Princess Elizabeth came of age – 21 in those days – during her 1947 tour of South Africa. In a broadcast marking the occasion, she said this:
‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great Imperial Commonwealth to which we all belong. But I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution unless you join in it with me, as I now invite you to do; I know that your support will be unfailingly given. God help me to make good my vow; and God bless all of you who are willing to share in it.’
We are, precisely, thanking God today for helping her to make good this fine vow. We are thanking her too for her own faithfulness to it – from the age of 21 till now, and more particularly from her accession to the throne after her father’s death on 6 February 1952.
How the world has changed since then! Think of the changes through which the once ‘great Imperial Commonwealth’ has passed, and not least South Africa itself. Half the countries which exist now did not exist then. Her first Prime Minister, as Queen, had been born in 1874, had passed his youth, in his own evocative words, ‘in the august, unchallenged and tranquil glories of the Victorian era’, and as a War Reporter had taken part in the Battle of Omdurman. Her current Prime Minister was born in 1966, 21 years after the end of World War II and 14 years after her own accession. What vast cultural shifts have occurred, between those dates, and during the 60 years of her reign!
We have had 60 years of peace, more or less, but still rain has fallen, floods have risen and winds have blown. The house, however, of this woman’s resolution has stood firm. She has served us conscientiously, wholeheartedly, unflaggingly. She has accepted her position as a vocation from God, as a word of the Lord to her, and built her life upon it. In the midst of change, she has represented stability. She has enhanced our life, our common identity – by her many personal qualities, by her steady Christian faith, by living through her own family troubles, by her commitment to the Commonwealth and to the building of bridges between nations (as by her recent State Visit to the Irish Republic), by reaching out to people, event after event, tragedy after tragedy, year after year. It is an extraordinary achievement, entailing, surely, an incalculable measure of secret self-denial, constant self-transcendence. How can we not be grateful?
As a Catholic Bishop, I express gratitude especially for the visits she and the Duke of Edinburgh have paid to successive Popes in Rome, for her welcome of John Paul II on his Pastoral Visit to the United Kingdom in 1982, her honouring of Catholics who have made significant contributions to public life, her gracious hosting of the State Visit of Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 and her welcoming of him at Holyroodhouse – not to mention all she has done for the easing of ecumenical and inter-religious relations throughout her realms.
We can all echo what Pope Benedict wrote to Her Majesty in his recent message to her: ‘During the past 60 years you have offered to your subjects and to the whole world an inspiring example – in keeping with a noble vision of the role of a Christian monarch.’
‘You are very blessed to have such an institution,’ a French Archbishop said to me just the other day, ‘such a source of unity. We have nothing like it. Our Republic doesn’t unite; it divides.’
It’s worth reflecting on this Elizabethan experience of ours. King Solomon won the approval of God because he asked not for something selfish but for what would help him rule his people wisely and well. In other words, he prayed to serve the public good, the common good. What Queen Elizabeth has done is precisely to contribute to the common good in the deepest sense of that term. Her ‘noble vision of the role of a Christian monarch’ has been of an institution and a person who rises above the political sphere and our necessary preoccupations with ‘getting and spending’. She reminds us of the values of what we can call civil society, values that go beyond the simply political and economic. These last may be indispensable but they’re not the whole of life. And we need, we very much need, persons and symbols that remind us of this, that embody something more, something other.
A sense of duty and vocation, faith, stability of character, wisdom, loyalty to a family through all its troubles, dignity in suffering, peace-making, efforts to reconcile and hold together: these are things from which accrue another kind of capital, ‘social, ethical capital’ shall we say. They are among the resources, the values, the moral goods, that sustain and unite a society, and make it a better, more wholesome place to be. They are part of the geology of the rock on which the house of our life together must be built, if it is to withstand the ever-recurring rains, floods and winds.
It’s for these 60 years of contribution to our common welfare that we are most of all thanking God.
And how seamlessly this moves into the other great theme of today’s service: our own commitment. ‘I shall not have strength to carry out this resolution unless you join in it with me,’ said the 21 year old Princess. What a felicitous thing to recall, as we will in a moment, the Coronation of 2 June 1953 and its symbols! This delights me especially as a Benedictine since it was a Benedictine monk and bishop, St Dunstan of Canterbury, who in 973 elaborated the Coronation Ritual according to which, in substance anyway, Princess Elizabeth was crowned Queen 980 years later. I fervently hope that, before the next Coronation, no liturgical vandals will get their hands upon it.
A Bible, anointing oil, a bowl and towel for service. Here in symbols we see again our ‘social capital’.
