The death of The Queen, announced yesterday, is an intensely private event with global significance. As has been said in different places since the news broke, the vast majority of the population of the UK have not known life without her as our Sovereign. Whatever your philosophical views on monarchy as an institution, and there are a huge variety of course held within the St James’s community as much as there are in society, the reaction of many people is catching them by surprise, as this long-anticipated event has now arrived.
This in itself is disorientating, as much as the absence now, of a figure who has been part of the fabric of public life in the UK for 96 years. The first Prime Minister to meet her in those famous weekly audiences was Winston Churchill who was born in 1874. And her latest Prime Minister, Liz Truss was born in 1975, 101 years later. The monarch’s role with regard to the elected politicians is to ‘warn and advise’ and to have spanned so many decades with this experience is, in world leadership, unique.
In 1957, The Queen acknowledged both the limit and potential of her role: “In the old days the monarch led his soldiers on the battlefield and his leadership at all times was close and personal. Today things are very different. I cannot lead you into battle, I do not give you laws or administer justice, but I can do something else, I can give you my heart and my devotion….”
One of the distinctive features of a system of constitutional monarchy is that at the heart of government is a life being lived, rather than a job being done. Today isn’t the day to rehearse the arguments for and against this system, but to acknowledge that the parameters of the role of Sovereign are measured by birth and death rather than by appointment and resignation.
There is much said about ‘the kingdom’ in Christian language, which is a way of talking about an event and a place where God dwells, and where Christ-shaped justice and peace prevail. Although our human versions of this fall way short of this justice and peace, the language has the same sort of feeling; that there is a person whose life is simply being lived at the heart of it. And that person insists by their presence on a face and a name in what can seem soulless bureaucracies or faceless systems of government. There will be grief and devotion in some places, and high ambivalence in others with regard to the meaning of the death of Queen Elizabeth II. But the Christian faith will bring meaning to the human-shaped, human-sized reactions to her death that will catch some unawares and remind many of the personal griefs and distresses they live with themselves.
At a time of commemoration for so public a figure, it’s important too, to commend to God’s merciful keeping all those who have died unnoticed, with unmarked graves and untold stories. All are precious to God and individual mysterious souls. The Queen remarked, in a year when she had endured the death of both her mother and sister, that ‘grief is the price we pay for love’. May we love fiercely and strongly all whom God has made, without fear or favour, knowing that price we pay for such risk is grief that may leave us temporarily unanchored. And as we remember Elizabeth our Queen, let us pray that the souls of all the departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace and rise in glory.