to politicians. In the near century of almost constant conflict through which she lived we have the example of a woman head of state standing alongside the men who hold the reins of power and not answerable to any constituency save that of her sense of duty to the people and to God: constitutionally, of course, she had no power and had to do what her advisers advised. But her sheer presence and obvious sincerity and sense of duty might well have acted as a sign that there is another way than the way of power and division. The life of a Christian sovereign is in some sense sacramental – it points beyond the ordinary to a deeper spiritual truth. And that is the truth of Christian service and duty and of universal love for all people. She embodied the example of the Christian monarch who did not rely on the trappings of pomp and ceremony but who trusted in God and her duty towards him. She could truly say with the epistle, ‘I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service’.
Just before lockdown the Queen visited her local branch of the Women’s Institute and gave a speech behind closed doors. Against the background of Brexit, she merely said that the quality of conversation needed to improve otherwise the country was in danger of complete division. We seldom knew what she thought about anything – but it was clear that she lamented the loss of national consensus and the low quality of public discourse.
I am sure that some of the emotion that many of us have felt over the past few days has been about the loss of that unifying figure who so profoundly shaped this country over the past 70 years. And I am sure that all of us will be praying that King Charles III may inherit her sense of duty and her ability to unify the many disparate groups of this country and act as a check on all those who seek to sow division in our public life. It’s a huge task for him, but like his mother he shares a vision that is rooted in those words of comfort from our epistle ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners’.
So today we give thanks for the life and witness of Queen Elizabeth and we pray for our new King that like his mother he may be a sacrament of unity in our fractured society. Unlike many national anthems, ours is a prayer. So let us pray: ‘God Save the King’, and as we do so let us ask that he might be sustained by ‘the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, to whom be honour and glory for ever and ever. Amen’.