During the Coronation, the then Moderator of the General Assembly, James Pitt-Watson, presented a Bible to Elizabeth, saying, ‘To keep your Majesty ever mindful of the law and the Gospel of God, I present you with this Book’. ‘In the beginning was the Word’ begins the Gospel according to John. It’s the case, surely, that there are words at the beginning, as foundation stones, of every society. They may be proverbs, sagas, songs, the wisdom of a Confucius, the texts of the Koran, the declarations that preface written Constitutions. But they’re there, and when the rains and the floods and the winds come, they’re recalled, they’re tested, they reveal whether they’re rock or sand, how far they echo the Word that was in the beginning with God. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. It has been the underlying conviction of European society for 1500 years that that same Word, which builds the house of the universe, became flesh on this planet, taking the form of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It has been a conviction too that an inspired written record of this Word remains, alive, in the words of the prophets, the Gospels, the apostles. I found in my house just the other day the copy of the New Testament given every child in the country on the occasion of the Queen’s Coronation. On the rock of this word our society has been built. ‘In the beginning was the Word’. Not everyone, now, can go on to say that the Word became flesh, or that that Word is present in the words of the Bible. But it seems to me vital that we can all recognise at least that first phrase of St John. It means, very simply, that our world and we ourselves are not just random products of chance processes, that there is an in-built order and meaning to the reality of which we’re part, and this reality is not a meaningless cry but an intelligible word. ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ This means that reality, both natural and human, is not something we invent; it’s something we discover. It’s not something we compose, we write, but something we first of all hear and read, and then complete with the words and music of our own judgments and decisions. There is a Jewish tradition that God sang the world into being. We have the inner ear to hear that original song, and the calling not to turn it to discord, but to sing freely in tune with it. I don’t believe that a society that can, for example, contemplate redefining marriage to include persons of the same sex is hearing the primal Word or singing in harmony with it. May each of us today renew our commitment to hear this Word. It is there from the beginning and at the end each of us will stand before it. Like Solomon, may we have ‘a heart skilled to listen’.
After the Bible, the oil. It was on the Chair of St Edward and the Stone of Scone that the Queen was anointed. This was done behind a canopy, beyond the eyes of television, a holy, sacramental moment. ‘Be anointed with holy oil,’ said the Archbishop, ‘as Kings, Priests and Prophets were anointed.’ It was King Louis IX of France who said that the day he became a child of God through baptism was greater than the day he was anointed King of France. But oil is used in baptism too. We can see this anointing as symbol of a second essential. If one element of our social capital is a sense of the objective order and meaning to things, another is a sense of personal calling – of purpose, vocation, mission. This is something that may not always be easily defined, something that may have many facets, something it may take time for us to realise, that may be lost and found again, but still there. Queen Elizabeth has been conspicuously inspired by such a sense. What is really threatening at a time of economic downturn is surely the imperilling of that sense by the diminishment of opportunity. How good, by contrast, when that sense is alive! What a wonderful thing it is to see it awakening in the young, and to help it awaken! What a vibrant society we would have if everyone could live from it and respect it in others!
Finally, the towel and the bowl. These, I think, did not feature in the Coronation Ceremony. But Holy Communion did, which takes us back to Christ’s Last Supper, and St John’s account of the washing of the disciples feet. ‘I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you… A servant is not greater than his master’ (Jn 13:15,16). ‘I declare before you all that my whole life, whether it be long or short, shall be devoted to your service.’ It has been, and our ethical social capital is richer for it. How much, every day, we depend on the services of others! And isn’t it every day that we are faced with this simple, child-like choice: to live our calling, to do our work, either selfishly or as service, to pray as Solomon prayed or otherwise?
Queen Elizabeth, to say it one last time, has enriched our lives, the common good of our common life. It’s only right that she, and beyond her, Father, Son and Holy Spirit should be thanked. By grace, she has made good her vow. And today’s liturgy suggests that it’s by a recognition of the objective meaning of things and human nature (the Bible), by a sense of personal calling (anointing oil), and by a spirit of service (bowl and towel), that we can make good our own vows, contribute to our common social, ethical capital, and help build a house on rock in which we’re all at home.
One of the heralds standing beside the newly-crowned Queen on that June day 59 years ago felt a tremor run through his body. ‘The sense of spiritual exultation that radiated from her,’ he later wrote, ‘was almost tangible.’ As we keep this Jubilee, in Aberdeenshire and beyond, and with so many people all over the world, may a spiritual exultation come on us as well!
Sermon for Celebration of Diamond Jubilee
of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth
St Machar’s Cathedral, 10 June 2012
(Readings: 1 Kgs 3:5-15; Mt 7:21-27)