The Daily Telegraph
This is what the Church is for – to provide expression for emotions that are painful
For me, the death of the late Queen did not feel real until 2,000 of her subjects stood up in St Paul’s Cathedral to sing “God save our gracious King.”
A way of being has ended; we are now in the era of Charles III. Britain has not faced such a scenario for 70 years, so one cannot blame Liz Truss, who has only been Prime Minster for five minutes, for looking a little nervous. Led by a verger to the lectern, as if by the hand, she read from the Book of Romans: “We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves.”
Christians believe that we live in service to God – and, in the case of the late Queen, to her country, the Commonwealth and the Church of England.
Upon the news of her death, the Church sprang into action. That morning, I watched as the bell ringers of St Bartholomew’s in the village of Otford, Kent, scrambled to peel the bells at noon, all according to strict instructions laid down by Operation London Bridge (“Bells should be rung half or fully muffled,” said the guidance, “depending on how many muffles you have.”)
Villagers were already trickling into the ancient church to light candles or, as the local vicar Rev David Guest observed, “to think things through”.
In London, meanwhile, word spread that St Paul’s would be open later to anyone who wanted to attend a memorial service (if you could get a wristband to secure a seat). By 4pm there was an enormous queue snaking around the cathedral – city workers, mums and dads with kids, tourists, and loyal subjects, like Karen from Islington, who responded to a call of the heart. “We just want to be part of it, we don’t know why we come but you’ve just got to do it.”
I took my press seat in the gallery on the south transept, in almost the exact spot I occupied just four months earlier for the Platinum Jubilee.
That event had been hierarchical, coloured by uniforms and decorations, stuffed with foreign dignitaries. This was a people’s service: anoraks, mantillas, black suits and a baby asleep in a sling. There was a quiet buzz; a sense of still not being quite sure of what all this meant, or even if we were still dreaming. Then, at 6pm, we heard the King’s voice broadcasting to the nation.
We listened, transfixed.
The late Queen was my “darling Mama”, said the King, and she had now begun her “last journey” to be with his “darling Papa” in Heaven. In an age of increasing doubt, she had a crystalclear faith. “May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”
When the organ began, with a chord like cannon fire, there was a sudden and overwhelming emotional release. We could breathe. We sang All my Hope on God is Founded.
For millions, this is what the Church is for: to provide expression for emotions that are painful or mysterious.
The Bishop of London in her sermon observed that “no words can encompass” what we owe the late Queen, though she endeavoured to find some, settling on our late monarch having been a “heartbeat” in our national life. The Dean led the congregation in affirming that, in belief of resurrection, “we shall be changed.” But it was perhaps the music that was most affecting – Herbert Howells, William Harris – and the lament of a bagpiper that echoed through the temple.
During the anthem, “Bring us O Lord God at our last awakening into the house and gate of heaven”, a woman buried her face in her handkerchief and wept. Mostly, people were sombre, probably “thinking things through,” coming to terms in their own very British way. There was much to reflect upon in the Nunc Dimittis. According to the gospel, Simeon, a devout man, was promised that he would not die till he had seen the Lord – and when he met the baby Jesus he said, “now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace... for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”
One could look at St Paul’s itself through new eyes, at these images of Jesus and icons of saints – Queen Elizabeth believed all this was true, and even those who don’t feel this way should take comfort from the fact that she did. Change is inevitable, nothing to fear for those who have faith. The cycle of death and new beginnings continues, in settings such as this that are enormous yet womb-like, where, if one listens hard enough, one can catch the heartbeat of God.
The Archbishop of Canterbury blessed us: “God grant to the Church, the King, the Commonwealth, and all people, peace and concord.” The sovereign’s title has changed; the incumbent is new. But the tradition endures.