Preached by the Dean, theVery Revd James Atwell, using scripture Philippians 4.8, on Sunday 27th May 2012, at The County Celebration of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen.
The last sixty years have seen remarkable change – no one would argue with that! Television in the United Kingdom took off as a result of the Coronation. Many people invested in a television set for the Queen’s Coronation, and many others bought one subsequently having gathered around a neighbour’s screen to watch the first televised Coronation. Those who gathered around television sets were full of the excitement and anticipation of a new Elizabethan age following the post-war austerity. Houses were decked with Union Jacks throughout the land and even the smallest village had secured a fund, one way or another, to make sure all its children were presented with a Coronation mug. That was sixteen months or so after the Queen’s Accession, and now sixty years afterwards we give thanks for a Monarch who has brought a human face, an extraordinary example of service and remarkable sense of continuity to a nation coping with rapid change and cultural fission. To support that, one needs only to make reference to the comparatively recent phenomena of global communications, computers, the internet and Google, social media and Twitter.
Our bank notes and coins, our postage stamps, our national newspapers, portrait galleries and public places have all reproduced the Queen’s image over and over again. The human face at the heart of a nation, and a family not a Politburo as the symbol of our national identity, are without price as a treasure. As a child, I remember our National Savings stamps carried the images of Prince Charles and Princess Anne, enabling even a young mind to absorb the message that in the business of this nation we count in ones. How many young people have, since its inception, been challenged and energised by the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award Scheme? The rhythm of national life over sixty years has seen twelve British Prime Ministers come and go, responsibility shed, but the Queen continues to shoulder hers without respite. There is in the Dean’s study in the Deanery at Winchester one small record of the Queen’s engagement with one of her Prime Ministers. The plaque reads:
“On 25th July 1955, HM Queen Elizabeth II
gave an audience in this room, to her Prime Minister,
Sir Anthony Eden KG MC”
In our 21st Century media-dominated world, public figures can no longer manage to hide their indiscretions committed in emails or through friendships with idols who are toppled. There has been plenty of evidence of that recently. In sixty years the Queen has managed to be utterly uncompromised and un-deflected from her duty.
It is largely due to the Queen that there is still a Commonwealth, which has emerged from the transition of British dominance as a colonial power to the mutual respect of independent nations. Her own commitment to the Commonwealth, and respect built up with so many Commonwealth leaders by sheer hard work and encounter, has been on its own a lifetime’s ambition. There is no doubt that the Commonwealth has been able to model something in the modern world that clubs of the wealthy nations cannot. In a global environment where peace built on justice stretches across education, health, fair trade, opportunity, respect for difference: the Commonwealth models something very important for the 21st Century.
Many of us have a moment when the limelight of destiny has touched our lives by an encounter with the Monarch. My own would be during the celebration of the Golden Jubilee. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh came to a gala luncheon and then toured a series of exhibitions of local industry in the public square outside the Cathedral where I was then working. After a busy morning elsewhere the Queen arrived and was briefly introduced to the 160 or so of us invited to lunch. In my short encounter I stammered something about a ‘Union Jack’ having been draped across the scaffolding of the Cathedral tower, then under construction. It was not taken up and the moment passed. There was the lunch, a speech, more people to meet and a tour of the exhibits. I had gone from the lunch to the Cathedral exhibition and it happened that the Queen toured that area of the exhibits. She arrived, looked at me and said ‘I am still trying to spot the flag’. That quiet remark, picking up a comment that I had thought was unregistered, was an amazing feat of connection in an impossibly busy day and all of us looking for our own moment.
We take for granted that the Queen will not only commune with her Prime Ministers and visiting Heads of State, but also help to encourage excellence, open significant buildings, commission High Court Judges personally, affirm scientific projects, invite the nation into her back garden, and be there to acknowledge in person those deserving a national award. She is often charged with enabling community healing and reconciliation, not least when she was the first Monarch to visit the Republic of Ireland in 2011, a journey requiring both courage and diplomatic skill.
Besides all of these things Her Majesty is also the Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England. It is a role that she has taken with the utmost seriousness and considerable insight and depth. Her Christmas broadcasts are amongst the most spiritually sensitive and uplifting messages of the Season. She does not mind sharing her faith because that is what has inspired her service, and sustained it for three score years. She knows that ‘without a vision the people perish’, and that faith, religion, spirituality – however you want to describe it – is an indispensible engine of that vision. Being faithful to Christ for her is not about brow-beating the world into seeing things from her own perspective. It is about seeking to generate an environment in which people thrive because justice and mercy thrive. It is because ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure’ makes for abundance of human life.
