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Divine service

Faith and the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II

Artillery Row

Much of Monday’s opulent farewell to Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II was a celebration of the United Kingdom’s remaining worldly pomp. As can only rarely happen in post-imperial Britain, the crowned and elected leaders of the globe converged on London; the streets thronged with His Majesty’s loyal subjects; the nation’s soldiery marched in ceremonial dress through the capital. Massed pipes and drums, the tolling bell, the minute gun. It was a fitting way to mark the late Queen’s reign: much worldly power lost, some worldly power conserved.

The heart of yesterday’s observances were the three divine services, however, offered to Almighty God at Westminster and Windsor. The last of the three was a private family affair, seeing the late Sovereign finally laid to rest alongside her husband, parents and sister. The whole world was able to join from afar in the unabashedly Christian funeral rites at the Abbey and St George’s.

The United Kingdom has a mixed constitution, ancient and modern. On the one hand, it is a 21st century representative democracy. Power is in the hands of the House of Commons, and in an executive which must retain its confidence. Its people are citizens: through elections and the pressure of public opinion, the British people are the masters of their own affairs, of the res publica.

This wasn’t monarchic pageantry, but a shared heritage

This modern democracy sits upon an older bedrock. The constitutional foundations of this country are pre-modern. Sovereign authority belongs to the Crown in Parliament. Our legislature, the government and the courts all receive their authoritative imprimatur from the monarch. In Britain, despite an increasingly secular society, the monarch’s own moral authority comes from God. The King reigns, of course, by the consent of Parliament; but at the same time Dei gratia, as all our coins show of his late mother. Britain is an evolutionary country, not a revolutionary country: these ancient and modern constitutional worldviews are woven together. 

This being the case, the reigns of our monarchs begin and end with a strong dose of public Christianity. The Sovereign reigns from the moment of their predecessor’s death, but their sovereignty is inaugurated and consecrated at a Coronation service. The late Queen was anointed and crowned at Westminster in 1953. Yesterday, her sovereignty, body and soul were handed back to God. Those final acts of public worship are the appropriate end to a Christian Sovereign.

The British monarchy’s relationship to God is not one of absolutist divine right, as if the Sovereign were of a different species to the rest of us. Instead, the monarch has a kind of iconic function: a public and highly visible representation of what we all receive from God. Each human being on the planet is created in the image of God, and receives an innate and inviolable dignity from that fact. We are all, like the late Queen, subject to the irresistible decrees of birth and death. Any authority any of us may have, any talent, any opportunity or adversity is received from Him. 

In the prayers, in virtue of her creation and her baptism she was referred to as “Elizabeth, our sister here departed”. Having a human being as the life-long figurehead of our society raises these basic and necessary truths to the status of a constitutional principle, that is, a principle around which we build our society.

Monday’s services — despite the full panoply of the state being so lustrously on display — shared their basic content with ordinary Church of England funerals in parish churches and crematorium chapels the length and breadth of the country. The reading from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 15, read by Baroness Scotland) and from the Gospel of John (John 14:1-9, read by the new Prime Minister) are commonplace, as was the congregation singing a metrical version of Psalm 24 (“The Lord’s my shepherd”). This wasn’t monarchic pageantry, but a shared heritage common to church, kirk and chapel around the kingdom. I and countless others will have recognised them from past family funerals.

Not because they are popular, but because they are true

The Sentences sung by the choir at the beginning of the Abbey service express some of the basic truth claims of the Christian faith: “I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord”; “I know that my Redeemer liveth”; “We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain that we can carry nothing out”. Similarly, the Archbishop of Canterbury’s short sermon was a well judged simple preaching of the Gospel. Whilst the media seized upon Archbishop Welby’s dig at “those who cling to power and privileges”, and whilst the Vera Lynn reference was perhaps a little overly sentimental, the sermon reminded a congregation and a watching world of two completely foundational truths of Christianity: that Christ (and only Christ) is the way, the truth and the life; and that “We will all face the merciful judgement of God”.

The Church of England did rather well yesterday at fulfilling the core responsibilities of Establishment. The central claims of the Christian religion were preached, publicly, in a service which consecrated the pinnacle of the state to God; and, nevertheless, this was done in a non-sectarian way. Nobody was forced to join in, and many members of other religions (or none) were welcome, respected guests. This was a helpful reminder of why Establishment is tolerated, respected, occasionally even celebrated in a diverse liberal democracy.

The end of the Committal Service at Windsor saw the moving spectacle of crown, sceptre and orb being taken from Her Late Majesty’s coffin, and placed on the high altar. We all go to the grave stripped of any earthly wealth or power we may have enjoyed. All sovereignty ultimately belongs to God. All earthly rulers hold it only in trust, for the sake of the common good, and upon their deaths they will render an account for how they have used or misused that trust. We are fortunate that our country recognises this. It is good for those who govern us to be reminded of it.

Some voices call for Britain to abandon these claims and commitments, due to the dwindling numbers of practising Christians. These calls miss the point. The United Kingdom should continue to recognise — in its quiet, tolerant way — these claims and ceremonies not because they are popular, but because they are true. Ultimately, the final commemorative rites of our late Queen’s earthly story were offered not as a spectacle for the national or international public, but as a fitting divine service to the Almighty, Who is above all politics, nationhood or spectacle.

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