The return of the sacred
The British monarchy is defying secular modernity
In the days since the Queen’s passing we have seen some truly remarkable scenes. Vast crowds have already gathered in Edinburgh and London, hundreds of millions worldwide have received the news via every conceivable medium, world leaders have competed to make the most solemn tribute. The leaders of Brazil and Ghana spontaneously announced periods of official mourning. It would not be disrespectful or wrong to wonder, however, what has inspired and merited such strength of feeling, even beyond Britain’s borders.
The Queen did not make policy, she did not lead men into battle, she was no St Theresa living in the gutter and wiping the brows of lepers, nor, despite her clear diplomatic gifts, was she so great a peacemaker and stateswoman that all the world should so grieve her passing. This, I think, is what so puzzles those who lack an emotional connection to the Queen, or feel it but cannot justify or explain it.
This was a life marked by destiny, anointed to a higher purpose
In an increasingly secular and individualist world, it is very rare to see people who have given over their lives to a calling or vocation that swamps and overshadows their individual identity and personal autonomy. Our public figures are increasingly celebrities, who boast of their individual talents and glamorous lifestyles, or politicians, who attain their roles through personal ambition and boast of their achievements, and explain their actions, in technocratic terms. In both instances, the promise they make to their followers is material — I just bought a new car, I just cut your taxes, buy my self-help book, we added another per centage point to GDP this year.
C.S. Lewis wrote of the critics of monarchy: “Monarchy can easily be ‘debunked’, but watch the faces, mark well the accents, of the debunkers. These are the men whose tap-root in Eden has been cut: whom no rumour of the polyphony, the dance, can reach — men to whom pebbles laid in a row are more beautiful than an arch.”
In this increasingly transactional world, there is something arresting about leaders who promise nothing except their lives in service to the people, dedicated till the day of their death. As King Charles III said in his first address following the death of the Queen:
Queen Elizabeth’s was a life well-lived, a promise with destiny kept, and she is mourned most deeply in her passing. That promise of lifelong service I renew to you all today …
As the Queen herself did with such unswerving devotion, I too now solemnly pledge myself, throughout the remaining time God grants me, to uphold the constitutional principles at the heart of our nation.
As more and more traditions have been swallowed up by the rising tide of liquid modernity, as we all find ourselves lost on that terrible cold sea of centreless motion, the last lives still dedicated to something beyond the material blaze out like lighthouses, guiding us to the shores of eternity.
Whether those now mourning the Queen would articulate it in these terms, they share a powerful intuition that this was a life marked by destiny, anointed to a higher purpose, robed in all the terrible and absurd glory of ages gone by. Knights no longer ride out across the fields of Europe, sailors no longer set out on uncertain journeys of exploration, the age of heroism is far gone, but in England a King still reigns, as they have done for 1500 years.
For many this is a source of offence, an unsightly smudge on the pure face of modernity, a last remaining anachronism to be purged on the road to a never to be arrived at utopia. Wonder and awe, the longing of the human soul for mystery and adventure, are dismissed as childish things, unfit for a humane, egalitarian and rational society.
The powerlessness of the British throne has made it invulnerable
I wrote, in the strange time when we were waiting to hear if the Queen had died, of my fears for Britain when she is gone. They haven’t gone away, but I have been deeply heartened by the words of our new King, and by the great strength of national feeling behind him and the Royal Family.
This is, after all, the great power of monarchy and tradition in general — it perpetually renews itself and rises again and again to bear its fruit for a new generation. A vision both of mortality and immortality, that submits itself to the reality of time and change, but orients itself to the everlasting. In a curious way, as Britain’s monarchy has become less politically active, and other monarchies have passed away, it has taken on a more implicitly sacral role.
The increasingly visible anachronism of the British monarchy, still more replete in mediaeval and baroque grandeur than more modest European equivalents, profoundly disturbs many. Superficially, because it is “ridiculous” and “undemocratic”. More deeply, perhaps, because it is taking on ever more unearthly and religious qualities as it becomes more alien to modern values, and thus removed from the arena of secular critique.
Such power is impossible to quantify in terms of wealth, standing armies or territory. It is a sort of glamour or mystique that can never be readily cashed out or exercised, but has an invisible power of attraction and influence. Just by being there, as many on the left perhaps very rightly intuit, the British monarchy exerts a pull on British society, authorising and legitimising tradition and hierarchy, duty and service, family and faith.
Monarchy can be assailed with every furious barrage of scandal and criticism, besieged by opinion polls and tabloid journalism. Yet when the hour of succession comes all its foes are forced to quit the field, as the King claims his throne by right and not a soul lifts a hand to oppose him. The very powerlessness of the British throne has made it curiously invulnerable — there is nothing to grapple with, an intangible foe like Jacob’s angel.
As I wrote before, Britain is entering a period in which it will have to define itself again, in which its identity, so radically questioned and delgimitised, will have to be again reforged. In the face of economic crisis, social breakdown and a loss of collective purpose, it will be a very hard challenge indeed. We should not mourn the loss of our 20th century myths, of the Little England besieged by Germany, of the Blitz and rationing. These became limiting stories, constricting bonds that kept us apart from our deeper well of history and culture, from the land of Chaucer, Shakespeare and Milton. We are re-entering history, and if this prospect is fearful, it is no less imbued with hope.
The British monarchy will persist, grow and change as an institution, but as a continual act of service and witness, it will be a still point of guidance. As we mourn the Queen we must turn again to the imperishable flame of eternal truth and living tradition, and rediscover who we are in a new century.
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