What of the Church of England, of which Her Majesty is the Supreme Governor? For a moment let me be parochial and reflect domestically as an Anglican. A significant pressure the Church of England is facing, and it is not on its own here, is that faith is not in the ascendant in western culture. It is often pointed out that western culture is out of step with the rest of the world, for instance, see a book published in the USA in 2009 jointly by a person of faith and a person of no faith entitled: ‘God is Back’ and sub-titled ‘How the Global Revival of Faith is Changing the World’. It looks at world culture including China. However, the reality is that we have to deal with a local culture for which there is no longer a guaranteed residual Christian awareness that seeps through every youngster’s formation. That I think is very dangerous for the Churches and the future.
The key word for the Church, when I trained forty years ago, was ‘Ministry’. That is, getting alongside people in support, encouragement and comfort. The mantra was: “A visiting parson makes a Church-going people”. The keyword now is ‘Mission’. That is: “Get out there and be pro-active”. There is a dawning awareness that if we do not or cannot recruit to the faith-community then there will be no Church to deliver ministry for the next generation. In all honesty, the Church of England in its most recent phase has dissipated too much energy in investing in its differences and not enough in its core message of sharing Christ with the world.
In our local European culture where we are called to be ‘Church,’ against the backdrop of the roar of the tide going out, there is something crucial for which the Church of England has stood and about which it must not lose its nerve. It is a truth it holds in trust for all Christian denominations and for other faiths also. It is simply this: The essence of faith is that in the end it is not here for its own good, success or self-promotion. It is here because the ingredient of the witness to God is transformational of society and it is for the common good. Religion is part of the human survival package – ‘A human being cannot live by bread alone’ (Matthew 4:4). In the end true religion delights in ‘Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable’ (Philippians 4:8). Society needs that leaven.
Cathedral ministry seeks to be part of that Church of England that holds its nerve. It is fundamental to Cathedral Ministry that there is room for everybody, wherever they are on their faith journey. We want to be allies with all those who are seeking to build a just and caring society. We seek to affirm and nurture all those whose sacrifices turn the wheel of our daily life. That ministry is inspired by Our Lord who gave us the parable of the Good Samaritan and, who, on the night of his betrayal, stripped off his outer garments, took a towel and washed his disciples’ feet.
I owe my stipend to the Church Commissioners, so the following is said with affection. I was talking to a fellow Dean recently, and we were quietly lamenting that the Church Commissioners are in a mode which wants to invest in success. In colloquial language, they want value-for-money demonstrated in good statistics which means ‘bums on seats’ in one way or another. The same Dean said to me: “Isn’t it strange that the Queen gets it and they don’t?”. What that Dean meant was that the Queen understands that the Church ultimately has to look beyond statistics in order to gauge its success. It is perhaps not surprising that the Supreme Governor is ahead of her adjutant staff. Maybe it is the job of the adjutant staff to remind us of the practicalities and not the vision.
One of the Queen’s first acts in this Jubilee year was to attend a reception at Lambeth Palace with her Archbishop, where there were gathered representatives across the Churches, but also from eight world religions. The Queen put her head above the parapet and above the pulpit, when she said:
“Here at Lambeth Palace we should remind ourselves of the significant position of the Church of England in our Nation’s life. The concept of our established Church is occasionally misunderstood and, I believe, commonly under-appreciated. Its role is not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions. Instead, the Church has a duty to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country.
It certainly provides an identity and spiritual dimension for its own many adherents. But also, gently and assuredly, the Church of England has created an environment for other faith communities, and indeed people of no faith, to live freely. Woven into the fabric of this country, the Church has helped to build a better society – more and more in active co-operation for the common good with those of other faiths.”
Her Majesty does understand.
For me, the example of Christ sealed by the mysterious sign of the resurrection is my reason for trusting God and setting out on the journey. That’s my well, and my bucket needs filling. Let’s not squabble about each other’s deficiencies, but let us work together for the common good with all who can affirm, with our Queen, those words of St Paul:
“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable…. think about these things.”