The Daily Telegraph
Britain is yearning for traditional Christianity
Queen Elizabeth’s funeral proved the public doesn’t want a dumbed down version of the Church
Queen Elizabeth II was a great giver of gifts; literal and metaphorical. For the Pope, a basket of whisky and honey from the royal estates. For her family, a smooth transition of power. In her final years she carefully parcelled out appropriate responsibilities to her heirs, deftly laying the groundwork for “Queen Camilla” so that something unthinkable two decades ago felt entirely natural by the time it happened. Even her death at Balmoral proved a gift to the Union, by allowing the first public mourning rituals to begin in her beloved Scotland.
The Church of England received a particularly precious parting legacy, revealing the same careful planning. In her final two decades, the late Queen spoke increasingly openly about her faith, her Christmas messages growing more and more explicitly Christian. She prepared meticulously, one suspects, not just because she was 96 (or, well, the Queen) but also because through her profound faith she had made peace with her own mortality.
Now her death has unlocked a latent appetite for religious ritual, even transcendence – often among avowed atheists and agnostics. Many who rarely set foot in a church have found themselves popping in for a service or to sign the book of condolence. How remarkable that in our age of unbelief, this traditional funeral – an unambiguous statement of Anglican faith – drew one of the biggest audiences in TV history. Cynical secularists usually dominate social media, but this week they’ve sounded vaguely ridiculous. Many viewers reported being more moved by the simpler Windsor committal than the pomp and pageantry of the Abbey service and procession. They were mesmerised by the religious elements, not in spite of them.
It is easy to dismiss such ceremony, like Philip Larkin, as “that vast, moth-eaten musical brocade / Created to pretend we never die”. But at climactic moments, from baptisms and weddings to funerals and memorials, most of us, whatever our beliefs, crave familiar rituals. There is a visceral need to link our individual experience with the sense of being part of wider humanity and – however dimly understood – of something beyond ourselves.
One obvious way for the Church to repay the Queen’s parting gift is to persuade people that what they felt over the past few days – about duty and eternity, mortality and grace – is on offer every week. Of course grand spectacles like these don’t come around often. But breathtaking buildings, the language of the King James Bible and The Book of Common Prayer, the psalms and choral anthems, the ageless beauty of Byrd, Tallis, Parry – all can be found across Britain for free. The late Queen’s life and death hold valuable lessons for the Church; be confident and engaging, don’t shy away from “weirdness” or mystery. Authenticity is powerful, whether the unapologetic conviction of her faith, or the weight and heft of traditional language. Many church-goers are first drawn to the transcendent beauty, then end up finding a more profound message there too.
Here the Church has not always helped its cause by substituting much of the ancient liturgy with updates that are often clunky, convinced that modern congregations cannot grasp the beauty of the well-worn words. The famous passage from Corinthians, “What we see now is like a dim image in a mirror; then we shall see face-toface”, can’t rival the original, pithily poetic, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face.” Likewise, “In my father’s house are many rooms” has none of the majesty of the old phrase “many mansions”. How many worshippers when hearing such inelegant translations mentally replace them with the resounding original King James version? The Church needs to come out fighting for tradition, not concealing it beneath an underwhelming veneer of “inclusiveness” or modernity for its own sake.
Perhaps most valuably, religion provides the tools to view death as the Queen did – a natural part of life. Secular Britain has lost this musclememory. Mortality increasingly happens at a distance, in hospitals and care homes, and we often struggle to say the word “death” at all – preferring euphemisms like “passing away”. In Stephen Beresford’s brilliant play The Southbury Child, the vicar of a parish in Devon provokes outrage over the funeral service of a little girl who has died of leukaemia. The child’s mother wants the church decked out with Disney balloons; the vicar insists this is inappropriate and refuses to budge. His stand, inexplicable to many, brings the vicar and his family immense grief, but at the end of the play, when he finally reads out the majestic “I am the resurrection and the life”, you finally begin to see his point. Christian funerals look death square in the eye; balloons and bright colours don’t cut it.
During the first national lockdown, as people became vividly aware of mortality, the Church missed a major opportunity to assert its worth. In capitulating and closing the churches, even to private worship, it said to the world: “What we do is non-essential, no more important than any leisure activity.” Clearly many, Her late Majesty included, knew it was far more than that. Queen Elizabeth’s life and legacy gives the Church a new chance to reset its relationship with the nation. They must not squander it.